Defence: marching to the beat of its own drum

by Allan Behm

The Budget provides a total defence resourcing of almost $45.5 billion in 2020-21, rising to almost $56 billion by 2023-24. This is an eye-watering figure in a time of severe economic shock and a level of debt that has only been seen before in times of global war. This provision does not include the additional cost of ADF operations, amounting to over $700 million in 2020-21.

Defence occupies a privileged place in the array of portfolios and agencies clamouring for money in the world of a pandemic, a serious hit to the GNI and high debt levels.

In her budget media release, the Minister for Defence solemnly declares that “the Budget delivers the Morrison Government’s commitment to grow the Defence budget to two per cent of GDP in the 2020-21 financial year and will deliver a stable funding path into the future”.

There’s a minor irony in the fact that, with its fixed percentage of GDP, the defence allocation will actually fall over the next year. But setting that aside, it is fair to question why, among all the demands for funding, defence should have a guaranteed share of GNI. What justifies two per cent, rather than the four per cent – suggested by some defence commentators – or, say, one-and-a-half-per cent – where the defence allocation sat for a number of years?

The figure is arbitrary. It may keep some allies happy, and it may afford a measure of comfort to some potential adversaries that spend considerably more themselves. If other portfolios are required to argue on the basis of evidence-based need, why not Defence?

As The Australia Institute has argued elsewhere, ‘national security’ comprehends significantly broader issues than ‘national defence’, law enforcement and national intelligence. Yet to enshrine national defence on a pedestal of a GNI guarantee comes at unavoidable cost to the national ability to manage the consequences of climate change, natural disasters (many of them climate change related) and, of course, the pandemic.

This is not to suggest that national defence is a second order issue, or that it should not enjoy a measure of priority. But it is to suggest that there are dangers in transforming defence into some kind of sacred cow, its pre-eminence and prerogatives unsubstantiated and unargued. It is all very well to claim that Defence needs confidence for forward planning. So do all other portfolios. A singular budgetary rule for national defence risks leaving the national defence effort subject to significant questioning and disputation as voters live with the consequence of financial parsimony in other key areas of national endeavour.

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