Brendan Nelson and the “blood for oil” controversy have mostly obscured the real importance of Thursday’s defence statement: the commitment to continuing Australia’s military build-up. In addition to the huge increases of recent years, John Howard promised a 3% annual increase in defence spending for the next ten years.
This will probably be the Howard government’s most lasting contribution to Australian public policy. Personally, I think it is one of the worst decisions an Australian government has ever made. But even those who disagree with that assessment should be concerned about the absence of debate over the issue.
Australians were never asked whether they wanted to become a serious military power. The government tries to present it as something forced on us by circumstances, but that is clearly untrue: the conventional military threat to Australia is as low as it has ever been. Terrorism may be a problem, but we know by now that it cannot be fought with infantry, tanks and fighter jets.
The only real use for the arms build-up that the government proposes is participation in offshore peacekeeping operations and humanitarian interventions. While that is a worthy goal (legal ones, of course, not war crimes), it’s an open question whether we can contribute more effectively with arms or just with financial assistance and civilian personnel.
That question is worth debating, but the opposition and the commentariat have abdicated the responsibility. There is some argument about priorities, or about particular spending decisions, but no-one is seriously questioning the notion of massive spending increases.
Australia is a wealthy country; if we want a powerful military, we can have it. But the money has to come from somewhere, and it seems likely that the taxpayers, if asked, might have have higher priorities.
The government’s approach is the flip side of the traditional left-wing approach to public spending, in which throwing ever-increasing amounts of money at health, education and welfare was held to be the height of public virtue. Anyone who questioned the value of such spending was accused of lacking compassion.
Similarly, anyone who questions today’s military boondoggle is accused of being soft on national security. But if pouring money down the military drain hasn’t made us safer, then pouring still more money might not be such a great idea.