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The end of the sound of silence on defence and security issues?

The end of the sound of silence on defence and security issues?

It is a universally acknowledged truth that foreign and defence policy are not major political issues in elections. Yet at least for Australia's 2016 federal election campaign, the national security community can say it has tried to change that.

Since the start of the election campaign six weeks ago, the wider community of scholars, bloggers, think tankers and journalists have advocated a somewhat consistent message: we need to talk more about national security issues. 

Certainly, this could (and perhaps ought) to be seen as special pleading. Every industry spends elections trying to get politicians to focus on their area. But the national security community has traditionally been a little different. 

In past years many have preferred the sound of silence than to letting the public or parliamentary benches meddle with policy settings. Walter Lippman's famous complaint that the public is 'destructively wrong at the critical junctures…too late with too little, or too long with too much, too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war' would likely ring true for many in the field.

In 2016 however, there has been a growing chorus insisting that this idea of exclusion and silence needs to change. Recent examples have included:

And so on. While many have bemoaned the lack of foreign and defence policy discussion during this campaign, there are at least some signs of life from the relevant politicians. [fold]

On 16 July there was a National Press Club 'Defence Debate' between the Defence Minister Marise Payne and her shadow counterpart Senator Stephen Conroy. Meanwhile, Foreign Affair Minister Julie Bishop, shadow Tanya Plibersek and Greens Party Senator Scott Ludlum have all penned articles for the Australian Outlook blog on their party's foreign policy. Small steps, but certainly welcome.

On a range of fronts, the last few years have suggested Australia's politicians are increasingly willing to highlight their disagreements on foreign and defence policy. This was clearer under the combative Tony Abbott, but even Turnbull's more refined style can't hide growing differences in how the major parties talk about and think about issues such as terrorism, China, defence spending, climate change (as a security concern), foreign aid, and until Abbott succumbed to the political pressure, submarines. 

The public also feel excluded. A 2010 Lowy Institute poll found that only 22% of the public were satisfied with the government's willignness to listen to and engage the electorate on foreign policy issues. Similarly the 2015 Defence White Paper Expert Panel 'heard repeated concerns that much of the Australian community did not have a good understanding of their present-day defence force'. Politicians now know that the usual cone of silence on these issues can't continue. As rising ALP backbenchers Clare O'Neil and Tim Watts argued in their 2015 book Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment, 'the significant changes occurring in our region merit a better standard of public debate than they have in the past'.

Changing this picture, with greater levels of discussion and engagement in defence and security issues from both the public and political class will of course require more than a few concerned comments in the media or blog posts. There are large structural impediments to such change. The clamour for bipartisanship, the small size of our think-tank and academic community, and the public's natural inclination for hip-pocket issues, all conspire to keep foreign and defence policy issues off the front page.

While many in the wider national security community will continue to doubt the wisdom of greater public engagement in their field, it's encouraging to see a range of voices calling for change. Navigating an era of uncertainty and potential conflict requires new forms of conduct and thought from us all. As Abraham Lincoln reminded the US Congress in 1862, 'The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew'.

Photo by Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images


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