Symposium: The 2002–03 Federal Budget

Safe but not secure: Achieving a sustainable future

Graeme Cheeseman, University of New South Wales

The central theme of the Treasurer’s Budget speech, and his overall budget strategy, was to make Australia and Australians safe. In the short-term we have to be made safe from shadowy groups such as al-Qaeda, random acts of madness (or desperation) by ‘terrorists’, and the unheralded appearance at our shores of ‘illegal’ refugees. We have also to be made safe against the longer-term depredations of the country’s changing demography. As spelt out in a Treasury-produced Intergenerational Report, in the coming years our ageing population will, in the absence of policy change, place increasing and ultimately unsustainable demands on our economic resources. By the year 2042 the gap between government spending needs and available revenue will have grown to a staggering $87 billion or around five per cent of the country’s GDP. As the Treasurer and Prime Minister-elect warned, the fundamentals of Australia’s present economic system therefore need to be adjusted so that we are not overwhelmed by this looming threat from the baby boomer generation. In Costello’s words, ‘we must start now to put in place measures that will sustain a decent health system and aged care system into the future’.

The proposed response to these two sets of threats to Australia’s security has been quite revealing. To meet its short-term objectives, the Government has allocated close to $1 billion (if we include money outlaid in the forward estimates) to enable the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to continue its contribution to the US-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, patrol Australia’s northern borders in order to deter unauthorised boat arrivals, establish a second Tactical Assault Group to counter maritime and land-based terrorist activities, and raise a regimental sized incident response unit to deal with any future chemical, biological, or radiological attack.

The central theme of the Budget speech was to make Australia and Australians safe.

This $1 billion is over and above the $14.3 billion—or $40 million a day—that will be spent on other defence activities over the coming financial year alone. Defence is not the only agency to prosper. The Justice and Attorney General’s Department will receive an extra $626 million over the next four years for border protection and counter-terrorism. The Department of Immigration will receive an extra $1.2 billion to construct and run an asylum seeker reception and processing centre on Christmas Island (bringing the funds committed so far for keeping boat people out of Australia to around $2.8 billion). And hundreds of millions of extra dollars will go to Customs, the Australian Federal Police, and ASIO. By contrast the Government’s response to the forecast $87 billion generation gap was simply, and inadequately, to increase the price of drugs purchased under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme and reduce the eligibility criteria for the disability support pension.

Most post-budget commentaries have made much of this discrepancy and the Government’s political motives for focussing on the short-term issues of border protection and the war against terrorism. Less has been said about the meaning or implications of some of the additional financial allocations made to the defence portfolio even though these also highlight important weaknesses, tensions, and contradictions in government policy. Indeed, our political leaders and their advisers on defence have managed to put us into a position that is not unlike the one identified in the Intergenerational Report.

The $252 million to be spent on raising and running a second Tactical Response or Special Forces Unit stems from the events of September 11 and their aftermath. The United States and its allies found themselves confronted not by the conventional military threat they were planning for but a very unconventional one, which required them to respond in largely unconventional ways. American airpower may have been used with telling effect against the Taliban regime and its primitive armed forces, but the successful elimination of the al-Qaeda networks will require intelligence collection and cooperation on a global scale, careful police work, and the employment of counter-terrorist rather than traditional military forces. Because of its focus on defeating conventional military threats, Australia possesses very little of any of these capabilities and once the bulk of our existing special forces were hastily committed to the US-led war against terrorism, we were left vulnerable to a future terrorist attack—we still are.

The budget allocation seeks to reduce this vulnerability but no one is asking why we were put into this position in the first place. Nor has there been much discussion about whether we now need to re-open the debate closed down so successfully by the Defence Department in the lead-up to the release of the Howard Government’s 2000 defence white paper. This debate canvassed the question of against what or whom in a post-Cold War and post-industrial world should Australia’s defence and security policies be directed: the conventional military adversaries that seem to occupy the imaginations of our military planners and those who advise them, or terrorism and other possible ‘threats without enemies’ (Smith and Kettle, 1992)? The events of September 11 and their aftermath would seem to provide support for the latter view.

The problems of others are our problems and we need to work together to resolve them.

