Defence review 2000: Public consultation or public education?

Graeme Cheeseman, Australian Defence Force Academy

On 27 June 2000, the Howard Government released a public discussion paper on defence entitled Defence Review 2000: Our Future Defence Force. [1] The release of the discussion paper, associated video recording and ‘capability fact book’ is part of a broader process of public consultation in which the Australian people are being asked for their views on: 1) what should Australia’s armed forces do in the future? 2) where should they be able to operate? 3) how should they be structured; and 4) how can we best spend the existing (or an expanded) defence budget. The discussion paper is intended to help the public in its considerations by detailing Australia’s changing strategic environment and interests, describing some of the key policy, capability and spending choices facing our defence planners, and listing three different ways in which our military forces could be structured in the future. [2]

The direct involvement of the Australian people represents a major departure from earlier practice.

The consultations between the government and the people are occurring at three levels. First, a Community Consultation Team (CCT) comprising three former politicians—Andrew Peacock, Stephen Loosely and David MacGibbon—and the current Chair of the Defence Committee of the RSL, Major General Adrian Clunies-Ross, are conducting, over the period 18 July to 24 August 2000, public meetings in every capital city in Australia and a number of regional centres. [3] Second, the CCT is having detailed, face-to-face discussions with a number of key industry and other interest groups. [4] Third, the service chiefs and group managers within the defence establishment are canvassing views from within their organisations, while an ‘independent’ review team comprising a former member of the Defence Department, Professor Paul Dibb from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, and the current head of the Australian Defence College, Air Commodore (Retired) Brendan O’Loghlin, are visiting a number of defence bases to brief the people there on the process and, presumably, hear their views. Dibb and O’Loghlin will report their findings to the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary of Defence while the CCT will submit its report on the community’s concerns directly to the government.

The direct involvement of the Australian people represents a major departure from earlier practice. [5] Why is the government taking this ‘new approach to defence policy making’? [6] Its stated reason is that in view of continuing budgetary pressures and the fundamental changes taking place around us, defence policy making in Australia needs to be extended beyond the small number of academics and other specialists normally involved in this process, to include ‘all Australians’. This is expected to ‘encourage a vigorous, challenging and constructive discussion’ of the issues involved. As importantly, it will help the people of Australia obtain a ‘better understanding’ of the kinds of concerns that need to be considered in preparing defence policy generally and the forthcoming white paper on defence in particular.

Even former supporters of defence are now questioning some of the government's sacred cows.

The idea of democratising the defence policy process is a laudable one although the virtual exclusion of academics and other experts who write and research in the areas of national and regional security seems odd given the uncertain and complex nature of Australia’s changing external circumstances. Contrary to the views of many politicians and those who advise them, academia is currently at the forefront of knowledge and debate in the area of international relations in particular. Policy makers seeking to come to terms with the current situation in Indonesia or the impact of globalisation on security could well benefit from talking to their colleagues in academe. One possible reason why academics are being excluded is that, in the aftermath of East Timor, they have been much more critical of Australia’s existing defence policies and practices. As evidenced by the debate engendered by the so-called ‘Howard doctrine’ and the US proposal for Australian participation in a theatre missile defence system, even former supporters of defence are now questioning some of the government’s sacred cows. The government’s decision to go directly to the public may also stem from the recent tensions between the Minister for Defence and his Department. Minister for Defence John Moore and his key advisers are clearly concerned that their own agenda for defence is, wilfully or otherwise, being blocked by certain military and civilian bureaucrats. Seeking a public mandate for their program is one way of bringing the Department to heel providing, of course, that the consultation process delivers whatever it is the government wants. [7] Another possibility is that the consultation process has less to do with defence as such and more to do with the Prime Minister’s broader agenda of (re)constructing his own and his government’s identity in populist and patriotic terms: Howard as the ‘wartime’ leader espousing traditional values and fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness gathering outside the country and subversive and disloyal elements within it. In short, the government’s ‘new approach to making defence policy’ may be less an exercise in public consultation as one in public relations.

