The Federal Election

At the time of writing, the Australian Federal election looks to be a close contest with the odds slightly in favor of the Government being returned

1st Aug 2010

At the time of writing, the Australian Federal election looks to be a close contest with the odds slightly in favor of the Government being returned, albeit with a reduced majority. However there are a large number of seats that could change hands with swings under 5% and so broad national voting trends are not necessarily an accurate reflection of what could occur at the local ballot box. The campaign has been formulaic, with defence as usual being a non-issue.

If the Government is returned one of the first jobs of Prime Minister Gillard will be finding someone to look after the Defence portfolio given that the formidable John Faulkner will retire to the backbench as soon as a new ministry is sworn in. An obvious – and good – choice would be Greg Combet, the current Minister for Defence Materiel & Science, who is clearly familiar with many of the important issues which need to be managed. Some observers believe it is more likely that he will be given a large domestic portfolio to broaden his experience before being given Defence at some distant future point. However, this overlooks the fact that he has already had extensive involvement in non-defence matters through his role in assisting the Minister for Climate Change and especially in his ongoing time-consuming role sorting out the roof insulation mess.

There is no doubt that Australian taxpayers benefit from continuity of political management of Defence, especially when it comes to procurement matters. What is needed is a Minister who can say “but that’s not what you told me three years ago” when hearing excuses for why a particular procurement has gone wrong. And – even more importantly – who has the experience and judgment to reject a truly stupid idea such as building a 4,500 tonne submarine when he or she hears about it. It takes a lot of nerve to stand up to professional military advice but it is the proper role of a Defence Minister to set the broad agenda and explain, for example, that extended operations under the North Pole are not a strategic priority for Australia.

If the Government is returned there will inevitably be new faces in the Ministry and one of them will almost certainly take on the role currently held by Combet. As has previously been pointed out by APDR, the politician with by far and away the greatest experience in dealing with Defence matters is the current Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence & Trade Committee, Mark Bishop. Senator Bishop comes from Western Australia, the home state of arguably Australia’s greatest ever Defence Minister Kim Beazley and – like Beazley – he actually has a deep personal interest in and commitment to a broad range of national security issues. The Senator has pursued defence matters both inside and outside Parliament for the better part of a decade. When in Opposition prior to November 2007 he was the Shadow Minister for Defence Materiel, a role which has given him not only insights into the tricks the Department gets up to but also a thorough understanding of the structure of Australian defence industry.

The new Minister for Defence Procurement will have a number of urgent matters to deal with, including the Collins replacement program mentioned above. If Australia is to have any hope of meeting the 2025 delivery date of the first submarine someone is going to have to start pushing the accelerator pedal – and soon. At least the need for urgency will eliminate the madness of a completely new design and will instead focus attention on the need to build a somewhat larger version of an existing European design, at least for the initial batch of four or six boats. The matter then becomes the practical one of selecting a design from Germany, France, Sweden or Spain. The sooner this is stated, the better.

At least the incoming Minister will inherit a portfolio in reasonable shape, especially now that the new Defence industry policy has been launched. This document gives some hope that Australian companies, especially SMEs, will be given sufficient support to cope with the peaks and troughs of contracting by encouraging them to think globally.

If the Opposition is elected to Government not a lot will change except mercifully Australia will rapidly acquire 3 Global Hawk UAVs for broad area surveillance. The quickest that this new capability could be delivered would be 2015 – plenty of time for RAAF to organise themselves and other Government agencies to handle all the incoming data . All support functions could be provided cost effectively by local industry.

However, the biggest challenge for the new Minister, irrespective of political party, will be to hold the Department to the objectives of the Strategic Reform Program because without that there will be a slow-motion train smash in procurement a few years from now. The reports from the Department, including the DMO, have been very encouraging so far and outgoing Minister John Faulkner is absolutely convinced that genuine savings have already been achieved. Many on the outside are not so certain. The best way to ensure a positive outcome for taxpayers and serving men and women is for oversight to be carried out by experienced Ministers who understand the complexity of Defence.

APDR at a glance