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Is attack really the best form of defence when it comes to defence policy?

Is attack really the best form of defence when it comes to defence policy?

Oddly for a party that is presumably proud of its record in government, the Australian Labor Party seems to be eschewing a formal defence policy statement at this election. Instead, on Monday it suddenly concentrated its firepower into a four-page press release attacking the Opposition's own rather sketchy policy announcement.

The Labor release accuses the Opposition of showing 'a lack of vision for defence', promising 'uncertainty and confusion', refusing to commit to some of Labor's big undertakings (like building 12 submarines in Adelaide) and, heaven forbid, committing to things Labor has already promised (such as a greater military presence in northern Australia).

The tensions and silences within Labor's own statement may be a reflection of the shifting cast of Labor's senior policymakers over the past six years rather than of fundamental policy confusion. The media release was co-signed by current Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who is quitting federal politics at this election, and the man Kevin Rudd has anointed to succeed him were Labor to win office again, current Minister for Defence Materiel Mike Kelly.

What is striking and disappointing about this document, as well as the Coalition's own declared policies, is a lack of vision about what Australia's defence and strategic policies should be in the increasingly challenging security environment of Indo-Pacific Asia.

My colleague James Brown has dealt neatly with the Coalition's policies, so I will confine myself to what's missing from Labor's pitch. If a press release focusing on the vulnerabilities of the Opposition's policies really is the Government's main vehicle for that pitch, then there really is something wrong. [fold]

Having presided over a decline in defence spending to its lowest level of GDP since 1938, the best Labor can do on this front is to question the Coalition's promise of restoring spending to 2% of GDP within a decade, even though Labor also has a 2% aspiration. Both sides have had their high points and low points on defence funding over the past decade, so trying to call out the Coalition on this issue seems a waste of voters' attention.

Instead, why isn't the government playing up its attempts to build a strategic narrative for why the country needs substantial military power in the first place? I am referring here to the 2009 and 2013 defence white papers, which were meant to be the flagships of Labor's distinct defence vision in the Asian century.

For all their flaws, each of these efforts has left something worth building on. For instance, the 2009 paper gave legitimacy to the idea that Australia should possess serious maritime military weight. Rudd deserves a certain respect for having that aspiration. And the 2013 paper contained some sophisticated geopolitical assessments, including the recognition that our region of interest now extends into the 'Indo-Pacific', while also describing Australia's challenging security relations with China in balanced terms.

So why not take more pride in these documents of record? Is it because neither statement ultimately succeeded in the primary objective of a defence white paper, that of convincingly connecting strategy with force structure with a real-world budget? Or does the explanation have more do to with differences within Labor, a missing sense of shared policy ownership within the Government, given that the 2009 paper was Rudd's and the 2013 one, presided over by Julia Gillard and the shortly-departing Smith, most certainly wasn't?

If Labor is unwilling to close ranks behind its own efforts to reshape Australian defence policy, then its criticism of the Coalition for promising to make its own mark with yet another white paper rings hollow.

The politics of all this gets more mysterious still when it comes to another omission from the Labor media release.

This document recognises some of the positive things both sides of politics have undertaken to do in correcting Australia's force posture, the sometimes skewed locations and deteriorating condition of bases and facilities around the country. Yet it is spectacularly silent about the Prime Minister's big announcement last week that he would like to radically review the basing of major naval assets, with a possible move of our major east coast fleet base from Sydney to Brisbane.

Finally, the Labor release is oddly silent on what history may judge to be the Gillard and Rudd governments' biggest legacy on defence policy: a further intensification of the alliance with the US. I say 'further' because the Howard Government had begun moving in this direction, including on access to technology and intelligence.

But it was the Gillard Government, with Rudd's support, that took the crucial steps towards the presence of US Marines in Darwin, a space-tracking radar in Western Australia, enhanced US naval and air force access, and deeper cooperation on cyber security (the Coalition has supported these moves and under Abbott would almost certainly try to take some of them further). You wouldn't know any of this from Labor's document this week.

This election will not be won or lost on defence policy, but when it comes to such critical issues for Australia's future, the Labor Party owes it to itself to campaign on more than a glorified press release.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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