A favourite analogy of the Australian Treasurer is that the budget he delivered yesterday 'does the heavy lifting'. But like all weights regimes, we're first in for some visualisation and warm ups.
The Treasurer's speech hit the right note by outlining the goal, with the Government recommitting to spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade. It's not quite clear when the Government intends to develop this muscle: did the clock start in 2013 when the Government was elected, in 2014 with this budget, or in 2015 with the new Defence White Paper?
We won't know until next year, with the promise that the White Paper 'will also set out how the Government will increase defence spending to two per cent of GDP'. Ideally the Government can also show that this is not some arbitrary target, but a necessary path to real strength. Still, setting clear goals is the start of a good regime.
After visualisation and verbalisation we got a dose of warmups. The Government has brought forward $1.5 billion from 2017-18, with about a $500 million increase this year. This is a welcome start after the cuts from 2009 to 2013, but it's not exactly a sign of strength. There is also the removal of 1200 civilian roles, hopes for $1.2 billion in savings via 'various initiatives to increase efficiency and reduce spending in lower priority areas' (to be re-invested in Defence) and a less generous superannuation scheme.
Counter-intuitively for a conservative government, the area where we saw the biggest desire to improve Australia's security was in the non-traditional sphere (let's call this the cardio package). While already announced, we saw the commitment to a large new agency, the Australian Border Force, to combine customs, immigration, and borders (this government seems to treat 'borders' as a good in and of itself).
There was also $86.8 million to Indonesia to help deal with asylum seekers on their shores and $6.4 million for a 'dedicated position in Sri Lanka, the continuation of the Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues and annual Bali Process meetings at Ministerial and senior official levels'. All welcome steps for a government which took office decrying the worth of regional cooperation to deal with irregular migration.
So as the Treasurer grabs a Gatorade and towels down, what level of effort should be recorded? The government turned up, wrote down its goals and conducted a vigorous warm up. But as everyone who has begun a gym program knows, the first session is easy. The resulting pain even seems pleasant, serving as proof of your new commitment. But it is going back on a regular basis to lift ever heavier weights that will be the challenge.
Yet just that is what is required for defence funding to hit 2% of GDP. If that is to remain our target, then this is the beginning of a decade's worth of prioritising defence over many other popular issues, regardless of electoral pressures. This budget begins that task, but for the moment the really heavy weights are still in the rack, waiting to be hoisted.
Photo by Flickr user jerryonlife.