While the prospect of interstate wars within our wider region and beyond remains, they are neither the only nor the most important causes for concern for Australia and its neighbours. Today and for the foreseeable future, it is likely that our key sources of insecurity will be largely non-military; including—in addition to terrorism and other international criminal activities—increasing intrastate violence and conflict especially within such places as Indonesia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, various ‘manufactured risks’ such as pollution, unsustainable resource depletion and environmental degradation (Giddens, 1999), and the growing economic divide within and between all countries across the globe.

These threats and pressures are unlikely to translate into a direct military threat to Australia, but they will have a significant impact on our security through such mechanisms as the flight of capital from our region, enhanced refugee and pollution flows, market reductions, and the need for greater economic aid and military and non-military assistance. Australia’s defence and security priorities need to be adjusted to take account of these emerging realities. Our first priority should be to help our neighbours in need and to assist the international community in dealing with the various causes for concern just detailed. In a rapidly globalising world, the problems of others are our problems and we need to work together to resolve them. We should, of course, continue to seek to protect ourselves against threats to our own security and well being, but these efforts need also to be directed more towards existing rather than imagined threats and adversaries. As a consequence, the ADF should begin to be (re)structured in part or in full to help deal with real rather than phantom threats, to begin to prepare, in other words, for ‘operations-other-than war’ rather than or, as well as, conventional war fighting roles.

The Department of Defence and its advisers have long resisted such a move, arguing that it would detract from Australia’s capacity to defend itself in war. In any case, they add, Australia’s experience in Somalia, the Persian Gulf, and East Timor demonstrate that forces prepared for war are more than capable of carrying out all manner of peacetime tasks. This may be true but how efficiently and at what cost? ADF units deployed abroad have required additional—and expensive—training, as well as upgrading of or additions to their existing weapons and equipment inventories. Consequently, ADF operations in these theatres have cost the Australian taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars, over and above the billions we already spend on defence. Given the changing security environment and the likelihood that our military forces will continue to be employed on various non-traditional security tasks, it would seem both timely and necessary for the Department to revisit its current force-structuring policy.

While many post-budget commentaries questioned the Government’s motives for using the ADF to chase boats carrying illegal refugees, few asked why, given the enormous amounts of money we already spend on sovereignty defence, is the taxpayer being required to provide a further $22.3 million next financial year alone for border protection? There are a number of interconnected reasons for this, some already touched on, and all pointing to further weaknesses and contradictions in Australia’s defence policy. More money is needed, first, because the Government is using elite SAS forces, missile-carrying frigates and other very expensive military assets. Indeed, for a Government that prides itself on being a good economic manager, it is hard to imagine a less cost-effective means of protecting Australia’s borders from a few slow-moving and leaky fishing boats. A second reason why more money is needed is because the sustained usage of naval assets to patrol the Howard-Ruddock line in the wake of the Tampa incident led the Royal Australian Navy quickly to overspend its existing operating budget.

Why is the taxpayer required to provide $22.3 million for border protection?

The key questions to be asked here are, first, why is the Navy’s (and the other Services’) operating budgets so low, and, second, why is the Government using high-technology defence assets to carry out policing? The basic answer to the second question is because there is nothing else to use. Successive governments and their leaders have declined either to establish a special purpose organisation such as a national coastguard to do the job, or to task the ADF with the role and make it acquire the requisite low-technology capabilities and assets. As in so many other areas, this component of Australia’s defence and security posture has fallen prey to inter-agency wrangling and weak political leadership.

The answer to the first question is more complex, although it is also basically about conflicting ends and means, and reveals a range of policy deficiencies and contradictions. As described above, successive governments have continued to declare that the fundamental role of Australia’s armed forces is to defend the country against a future conventional military attack even though they acknowledge that such an attack is increasingly unlikely. As a consequence, the ADF continues to be structured and equipped for conventional war fighting roles even though it is being used more and more on such non-traditional security tasks as disaster relief, peacekeeping and peacemaking, and border protection. The Department of Defence has continued to insist that the forces being developed to defend Australia in war can also effectively carry out their assigned peacetime security tasks even though the cost of doing so is proving to be prohibitive. And our defence planners have continued to reduce ADF personnel and to place limits on ADF operating costs in order to pay for ocean-going submarines, attack helicopters, AWAC aircraft and other conventional weaponry even though, as we saw in the recent border protection episode, this has required it to overspend its operating budget. The Department’s response to this last problem has been to seek more money rather than review either its force structuring policy or capital acquisition program. While initially unhappy about this, under pressure from Howard, the Government eventually relented and increased Australia’s annual defence budget from $12.2 billion in 2001 to $16 billion by 2010 (an expected real increase of some $23.5 billion overall).

