As the arrival next year of Tony Abbott’s government looms ever closer, it is illuminating to have a de facto election manifesto.

The glimpse of what the Coalition will offer voters is courtesy of a fine journalistic “get” by Crikey, which published the Coalition’s confidential speaker notes for its MPs. This party-line guidance offers a briefing on the policy framework for next year’s election. Consider it Tony’s worldview rendered as dot points.

The guidance stacks up as a de facto policy document for 2013 because it repeats much of what the Coalition presented in the 2010 election while offering some fresh details on the way thinking is evolving. Reflecting the changing balance of Oz politics, a notable feature of the notes is the way the Greens get nearly as much attention as Labor. Each section has, as you’d expect, a set of points attacking Labor’s failures, followed later by a separate section attacking the Greens; the three-corner election is coming to a suburb close to you.

So, courtesy of Crikey, here are the Coalition’s pledges on defence:

  • The Coalition will commit to restoring defence funding of Defence to 3% real growth out to 2017-18 as soon as we can afford it.
  • Continue and further develop Australia’s strategic alliance with the United States — the Coalition would be open to a bilateral arrangement with the US that would allow the recognition of particular bases as new joint facilities, such as those at Pine Gap and Exmouth.
  • Retain the Australian Strategic Policy Institute as independent defence analysts.
  • Appoint an Industry Advocate for the Defence Materiel Organisation to provide a clear path for complaints and appeals by small and medium firms on tender and contractual matters (recycled from the 2010 policy).
  • Invest in improved maritime surveillance capabilities for the ADF. This initiative will include a greatly enhanced maritime patrol capability and a greater emphasis on intelligence co-operation with neighbours.

The promise to return to 3% real growth is obviously the big call, despite those wonderful weasel words “as soon as we can afford it”. Yep, folks, the Coalition is going to be rock solid on defence … depending on what it finds in the wallet. Bear in mind that Defence’s budget this financial year is set to fall by 10.5% in real terms. The ever invaluable Mark Thomson calculates that this shrinkage is the largest year-on-year reduction since the end of the Korean War in 1953, with a total of $5.5 billion cut from the Defence budget over four years.

That means the Coalition is going to have to find a lot of spare cash to turn around the budget estimates if it is to get back to 3% real growth by 2017-18. Between now and next year’s election, Labor is promising a new Defence white paper, so the fog of war is about to settle over spending projections: battalions of conflicting figures and projections will do battle.

The Coalition promise of more joint facilities for the US is fascinating. Essentially, it is an open invitation to the US. Take your pick: any air bases you like the look of? Plus, this would set up another round of speculation about what the US might want to do in the Indian Ocean with Cocos Island.

After the Coalition’s two whale-sized promises — spending and more joint facilities — the third promise is a minnow. Many in Canberra (if not everybody in Defence) have developed a firm affection for Australian Strategic Policy Institute since the Howard government decided in 2000 to create “an independent, non-partisan policy institute … to provide fresh ideas on Australia’s defence and strategic policy choices”. ASPI’s output is now essential to any sensible discussion of Oz defence policy. But this rates as a no-cost promise. Defence probably spends more on coffee and tea than it does on ASPI. A guarantee of ASPI’s continued existence and independence, however, is still worthy of note. Many other institutions around the national capital would love to have such a pledge from an incoming Abbott government.

The document is silent on new submarines and planes, further proof that this headache is a shared Canberra affliction.

Perhaps the 3% pledge should be read as a commitment to resume doing everything the same way John Howard did it. That means the Joint Strike Fighter should stay safe, because it was a Howard legacy program. Labor, though, has deeper historical ownership of the subs. The Hawke government decided to build the six Collins submarines in Adelaide. The Rudd government decided to repeat the effort and upped the projected number of subs to 12. Not much Howard legacy there; more a memory of all the misery that the Collins delivered the Coalition when in office.

Next year’s white paper is going to be a vital exercise, giving both sides politics a fresh view of what to do about the giant equipment buys.

*This article was first published at The Interpreter. Graeme Dobell looks at what the Coalition policy book reveals about foreign policy and aid here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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