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Op ed: Funding retreat has left Defence in disarray



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Op ed: Funding retreat has left Defence in disarray September 21, 2012

Source: The National Times

A little over a year ago I issued a statement welcoming the appointment of Duncan Lewis as secretary of defence, but

warning that the former major-general faced an uphill battle running a department so hollowed out by budget cuts.

This week’s announcement that after only a year in this crucial Defence leadership position, Mr Lewis was being

moved to a diplomatic appointment at NATO was very disappointing and demonstrates just how dire the state of

Defence is in Australia.

In my statement I concluded by saying that I hoped Mr Lewis’ appointment and gravitas after a 33-year military career

would help Defence turn the corner and receive greater priority from the Gillard government.

I could not have been more wrong. Unfortunately for Mr Lewis, during his 13 months as secretary the Defence

portfolio has gone from having many significant funding challenges to having its finances declared to be

an “unstainable mess”. This is not a criticism of Mr Lewis; despite his best efforts, his advice was consistently

ignored.

The 2012 federal budget, in the words of recently retired Major-General John Cantwell, was a ‘‘shocker’’.

Labor’s approach to Defence since the 2009 white paper has been to plunder $25 billion from the department. In

percentage terms, the portfolio took the biggest cut in funding in the 2012 budget since the end of the Korean War in

1953. It is the biggest single cut to any Defence budget in close to 60 years.

Prime Minister Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan keep telling us we have one of the best economies in the world,

yet they see the Defence portfolio as nothing more than an ATM, severely compromising the department’s ability to

respond to unforseen events, be they military or humanitarian.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has systematically drained Defence of its financial resources and allowed

capabilities (particularly in platform maintenance) to erode to what can only be described as inadequate and

compromised levels.

One of the primary constitutional responsibilities of the Commonwealth government is the security of the nation. This

Prime Minister and Defence Minister have failed to live up to that responsibility and our readiness and overall defence

capacity is in serious decline.

This was recognised by Mr Lewis in his recent speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, when he quoted Sir

Arthur Tange’s comment: “If you haven’t talked dollars you haven’t talked strategy.”

The lack of Defence funding means virtually every project the Defence Minister talks up at his press conferences —

from 12 new submarines to Joint Strike Fighters — is unsustainable in terms of our capacity to pay for them.

He may as well be talking about building a Defence base on the moon, such is the likelihood of their realisation under

Labor’s budget parameters.

To avoid the day of reckoning that is coming, this minister has employed his standard tactic of delay and more delay.

Or as Mr Smith put it when he announced such a delay of the Air Warfare Destroyer project in Adelaide last week,

a ‘‘re-base-lining’’.

He has conceded he will not make a decision on the new submarine until after the next election. He has put off the

purchase of the next tranche of Joint Strike Fighters because the Defence budget couldn’t cope with their current

schedule. The reality is that while we planned for 100 Joint Strike Fighters, we have bought only two.

Under Labor, Defence strategy has substantially shifted focus from what strategies we need in order to properly

defend our shores to what we can cynically get away with cancelling or delaying to try to achieve a budget surplus. I

suspect this is exactly what the 2013 white paper will enable.

That is insulting to every man and woman serving in the ADF, particularly the 3300 serving on 14 operations

overseas and at home to protect Australia and its interests.

I suspect it was more than Duncan Lewis, a former leader of the Special Air Services Regiment, could stomach.

We have had four secretaries of defence in the past four years, morale is low, acquisitions are in decline and

generally all of the metrics are headed in the wrong direction.

Dennis Richardson is another welcome five-year appointment as the Secretary of Defence, and is supported by the

opposition.

I do sincerely hope he is able to stay in the job longer than Duncan Lewis, because Defence needs strong and

enduring leadership from its secretary in order to see it through this dark period under Labor.

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