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White Paper: History, ghosts and geography

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COMMENTS

4 May 2009 17:34

A lot of history and ghosts stalk through the White Paper. That's not surprising, because Defence exceeds even Treasury in reverence for its past and willingness to keep fighting old bureaucratic causes.

Where Defence attains uniqueness is its willingness to recycle concepts and terminology from decades past, without even bothering to change the original language. The White Paper is a reminder that the Labor Party always obsesses about geography and strategy in different ways to the Coalition.

The title of the document says a lot: ‘Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030’. The title of Labor’s previous White Paper in 1994 was ‘Defending Australia’. This built on what is still a seminal document for the ALP, ‘The Defence of Australia’, in 1987. The Howard Government’s White Paper in 2000 was geography-free, in the title anyway: ‘Defence 2000: Our Future Defence Force’.

The definitional habits of the ALP hark back to the huge fight Curtin had within the party in 1942 and 1943, in the midst of war, to redefine the geography involved in what he called the ‘defence of Australia’. It took Curtin two national conferences to get changes to the Defence Act to allow Australian militia troops to serve in Papua New Guinea and the Southwest Pacific.

The 2009 White Paper offers its own thoughts on recent strategic-theological arguments in Canberra, devoting a page to discussing the headline: ‘Why does geography matter to strategy?’ The answer offered about why strategic interests are presented in a geographic hierarchy is straight out of the old concentric circles handbook. All that is missing is that map, with Darwin as the centre point and the series of enlarging circles reaching ever more deeply into Asia.

Some familiar concepts get a run wearing something close to their original colours. The 1986 Dibb Report and the 1987 White Paper are reproduced faithfully in the new White Paper’s statement: ‘The sea-air gap to our north is at the strategic centre of our primary operational environment.’

The primary operational environment is the same space defined by Dibb and the ’87 Paper as Australia’s ‘area of direct military interest’. The ADF’s primary operational focus is to be from the eastern Indian Ocean across to Polynesia, and from the Equator to the Southern Ocean.

The regionalist flavouring is spiced with an ALP-flavoured swipe at the idea of Australia embracing a globalist view of the US alliance:

The Government recognises that Australia can and should play its part in assisting the United States in dealing with global and regional security challenges…However, we must never put ourselves in a position where the price of our own security is a requirement to put Australian troops at risk in distant theatres of war where we have no direct interests at stake.

Putting the 2000 White Paper beside the 2009 version is a good way to show the continuities and departures involved. The service winners back then are still the grinners. Navy and Air Force scooped the pool last time. They’ve done it again.

Army, at least, doesn’t experience anything like the indignity it suffered in 2000 of being told it wouldn’t get any new tanks. Khaki eventually triumphed over the pin stripes on that one.

There’s not too much evidence in the new White Paper of any advance beyond (or towards) John Howard’s boast in September, 2006, of the ‘fundamental reassertion of the strategic importance of the Army — and indeed of the individual soldier — in Australia’s strategic culture.’

Army’s soup is thin and recycled compared to the banquet being promised the blokes in white and blue who do most of their fighting sitting down. Apart from more armour plating for the vehicles, Army’s promised future is essentially the one announced by Howard in 2006: build two new battalions plus find smarter ways to use the reserves.

The Army gripes will be the same ones that have run through the strategic-theological discussion since the reality check of East Timor in 1999. The khaki complaint is that a lot of money is being pledged to the blue and white services to deal with big-picture conflicts that may take a couple of decades to arrive, if they ever do.

Army’s problem is dealing with all the smaller-scale-but-scary problems that keep arriving demanding immediate action. And by the way, Afghanistan is a long way beyond the concentric circles.

Photo by Flickr user Crouchy69, used under a Creative Commons license.

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