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We’re living through a disastrous period of history. The existential threat of climate change, an ongoing global pandemic and the future prospect of nuclear destruction.
But months out from an election, one can’t help but be a cynic.
While the 2022 federal election was tipped to be one focused on the pandemic, or even climate change, rising geo-political tensions have thrown another curve ball.
The khaki election is upon us and this week’s Defence expenditure announcements were a reminder of what’s to come.
Each of the major parties has made big promises to bolster Australia’s defence capability if they win at the next election.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled the Coalition’s $40-billion plan over the next two decades to boost workforces, along with narrowing down three locations for a nuclear submarine base.
Labor too – not wanting to get left behind on the national security debate – said it would commit to setting a minimum defence expenditure at 2 per cent of gross domestic product.
That was intentional.
The Coalition has already pointed to the Gillard-Rudd government’s 2012-13 budget as proof a Labor government would dismantle the country’s lethal force during critical times.
Nobody wants to have the smaller bag of money in the lead-up to a war-time election.
At 1.56 per cent of GDP, and with a decline of thousands of Defence personnel, Labor’s wind back of the military a decade earlier is a sticking point for its competitor.
But the world was markedly different then – though the warning signs were there.
There’s also a question about how well that money is being spent. Defence’s budget has risen to more than $44 billion, according to Australian Strategic Policy Institute analysis, but the think tank has also criticised Defence for wasting millions on contractors and issues-plagued projects.
Take, for example, the MRH-90 Taipan helicopter fleet.
The $4-billion fleet of military aircraft has been described as a “disaster” political purchase after it faced a series of major failures, including a rotor issue which grounded the fleet for several months.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced the Taipan helicopters were to be ditched in December – a decade earlier than planned – to be replaced with more suitable, but expensive, aircraft.
As Labor defence spokesperson Brendan O’Connor told Insiders host David Speers on Sunday, there’s no point boasting how big the price tag is if billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on cancelled or failed projects, only to be lining the pockets of industry players.
Then there is the submarine deal, a project Labor has pledged it will continue if it were to win at the polls.
Mr Morrison has singled out Brisbane, Newcastle and Port Kembla as the preferred locations of a new east coast submarine base with a decision due next year.
It’s been said Port Kembla is the department’s top pick but as we’ve seen with the audit office’s grants probes, sometimes that’s irrelevant if, politically, it’s less favourable.
The public deserves better than 300-word press releases and 30-second grabs when it comes to major Defence expenditure decisions.
And probes looking into the questionable procurement processes that follow election announcements often target politicians and bureaucrats from three election cycles before.
Nobody wants to have the smaller bag of Defence money in the lead-up to a war-time election.
But those bags need to come with convincing, and detailed, business cases too.
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