These views are the author's own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
Jeff Grey's recent Interpreter post on Defence cuts is the latest in a number of compelling pieces expressing concern over the Government's direction for the nation's future security policy. As the authors of these pieces point out – myself included – history is not on the Government's side with regard to its determination to reduce defence expenditure in a time of strategic uncertainty in the Asia Pacific. With only a few exceptions, the debate has been largely one-sided, but there is little sign its arguments have been heard and more reductions might be coming.
Despite the volume of words and the professional standing of the commentators, there is no evidence these points are having any effect outside the commentariat. It is worth asking why this is the case. It is true that Defence is not an issue that grabs popular attention; after all, Australia is relatively safe. There is little immediate threat and the Government knows this. Defence commentators cannot win in this regard because few Australians understand – or care – just how long it takes to restore military capability once it has been lost.
Commentators need to consider how they can engage and convince a wider audience. I believe part of the solution is semantic. Defence reductions tend to be phrased in the language of a 'peace' or a 'defence dividend'. This is far too positive to argue against, it makes it sound as if the cut is a useful thing from which the rest of society will benefit. If commentators are to succeed in reaching a wider audience they need to use words that influence the debate.
What needs to be highlighted is that today's dividend is tomorrow's liability, a word with negative connotations that more accurately reflects the historical reality and not just in inter-war Britain. Australia has been down this path before. The lesson from the East Timor intervention was clear: the defence reductions of the early 1990s reduced the ADF's capabilities to such an extent that the intervention was a near run thing.
In reality, what the nation faces in the current defence budget reductions is the creation of a 'peace' or 'defence liability' not a peace dividend, and the costs of recovering from this liability will offset any short-term monetary gains as well as risk creating a force that cannot serve the nation. It will still be a hard sell but let's at least get the language right, otherwise the debate will not reach the audience that matters.
Photo by Flickr user Thomas Hawk.