Whilst Defence issues were not at the forefront of the recent federal election campaign, we expect that they will figure prominently in an Abbott government. The challenge for the Abbott government will be to deliver on its policy objectives in the Defence area in a challenging budgetary environment and in a transitioning Australian economy. Also, whilst there are efficiencies that can be achieved, doing so without compromising capability and national security will be the focus of the Abbott government and the Minister for Defence, Senator David Johnston, who outlined his approach in the recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute - HP Great Defence Debate on 29 August 2013 where he said:

“The fact is, this is not a portfolio that we want to be seen as using as a political tool. The issues at stake and the objectives are far too important and far too serious…You will see what our plan is. It will be a consulted plan, it will be a costed plan, it will be a plan that has a huge amount of common sense in it. Because Defence knows what they need. We have to marry those needs up with the available budget. That is our real challenge and we’ve said after ten years we’ll be at 2 per cent. That is a very substantial commitment.”

This article simply outlines the key policy objectives of the Abbott government in the area of Defence.

The Coalition outlined its Defence policy in its “Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians” document. However, earlier this month, the Coalition also published its “Policy for Stronger Defence”. In this policy, it states that the first priority of government is to ensure the nation’s defence and security and that the Defence policy objectives set out in the Howard Government’s 2000 Defence White Paper should remain. These policy objectives include:

  • ensuring the defence of Australia and its direct approaches
  • fostering the security and stability in our immediate neighbourhood – Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and South Pacific states
  • supporting strategic stability in the wider Asia-Pacific region, and
  • supporting global security.

The members of the Coalition who will be responsible for achieving these policy objectives are the:

  • Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon. David Johnston
  • Assistant Minister for Defence, Mr Stuart Robert MP, and
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, Mr Darren Chester MP.

The ways in which the Coalition will aim to continue to uphold these policy objectives are set out below.

Acquisitions: the Coalition will acquire Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) to bolster Australia’s air defences and will proceed with the initial purchase of up to 72 JSF.

Australian Defence Force Gap Year: the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Gap Year programme was introduced by the Howard Government to give school-leavers the opportunity to experience life in the Defence Force. The Coalition will invest $133 million to re-build the ADF Gap Year programme, progressively increasing numbers until an average of 1,000 places per annum are made available in the programme.

Defence Industry: the ADF will not implement any local content requirements but will make it clear that Australian businesses should be given every opportunity to compete for Defence contracts.

Defence White Paper: as foreshadowed in commentary prior to the release of the policies, such as in comments made by Senator David Johnston during the inaugural Australian Strategic Policy Institute - HP Great Defence Debate on 29 August 2013, a Defence White Paper will be published, which will include the costed ways to meet Australia’s defence objectives. The Defence White Paper will consider the need for unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, which the Coalition believes have the potential to enhance protection of Australia’s maritime borders and extended economic zones, as well as the presence of Australia’s military forces in Northern Australia.

Department of Defence: a high-profile team will be appointed to review the Department of Defence’s structure and major processes, including options for reforming the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO).

DMO: the Coalition will ensure that DMO employs commercially experienced procurers with an understanding of commercial principles and risks, which appears to be a response to issues identified in the ANAO’s 2011-12 Major Projects Report1, and matters identified in previous reports such as the Mortimer and Kinnaird Reviews.

Pensions: recipients of the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefit military superannuation pensions will see their payments indexed in the same way as aged and service pensions.

Spending: there will be no further cuts to Defence spending and, within a decade, Defence spending will be 2% of Gross Domestic Product with an aim to restore responsible defence spending to 3% of real growth per year subject to improvements in the Budget. During the Defence Debate, Senator Johnston explained that the rationale behind 2% was that it was the NATO average and stated that: “We think it’s doable, it’s difficult, but it’s a commitment.”

Submarines: Australia will have no submarine capability gap within 18 months of the election and work on the replacement of the current submarine fleet will centre around the South Australian shipyards. In that regard, it appears that the Coalition will focus its efforts in the short term on looking at the Coles Review and the Service Life Evaluation Program for the Collins Class submarines to avoid a capability gap and increase the life of the Collins submarines if possible, with the aim of taking the pressure off the SEA1000 program. While not the subject of specific commentary in the Coalition’s policy document, commentary from the incoming Defence Minister suggests that he plans to put the SEA1000 program under the microscope. Senator Johnston stated in the Defence Debate that in relation to submarines:

“Let’s see the [SEA1000] concept document, let’s then marry up what we need to abandon in terms of capability because it’s too expensive and risky and come to a conclusion on so many fronts: what is the capability that we require to meet the threats that we can identify and what can we afford and what do we have the capacity to build and maintain ourselves.”

He went on to say later in the Defence Debate that “SEA1000 is a huge challenge to us… we need submarines because, for us, they will be the most premier defensive deterrent capacity that we could have.”

The new Defence White Paper will deal with the Coalition’s plan on this issue, but adjudicating on the Collins is something that Senator Johnston believes needs to occur first.

In an interview with the Australian Financial Review2 after being sworn in as the new Defence Minister, Senator Johnston has also indicated that options are open in identifying the right strategy for avoiding naval shipbuilding job losses predicted to occur between Navy’s existing major shipbuilding projects. In that regard, the Coalition may consider the acquisition of a fourth AWD. A plan for naval shipbuilding will also be included in the Defence White Paper.

US alliance: the Coalition will look into areas where it would be in the mutual interest of Australia and the United States to deepen their longstanding alliance relationship and build on the recent announcement to rotate a marine brigade through Darwin.

Whilst the above provides an outline of the policy objectives announced by the Coalition, further detail will be provided over time. Those with a particular interest in Defence issues, including key stakeholders, will be following the policy developments in the Defence sphere very closely. With the Coalition re-aligning the policy objectives for Defence with those set out in the Howard Government’s 2000 Defence White Paper and the Coalition’s complimentary references to the record of the Howard government generally, we can expect the Abbott government’s approach to Defence to be similar to the Howard government’s approach. However, the two critical differences are: firstly, that the Australian government is facing significant challenges in terms of its fiscal position unlike those experienced by the Howard government and, secondly, the Australian economy is also undergoing its own transformation. The manner in which the Defence policy objectives are affected by these factors remains to be seen.