The public-interest watchdog monitoring Australia’s defence
Founded in Perth in 1975, the Australia Defence Association (ADA) is the independent, non-partisan, national public interest watchdog for strategic security, defence and wider national security issues. The ADA’s public-interest oversight therefore focuses on ministerial, governmental and parliamentary accountability forthe effective formulation and execution of strategic and wider national security policy.
“As a liberal democracy, every Australian has a universal civic responsibility for our common defence. Effective and informed public debate on defence issues is vital. Not least because our defence capabilities are essential national infrastructure requiring sustained investment over the long term. This is not somehow discretionary spending because there are profound inter-generational equity responsibilities involved. We should not selfishly risk the strategic security of future generations of Australians by not putting in, now, our fair share of the sustained investment needed over that long run”, says ADA executive director, Neil James.
Long experience has convinced the ADA that too many Australians mistakenly see defence as only a matter of the existence or not of supposed threats, as they perceive them (usually incorrectly) now. Rather than the actual need to counter general strategic risks over what will be a largely unpredictable future. “Australians also tend to consider strategic issues from the wrong angle”, James says. “And they tend to forget the basics, such as we all live on an island-continent where our whole way-of-life is totally dependent on unimpeded seaborne trade”, he adds, “and where we need to help keep the sea-lanes these ships travel on secure”. “Its like insuring your home or property”, he notes, “you insure them against general risks like fire, flood and theft, not specifically against just burglary by an already identified thief, on a definite day, using means of breaking in we know now and also knowing exactly what will be stolen”.
James also suggests the example of flawed public debate over asylum seekers. “This is a strategic policy issue with domestic ramifications, not vice versa. Whereas what passes for debate instead largely revolves, usually ineffectively, over the domestic social policy aspects alone”. He emphasises that “problems like these can only be resolved by tackling them in their correct strategic context, not least because they form just part of Australia’s complex relations with many other countries and our region collectively”.
“Given our large landmass, dispersed island territories and vast surrounding oceans, Australia has some form of territorial, economic zone, conservation or search & rescue responsibility for around ten per cent of the Earth’s surface. With our small population, and not unlimited economic resources, we face some unusual strategic problems in perpetuity. Plus growing strategic instability across our wider region”, he notes, “particularly as the rise of China has as yet unknowable strategic ramifications over the next half-century or so”. James further points out that “as a result, and as our strategic history since 1788 shows, we will continue to believe in a rules-based international system and engage in collective defence alliances and arrangements with like-minded maritime powers. We are most unlikely to ever be isolationists, culturally or practically, because the seas surrounding us are two-way highways geo-strategically, not defensive moats that might somehow keep us safe automatically”.
“Throughout the 1973-2000 period Australia significantly under-invested in defence capabilities, with the result our defence force was hollowed out and ill-equipped. The 1999 East Timor crisis caught us out badly. We were lucky to muddle through and this only occurred with much international help”. Increased investment to cancel out the neglect, and modernise the ADF, occurred for the next decade but then was savagely reversed again following the GFC. We cannot keep repeating this fluctuating investment”, James warns, “because the results of the next crisis might be strategic humiliation at best and even military defeat or worse”. “Its also cheaper over the long run, and results in a much more capable defence force, to invest sustainably at an adequate level rather than through inefficient huge upswings and steep downturns”.
“Only effective and informed public debate on defence issues, and consequent real pressure from an informed electorate, can reverse this detrimental national habit. Every Australian, and every Australian company, needs to think deeply about Australia’s strategic security because it is their individual, extended-family and commercial futures that are intimately involved”, James concludes.
Neil James is the executive director of the Australia Defence Association and their sole official spokesman. Prior to taking up his current position with the ADA in May 2003, Neil served for over 31 years with the Army in a wide range of regimental, intelligence, liaison, operational planning, operations research, and teaching positions throughout Australia and overseas.