After 29 months of government, Wednesday's launch of the National Security Strategy was welcome yet well overdue. Although the strategy has been widely panned as disappointing and unfunded, the strategic framework and development process look sound, and certainly a great improvement on the 2008 National Security Statement.
A recent US Strategic Studies Institute report (link was down at time of writing) found that Australia's bureaucrats coordinate much better on strategic policy than their peers elsewhere. This document's clear structure, logic, and writing show the fruits of that coordination. But ultimately, the Government gets to decide what to do with all that hard bureaucratic work. And yesterday, it decided to subordinate it all to domestic politics.
That's why we heard about the threat of guns in communities in western Sydney before the threat of escalation between powers in the South China Sea. And that's why there's no new funding. The coming election is unlikely to be decided by national security voters. The selected five-year objectives (enhance regional engagement, integrate cyber policy and operations, create effective partnerships) happen to be a lot cheaper than building a brand new submarine.
The eight national security pillars are entirely sensible and it is great to see some prioritisation of the relationships Australia should seek to enhance (China, Indonesia, ASEAN Japan, Korea, and India). But as has been stated countless times on this blog, Australia's ability to influence our region and build key relationships will depend on restoring funding to DFAT.
When it comes to a discussion of defence funding this strategy is downright tricky. To reassure voters that the Australian Defence Force is in good hands, the Prime Minister made two claims at the tail end of the speech:
Our level of defence expenditure will ensure that Australia remains one of the top 15 nations for absolute defence spending, and second only to the United States on a per capita basis.
The first claim is misleading. The gold standard comparison of defence budgets is as a percentage of GDP. On that basis, Australia's current spending level (1.56%) would put us in at least 50th place in the world, according to the latest SIPRI data, just behind military giants like Senegal and Croatia, and barely in front of New Zealand. On absolute defence spending, Australia remains in the top 15, though the strong value of the Australian dollar must be taken into account.
The second claim on defence spending is absolutely false.
There are at least seven countries that spend more on defence on a per capita basis than Australia. Our neighbour Singapore, for example, spends US$1853 on defence per citizen, ahead of Australia's $1157. The claim was amended yesterday in the speech as released by the Prime Minister's office and now reads:
Our level of defence expenditure will ensure that Australia remains one of the top 15 nations for absolute defence spending, and second only to the United States on a per capita basis among the G7 countries plus China.
Got that? So fear not, citizens. Australia has the largest defence budget and mightiest military force below the Tropic of Capricorn and east of Rottnest Island. On Wednesdays. But not the Wednesday after pay Tuesday. Or on ANZAC Day when everyone gets drunk.
You can cut the figures anyway you like, but Australia is still underfunding its defence ambitions.
The National Security Strategy also helpfully shows how Australia divides up the pie on national security spending (see chart above). The total is $33 billion on national security annually, $26.289 billion of which belongs to the defence budget. But those are 2011-2012 figures and don't account for the 10.5% of defence budget cuts that occurred eight months ago in FY 2012-2013. The current defence budget is $24.2 billion. In an otherwise tightly drafted document, this mistake is glaring. The National Security Strategy overstates the national security budget by at least $2 billion.
On their own, one of these mistakes would look like poor staff work. Taken together, they look very tricky indeed. And that makes it hard to take the rest of the strategic planning framework established yesterday seriously.