2016 Defence White Paper and the Academy Awards: a mixed review

An unlikely match

Nicky Lovegrove

Society and culture, International relations | Asia, Australia

3 March 2016

Nicky Lovegrove looks at links between the 2016 Defence White Paper and the Academy Awards. 

What do the Oscars and Defence White Paper have in common? Their choices are applauded by those in the industry, get mixed reviews by those in the know, and tell us as much about the people making decisions as about the movies or fighter jets themselves.

With the Oscars, we are reminded of Hollywood’s fondness for actors of a certain skin colour. With the 2016 Defence White Paper, released by the Australian government last Thursday, we learn about how the government sees the security outlook for Australia and the Asia Pacific.

The White Paper is essentially a plan for how the government intends to spend money on the Australian Defence Force over the next few years. It outlines which areas of the ADF require new capabilities, and attempts to justify these decisions by explaining Australia’s present and future strategic interests.

These are important questions for Australia, and there will always be much debate about how much the White Paper ‘got right’. To get a sense of how this White Paper fared, I sought the views of five ANU academics at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre: John Blaxland, Andrew Carr, Stephan Fruehling, Greg Raymond, and Hugh White. Much like the critical response to Oscar winner The Danish Girl, the verdict on the White Paper is decidedly mixed.

More on this: ASEAN-Australia: it’s all about peace and prosperity

Of the five, Stephan Fruehling had the most favourable take. He says white papers need to do three things simultaneously: communicate defence policy to domestic and international audiences, set priorities for capabilities, and outline how it will all be funded. For all three, he says, the White Paper got it “broadly right”.

Funding in particular was one aspect that drew praise almost across the board: John Blaxland and Greg Raymond also point to the fact that this White Paper outlines clear funding for defence over the next few years as one of its strengths. Andrew Carr agrees, praising an increase in defence funding that nonetheless moves away from an arbitrary target of 2% of GDP.

The government has also done well to recognise the changing nature of the strategic environment, according to Blaxland and Carr. This has prompted it to pursue a wide range of capabilities to be prepared for different contingencies. Raymond commends the emphasis on submarines, as well as on ‘enabling systems’ like logistics and bases. “These less sexy parts of a military are very critical to being able to get real capability from the investment,” He says.

But with good there’s always bad. Hugh White was the most critical. When asked what the White Paper got right, he says “Nothing of any importance.” White says it overstated key risks, such as those posed by ISIS and events in the Middle East, while understating others, in particular those that flow from the rise of China. Blaxland also says that the White Paper could have given more emphasis to non-traditional security issues affecting the region, such as counter-terrorism, people-smuggling and natural disasters.

Minister for Defence the Hon Marise Payne, MP, speaking at the launch of the 2016 Defence White Paper at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Minister for Defence the Hon Marise Payne, MP, speaking at the launch of the 2016 Defence White Paper at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Non-traditional security was not looked at seriously in this paper — especially climate change. As Nic MacLellan from the Lowy Institute points out, the only references are in relation to natural disasters and navy bases, but nothing that recognises climate change as a systemic and multiplying factor of insecurity.

Outside of the White Paper itself, Greg Raymond is concerned with Australia’s foreign policy processes, in particular what he sees as a lack of diplomatic depth and creativity in East Asia. One manifestation of this is too much focus on the Middle East, and not enough on issues in our more immediate region like the South China Sea.

So what does the White Paper tell us about politics and security in our region? According to all five, the government is paying more attention to the rise of China, though opinions differed on what this means for Australia. Fruehling says Australia is more firmly hedging against China, and more willing to call out the aspects of China’s behaviour it regards as threatening. For White however, the government is still making the mistake of assuming America will remain the dominant power of Asia indefinitely. Blaxland and Raymond have a slightly different perspective, and say that a larger defence budget indicates a growing Australian uncertainty that the US will continue to be able or willing to balance against China.

While this White Paper does not yet point to rapid armament for Australia, says Carr, Defence will demand an increasing share of a shrinking national budget. The decisions made at Academy Awards post-2016 will no doubt be scrutinised for racial bias. We can expect that future decisions made by the government over Australia’s strategic direction will also be scrutinised much more in the years ahead.

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