The Shadow Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston, addressed the Lowy Institute last night to outline his view on the state of defence in Australia and the outlook for the 2013 Defence White Paper. Unsurprisingly, he was scathing in his criticism of the Gillard Government's approach to defence, focusing on the impact of the 2012 defence budget cuts. He began by marshaling the critical comments of an army of senior defence leaders and analysts:
In the ten years I have been working on defence issues in the Australian Senate in both Government and Opposition, I can honestly say I have never seen so many senior and well respected people come out and want to have a say, and be so damning and critical of the current Defence Minister and this Government.
On the forthcoming 2013 Defence White Paper, Johnston concluded that 'digestion of this document will of necessity require a very large dose of cynicism.' Johnston reiterated that the only Coalition promise on defence funding at this point is to commit to no further cuts, with an aspiration to return spending levels towards 2% of GDP when possible. In his words: 'We have resolved to cauterise the haemorrhage and then move to begin the repair.'
One other point that stood out for me was Senator Johnston's comments about the difficulties parliament faces in remaining informed about what is happening in defence.
Johnston compared the speed of information-flow resulting from defence audits in the US and Australia, concluding that the Australian parliament must often wait years to be informed of problems discovered in defence. And he listed examples of numerous issues on which he has been unable to receive briefings from Defence (Afghanistan, submarine availability, the future submarine), indicating further problems in parliamentary oversight of defence (an issue I have explored here).
As my colleague Rory Medcalf mentioned, hopefully Senator Johnston will take a proactive approach on defence transparency and performance reporting to parliament if his party is elected in September.
The Q&A session focused on the decisions Senator Johnston might make if he ends up as Defence Minister five months from now. On the JSF: 'this is a powerful platform, we need to get right behind it'. On the Government's view that Australia's strategic outlook is 'largely positive': 'no'. On ballistic missile defence: 'given recent events in North Korea, the SM3 (missile) is an important add on to what we want to do'. On the possible purchase of a fourth Air Warfare Destroyer: 'I'll take advice from Defence but I'm concerned about where the money will come from'.
After the speech I interviewed Senator Johnston on a few issues, including the strategic risks of underfunding defence, the state of Australia's Navy, and the Coalition view on the US rebalance to Asia and force posture measures. Check out the video above.