Remember last week’s history summit? Imagine if someone had stood up there and said “There’s nothing wrong with our secondary education that more money couldn’t fix. Just give us the funds to build more schools and hire more teachers, and everything will be OK.”
That’s actually how many people used to see education; some still do. But if it had been put to him last week, the prime minister would have responded, quite rightly, that the problems with education are not primarily financial. As long as the structures and incentives are wrong, throwing more money at them is going to make things worse, not better.
So why does this realisation completely escape the government when it comes to defence? Witness yesterday’s prime ministerial announcement that the army will be increased from six to eight battalions, at an estimated cost of $10 billion.
In every other sphere of activity, right-of-centre politicians have learned to pay lip service, at least, to the notion that governments can’t solve all the world’s problems by spending more money. But their love affair with the military is stronger than ever.
From the very first Costello budget, the one area that was completely quarantined against expenditure cuts was the one that most needed them, defence. On all accounts, most of the money the military gets is woefully misspent. But the voices that demand greater accountability for other sorts of spending fall silent when it comes to money for tanks and bombs.
John Howard said yesterday that the need for a bigger army was “self-evident”, due to “ongoing and, in my opinion, increasing instances of destabilised and failing states in our own region”. He may be right. But instead of just reaching for the cheque book, how about first looking more closely at our foreign policy and thinking about the causes of instability? Then perhaps we could avoid having to pay for ever bigger and more expensive bandaids.