As in other locations around Australia, local discussions about the future of Borneo Barracks at Cabarlah seem to be caught in a recurring time warp where nothing must ever change. National strategic and administrative efficiency requirements mean this and other small bases must be closed. The only question to be discussed is how soon.
Borneo Barracks, Cabarlah, began as a World War I training area.
A militia battalion of the 7th Brigade was based there in 1940-41 and the senior wing of the Army Staff School was located there in 1942-45.
The 7th Signal Regiment has been located at Borneo Barracks in various guises since 1946.
With the exception of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, this is by far the longest continuous unit occupation of the same barracks in the entire regular army.
For many years this relatively isolated location suited the specialist operational nature of the regiment’s work and the high degree of security and subterfuge then involved.
The high frequency-based communications technology of that era, and the relative electronic solitude of the area, also suited a base on the Darling Downs.
None of these strategic priorities, operational requirements and technical conditions still apply.
The longer-term future of the base has consequently come up for regular discussion over recent decades.
The financial costs of maintaining what is effectively a more expensive single-unit base also increasingly need to be balanced against the option of relocating the regiment to a larger, multi-user, base where support facilities can be shared and numerous recurring efficiencies gained.
Local discussions about the future of Borneo Barracks, on the other hand, seem to be caught in a recurring time warp where nothing ever changes.
They also often appear largely based on some fundamental misunderstandings about why Australia has a defence force in the first place.
While there is naturally community reluctance to even contemplate that the barracks may one day be closed, various strategic, operational and budgetary realities affecting our defence force mean that such a closure is inevitable.
Local arguments to retain Borneo Barracks in seeming perpetuity naturally revolve around local issues.
These include the perceived necessity of the commercial, rental, social and school and childcare enrolment inputs the barracks brings to the community of the greater Toowoomba area.
Given the long-term residential stability of the unit, the sale of a large number of privately-owned houses and Defence-owned married quarters might also temporarily depress the local housing market.
The total annual economic loss is often cited as $105m.
But this figure ignores the gains from future development of the barracks site for other uses such as housing, an educational institution or the conference industry.
It is probable that any future use would keep the golf course (built by years of volunteer labour and not the taxpayer) as a draw-card asset — especially as the course has been self-supporting for decades.
The local focus of objections to the base closing is understandable.
The central weakness of the associated arguments is that they ignore the primary purpose of our defence force.
This is to protect Australia as a whole by maximising the ADF’s capacity to deter and if necessary win wars.
Maximising the return to all Australian taxpayers from the defence budget is also important.
The job of the Department of Defence is defence not regional development.
The economic advantages of ADF bases to local communities are and must remain a side benefit, not the main game.
The overall national interest must always be the priority when making decisions about where our defence force needs to be based.
Consequently, the long-term strategic dispositions of our defence force, especially where each and every unit should be located, must be decided on the basis of overall national priorities.
These chiefly include each unit’s strategic and operational capabilities and the overall long-term cost of the ADF to the national taxpayer.
From time to time such priorities change as national strategic requirements are re-prioritised, the force structure of the ADF is remodelled or technological developments occur.
In the 1990s for example, we saw the Army’s 1st Brigade move from Sydney to Darwin.
This resulted from defence strategy reviews, the need for access to nearby and much larger training areas for armoured and mechanised forces, the high cost of housing defence force families in the Sydney area and the lengthy commuting times often involved.
Cabarlah may at first glance meet most of the ADF basing criteria discussed in the 2009 Defence White Paper.
It is also a popular base among ADF personnel and their families.
But the overall economic argument pushing base rationalisation nationwide is that the ADF needs to be more concentrated in a smaller number of larger and better sited bases.
Existing single-unit bases such as Cabarlah, and Woodside in the Adelaide Hills, are likely to be a high priority for closure because of the confluence of financial, operational and strategic efficiencies to be gained.
In the case of the 7th Signals Regiment, these significant strategic and operational efficiencies include the option of collocating it with other electronic warfare units at the new superbase at RAAF Edinburgh near Adelaide.
The initial cost of relocating a unit from a single-unit base is not small.
But this is soon recouped by the long-term savings from relocation to a multi-user base, and the through-life cost of new facilities compared with ever-increasing maintenance costs on much older ones.
The crunch time will be when Cabarlah’s older buildings and facilities require significant upgrades, particularly over the next decade or so.
The high cost of this is likely to force a decision that the money would be better invested in new buildings and facilities in a multi-unit base with a long-term and operationally viable future.
The biggest obstacle to ADF base rationalisation is generally the local federal member of parliament.
Followed by the local council and the chamber of commerce. This is their right and indeed their duty.
Being located in a marginal electorate has also often delayed base rationalisation.
Being located in a safely Opposition-held one can speed things up.
But keeping any base open for no reason other than local economic or political advantage is really asking the taxpayers in the rest of the country to disproportionally subsidise the community concerned.
This is not fair, viable or responsible in the long run from a whole-nation viewpoint.
In the particular case of the Darling Downs, which also has the Army Aviation Centre at Oakey, there are really no grounds other than temporary local priorities to delay or stop the eventual closure of Cabarlah.
Surely it is now better to concentrate on the future of the Cabarlah site when it is no longer Borneo Barracks.
Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association (www.ada.asn.au). He thoroughly enjoyed his posting to Cabarlah from late 1979 to mid 1982.