Australia's national interests are enmeshed with international order, and daily we see grim reminders that armed force still matters in the contemporary world. Australian forces are reportedly close to going into combat against violent extremists in the Middle East. War has returned to Europe and a dreadful act, the downing of MH17, has taken Australian lives. Militaries are modernising in maritime Asia, a region where strategic competition and signs of instability have a major bearing on Australian interests. And there remain underlying expectations on Australia as the security provider of first resort in its South Pacific neighbourhood.
The Abbott Government, elected just over a year ago, has committed to increasing defence spending to 2% of GDP within a decade. A new Defence White Paper is being prepared, to guide long-term defence policy settings and capability. As a member of the external panel providing independent advice on that document, I have recently been involved in public consultations to gauge community views on what a meaningful and effective Australian defence policy should look like.
That process is still underway, and amounts to an important opportunity for interested Australians from all backgrounds – and not just narrowly-defined defence experts – to have a say on the way the government spends their defence dollars. Written submissions are being invited, with a deadline of 29 October. These can address any topic: for instance, what are the main risks to Australia's security? What kind of military options might a future Australian government want to have? What foreign partnerships will matter most to our security? What should be the role of industry in Australia's defence effort? And how can the defence force best reflect and relate to Australian society?
Submissions can focus on today's security concerns, or look to longer horizons – after all, the 2015 Defence White Paper is intended to look to 2035, and an issues paper has been released to help frame some of the many challenges that policymakers need to consider in looking that far. The obvious complexities and uncertainties of the world ahead are no excuse for a country to avoid the hard work of thinking about how best to prepare for the risks it faces. And defence capabilities selected and developed in the years ahead will be in place – and cost money - for decades.
Opinion surveys such as the Lowy poll can give a broad sense of public concerns about security issues, and professional defence analysts always have plenty to say, but there is also a wealth of considered insight among individuals in the wider community. Any defence policy in a democracy will rightly have its share of critics as well as its supporters. It is in the national interest for them to articulate their ideas before policy is made, not after it.