Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has ordered the preparation of a White Paper on Australia’s defence strategy, future capability and hardware, the first to be written since 2000 when John Moore was the minister in charge. The team to prepare it will be announced next week.

The review and analysis is long overdue considering the impact of the Bali and Jakarta bombings, the September 11 attacks, the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, the East Timor garrison and the Solomons Islands commitment, to name the most dramatic post-2000 events.

Of serious concern to defence insiders is the proposed authorship of the report: will Fitzgibbon select serious professionals who can give an objective and dollar-sensitive critique to bring an end to the 11 years of Howard’s misrule when Cabinet spent like drunken sailors, soldiers and airmen?

Who could forget the $6 billion order for untried and untested US-made strike fighters to replace the ageing F111 fleet, or the $780 million for four C-17 cargo aircraft from Boeing (thank you Andrew Peacock, former President of Boeing Australia), or the $550 million on 59 M1 Abrams tanks. All highly questionable procurements, according to experts, but all done to underscore John Howard’s “deputy sheriff” role to President George Bush.

Fitzgibbon’s White Paper team will have the task of placing a perimeter on Australia’s defence shield and end Senator Robert Hill and Brendan Nelson’s view that the armed forces had a global role using expeditionary forces to travel anywhere at anytime to support the US or NATO (the North Atlantic alliance on the other side of the globe!)

Insofar as the Howard Government had a defence strategy it was to build a bigger and more expensive defence force. The settings for the White Paper should be simple:

  1. What are Australia’s newly emerging defence needs?
  2. What capability is required to meet those needs in terms of personnel and equipment?
  3. What will that capability cost?

The annual defence budget is now a colossal $20 billion. It went up by 37% under Field Marshal/Admiral/Air Commodore Howard. The task of bringing strategy, coherence and effectiveness to defence is a monumental challenge for the amiable Fitzgibbon, MP for the coal and wine-growing seat of Hunter and former Cessnock City Councillor. It will make him or break him.