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You’d think Peter Dutton would be strong on defence.
The way he speaks, his halting, almost visceral delivery, in combination with his sheer physical presence play an almost unconscious role, dramatically shaping his image – like him or hate him – as an earnest player who gets things done.
It’s really time for a rethink.
Back in 2020, his predecessor, Linda Reynolds, released a defence update. This chronicled a dramatic deterioration in our strategic circumstances since 2014. She urged a rapid recapitalisation of the forces, beginning with the announcement of new cyber capabilities and the immediate purchase of missiles. It was a clarion call for action that engaged with an increasingly threatening world.
Then Dutton took over as minister. He’s been full of promises, but can’t seem to work out how to deliver.
He abandoned the submarine project just at the point design breakthroughs were beginning to deliver the most advanced conventional vessel in the world. Australian industrial capacity was replaced with a vague plan to buy a boat from overseas (at enormous cost). Dutton then rubbished the army’s Taipan helicopter force by insisting it was incapable and needed to be scrapped, directly contradicting earlier comments by Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell. The cost of future frigates, meanwhile, is spiralling out of control, while the ships themselves are capable of little more than serving as target practice for swarms of enemy missiles.
He’s bought more tanks – just as Ukraine drones have revealed their vulnerability by stopping Russia’s tanks in their tracks. There’s been no suggestion by the minister, however, that we might need to develop such lethal weapons systems here.
What the minister’s become a specialist at is announcing long-term projects, with huge numbers attached, but delivery so far off in the future he’ll never be accountable for their failure. Take last week’s announcement that Defence will be “boosted” by 18,000 people. Then look at the date: almost 20 years away. It’s like a child promising to clean their room by the time they leave school. What it seems to mean is that some civilian contractors will be recruited to do the same work they’re doing already, but in uniform (with no change in numbers or increase of capability).
Space command is another example of the hollow drum Dutton’s beating. It sounds wonderful, even inspiring; it looks futuristic, even visionary. And it’s got a great website – but after that the inventory is sparse. Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts commands nothing, because we don’t have a space force. Perhaps it’s just as well she describes herself as a “science fiction buff”, because she’ll certainly have plenty of reading matter if she reads the minister’s press releases. These huff and puff. but fail to deliver.
Dutton’s a headline in search of a story.
The critical element explaining this gap between image and reality was revealed last week in a brief tweet by Professor Peter Dean. As head of the University of Western Australia’s Defence and Security Institute, Dean’s done the numbers – he can explain exactly how this smoke and mirrors trick is performed. Firstly, he agrees with the government that defence spending is higher as a percentage of GDP (2.09 per cent) than under Labor (where it never quite reached 2 per cent).
The point is this: GDP fluctuates, and currently it’s shrunk because of COVID. Dean thinks a more relevant figure to consider is the spend on defence as a percentage of total government spending, because this is a better demonstration of a government’s commitment to the forces. This paints a very different story.
As a percentage of actual government outlays, Labor spent 6.65 and 6.52 per cent on defence over its last two years in office. By comparison Scott Morrison devoted just 5.8 percent of outlay to the military this year. In 2021 he allocated just 5.1 per cent. This government prefers to spend words and promises, rather than money.
Dutton’s also very careful when he chooses the forums he speaks at. Tomorrow, for example, he’ll be at a pre-budget breakfast – but, as usual, journalists aren’t allowed. The reason is simple: he wants to avoid any questions about what’s really happening in Defence.
Dean is concerned. “This spending is not necessarily translating into actual capability for the ADF,” he says.
MORE NICHOLAS STUART:
“What the government’s saying is like lies, damn lies, and statistics. There’s one truth in what you say, another in the budget papers, and a third when the money gets spent. For all the government’s talk about danger today, we won’t actually see a vessel in the water until the mid 2030s.”
The other question that needs to be answered is exactly where this money will be going. The government talks big about the desperate requirement for humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery – engineers that can build levees and shift mud, helicopters that can douse fires and soldiers working as aged care nurses.
It’s a pea and thimble trick, requiring us to pretend soldiers can do absolutely anything without degrading capability in their real tasks.
Whether as earnest plodder or Dark Lord, few have challenged Dutton’s self-proclaimed role as advocate of strong national security settings. But the reality is that since he’s come to office he’s cancelled billions of dollars’ worth of programs and spent a pittance. The recent purchase of tanks is like the decision to buy new stirrup leathers to equip the Light Horse in 1939 – wonderful, but irrelevant.
Dutton presents a good show, but is quite evidently struggling in his role as minister. Nobody doubts his enthusiasm, but that’s not enough. Defence was a consolation prize he obtained for coming back into the ministry and playing nicely with the PM. But he’s not up to the job.
Tomorrow’s budget will probably see announcements about buying more armoured vehicles and other equipment – but focus on where it will be built and when it will arrive. Plans for the future don’t equal present capability.
Which is another way of saying there’s a remarkable disconnect between reality and the image being projected.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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