This feeling is heightened by an analysis of the contents and arguments of the government’s discussion paper. For a document concerned with encouraging a ‘vigorous, challenging and constructive discussion’ of Australia’s defence and security policies, the paper does little to assist the average Australian in coming to an informed decision on the matters raised. We hear only one side of the story—that presented by the Department of Defence. This acknowledges in some areas the problematic nature of some of the arguments and premises being made, but fails to elaborate on these or, even, to provide information or pointers to enable those interested in the issue to follow them up. More worrying still is the way in which the force structure options are framed and presented. The third option—organising Australia’s military forces for operations other than war—is probably, as I will argue shortly, the most appropriate one for Australia in the coming decades. Yet it is presented in a way that is neither fair nor reasonable. The kinds of activities included under this option are too narrowly defined. Readers are warned that it would entail ‘significant cuts to our forces’ warfighting components’, and could only be followed ‘if it was assessed that the need for combat forces was very low and that alliances would provide an adequate guarantee of our security’. In case we hadn’t got the message, the paper adds that the option would be a ‘major departure in current policy’, and one that would take us down the road of New Zealand! In any case, such operations are said to be able to be carried out by forces developed for the other two ‘warfighting’ options. (This assertion is often made by the military—largely to protect favoured assets and interests—but needs to be tested in light of Australia’s recent peacekeeping experiences in which our military forces were required to develop structures and procedures for policing and conflict resolution roles, liaising with transnational and non-government organisations, and helping rebuild civil society.) Whoever wrote this section of the paper is clearly only interested in open or frank discussion if it focuses on options one and two.

Australia should be concerned with enhancing causes for optimism rather than remaining obsessed with causes for concern.

And yet, as the paper’s own analysis makes clear, the option of organising the ADF for security rather than traditional defence operations needs to be taken very seriously. The end of the Cold War and the process of globalisation are lessening the prospect of major wars between industrialised states. The key security concerns for Australia, and the countries in its immediate region, are now largely non-military in nature. While there are various causes for concern about the prospects for peace and security in the region, so are there increasing causes for optimism. Australia’s defence and security posture should be fundamentally concerned with enhancing these causes for optimism rather than with remaining obsessed with the causes for concern. This requires us to do what we have done in practice for the last twenty years: in cooperation with others help failed or failing states through their troubles and became part of the international community, be ready to protect local communities against human rights and other abuses, and deal with such sources of insecurity as international crime, piracy and environmental degradation. These kinds of roles do not require F-111 aircraft or missile-firing submarines. They require, rather, the kinds of forces, capabilities, skills and attitudes we have seen in operation in such places as East Timor, Cambodia, Namibia, and Bougainville. The problem for the Defence Minister and his advisers is that this path will require a change, not only in policy but also in Australia’s military and public cultures. This remains the last, most difficult yet most important area of defence reform.

Just how important or effective the process of public consultation has been will only be clear when we see its results: initially in the CCT’s report to government, and eventually in the forthcoming white paper on defence. This latter document will replace the 1994 version, prepared during the period of the Keating Government, and is due to be released towards the end of this year. [8] It is instructive to note at this stage that the discussion paper makes it clear that the CCT’s findings will simply be ‘considered’ by the framers of the new white paper, a position, one could argue, that protects the government in the unlikely event that its carefully planned process of public consultation somehow goes off the rails.


1. Department of Defence, Defence Review 2000: Our Future Defence Force: A Public Discussion Paper (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service DPS 38459/2000, June 2000). [Back]

2. The three force options are: 1): structuring the ADF for ‘defeating attacks on Australia’ itself (more or less a continuation of Labor’s original policy of defence self-reliance with a few changes in capabilities); 2) developing forces that are ‘structured for regional security roles’ (Australia’s approach to defence under the Keating and Howard Governments with some differences in emphasis); and 3) using (but not structuring) our military forces more for so-called ‘military operations other than war’ (a state-of-the-art term covering such activities as peacekeeping and disaster relief). [Back]

3. The CCT visits cover, in order, Adelaide, Whyalla, Alice Springs, Perth, Darwin, Port Hedland, Geraldton, Toowoomba, Brisbane, Townsville, Rockhampton, Cairns, Sydney, Dubbo, Armidale, Nowra, Newcastle, Canberra, Albury/Wodonga, Wagga Wagga, Bathurst, Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong, Hobart, Launceston and Bendigo. The panel will also consider written and e-mailed submissions from members of the public. [Back]

4. At the time of writing, the Department of Defence has still to provide me with a list of who these groups are although I believe that they include mainly industry and other interests normally associated with the Liberal and National parties. [Back]

5. The government’s approach is not entirely unprecedented. Both Canada and Great Britain canvassed, in 1994 and 1997 respectively, public views on their forthcoming defence white papers. Australian governments of both persuasions regularly task parliamentary committees, such as the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, to conduct public inquiries into such matters as the ANZUS alliance (1982), higher defence management (1987), defence funding (1998) and the future of the Army (2000). [Back]

6. Defence Review 2000, Foreword, page v. [Back]

7. This is likely given that public opinion polls in Australia have consistently shown majority public support for strong defence forces and alliances and increases in defence expenditure. [Back]

8. The principal author of the forthcoming defence white paper, the former Deputy Defence Secretary and Beazley staffer, Hugh White, has already moved into the suite of offices that is occupied by the Consultation Review Team and, one suspects, has begun drafting the white paper. [Back]

Graeme Cheeseman is a senior lecturer at the University College, Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

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