The problem here is that most of this additional money will be used by the Defence Department not to enhance its capacity to contribute to East Timor-like operations, but to continue to upgrade and modernise its major war fighting capabilities. This together with the escalating cost of such assets and the Department’s poor record of resource management, is likely to ensure that even the substantial expenditure increases promised by the Howard Government will be insufficient to meet the Defence Department’s continuing needs. It won’t be too long, therefore, before the taxpayer will be asked for still more money for defence.

This dismal prospect is likely to be enhanced by the ADF’s ongoing fascination with the American-inspired ‘revolution in military affairs’, by our desire to maintain a technological edge over prospective regional adversaries, and by the recent adoption by the Howard Government of a maritime defence strategy entitled the ‘Regional Defence of Australia’. This strategy extends the focus of our future defence efforts well beyond the defence of the Australian mainland and immediate maritime surrounds, and requires the ADF to be able, unilaterally or with others, to defend Australia’s interests across the Asia-Pacific region no less.

New right governments are not sensitive to the social consequences of globalisation

By focussing on past wars rather than present and future conflicts or sources of insecurity, by pursuing the chimera of technological superiority, and by seeking to emulate the military forces and practices of the United States, our defence planners and their political masters are delivering a product that will cost the Australian taxpayers more and more money while delivering them less and less real security. Encouraged by official bombast and propaganda, Australia and Australians may feel safe by possessing ‘state-of-the-art’ submarines, guided-missile frigates and fighter aircraft, but they will not be secure from the mounting pressures of an increasingly globalised world. As with our health and welfare policies, we need to do some serious (re)thinking about our defence and security posture if it is to be both economically sustainable and effective in meeting the longer-term challenges of the 21st century. The problem here is that the Howard Government’s continuing and largely successful short-term political strategy of exploiting the Australian population’s sense of unease about our position in the world will make this task very difficult—if not impossible—to carry out.

That Australia is prepared to spend billions and billions of dollars on meeting the uncertain prospects of military invasion, terrorist attacks, and further waves of refugees while effectively ignoring more certain and far more serious, albeit longer-term, threats to the country’s economic security and social well-being says a lot about the realities of national power and budget-making in the 21st century. The most significant sources of insecurity for most countries and their peoples are not clandestine terrorist organisations or the military forces of other states. Today, most peoples’ security and well-being are more likely to be affected by economic forces or systemic problems that result from our own (mal)practices, are global in nature, cannot be kept beyond our borders, are not amenable to military or militarised solutions, and are beyond the capacity of even the most powerful states to solve by themselves.

New right governments and opposition parties of the kind we currently see in Australia are not particularly sensitive or sympathetic to the social consequences of economic globalisation, largely because they are among globalisation’s key agents. They are, however, very sensitive to its political and electoral impacts. As the latest Federal Budget shows, the best way of dealing with popular angst and uncertainty stemming from predatory globalisation, as Richard Falk (1999) has appropriately described it, and of diverting the community’s attention from the government’s inability or unwillingness to deal substantively with its consequences, is to manufacture other, more visible and more easily targeted threats or sources of insecurity: ‘terrorists’, internal subversives, boat people, religious fanatics and, even, Mother Nature. Such a strategy is particularly easy in the case of ‘frightened countries’ like Australia whose strategic and broader political cultures have been honed by geographic isolation, cultural alienation, the expectation and celebration of catastrophe, and genocidal guilt. While such strategies can be especially successful in the short term—just ask John Howard—they come at enormous costs culturally and socially as much as economically. More importantly, as we see with the Government’s response to both the forecast intergenerational gap and our changing security environment, they induce an obstinate, overly defensive, introspective, and ultimately unsustainable approach to seeing and solving problems.


Falk, R. 1999, Predatory Globalization: a critique, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Giddens, A. 1999, Runaway World: How Globalisation is Reshaping Our Lives, Profile Books, London.

Smith, G. & Kettle, S. (eds) 1992 Threats without Enemies: Rethinking Australia’s Security, Pluto Press, Sydney.

Graeme Cheeseman is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics at the University College, University of New South Wales.

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