It sounds as if neither party landed a knockout blow at the debate held in Canberra yesterday between Shadow Defence Minister Senator David Johnston and Minister for Defence Materiel Mike Kelly.

The hosts, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, had the peculiar challenge of presenting an election debate on defence policy without a defence minister. Stephen Smith is not standing for re-election, and had the reasonable excuse of attending an 'ASEAN Plus' defence ministers' meeting in Brunei.

By the sound of it, there was not a lot in the way of contending grand strategic visions, but quite a bit of informed cut-and-thrust on the details of defence capability and budget failings going back through the Rudd-Gillard years and into the Howard years.

Still, there was one outright error of fact that can't go unmentioned, more a matter of foreign policy than defence. At one point (about 11:50 into the recording), Mike Kelly tried to score a point by raising the 'the famous diplomatic disaster of the "deputy sheriff" comments'. He's referring to the occasion, following the East Timor intervention, when in a media interview John Howard did not disagree with the journalist's question characterising Australia as America's 'deputy sheriff' in the neighbourhood. (For the record, Howard later denied that he saw Australia in this way.)

This, said Mr Kelly, was a 'contributing factor and a significant factor in us losing, under the Howard Government, our bid for a UN Security Council seat in 1996'.

There's only one problem: the 'deputy sheriff' episode occurred in 1999.

Photo by Flickr user prairie.mouse.