Brangwin, Nicole, et al: history of Australia’s defence white papers

Brangwin, Nicole, Nathan Church, Steve Dyer & David Watt

Defending Australia: a History of Australia’s Defence White Papers: Parliamentary Library Research Paper 2015-16, 20 August 2015

This is a timely publication, given the recent extended commitment to Iraq-Syria, defence spending commitments, notably on the Joint Strike Fighter, continuing discussion about war powers reform, the imminence of a new defence white paper and, most recently, the swearing-in of a new prime minister who lacks a significant track record in defence and foreign policy. (The prime minister’s son-in-law, James Brown, is a former military officer and now defence analyst, previously at the Lowy Institute, now at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Anzac’s Long Shadow.)

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The paper looks at the purpose of white papers and the historical background to 1976, before analysing (against common criteria) each of the six white papers that have come out in the years 1976-2013 plus the three ‘Defence Updates’ in 2003, 2005 and 2007. The tone of the paper is measured, befitting its provenance, but it provides useful background nevertheless.

The key points in the Executive Summary are as follows:

  • The need to defend Australia against a major aggressor remains the primary driver in Australian defence policy.
  • Regional security and contributing to the global order have been secondary, but still important priorities in Australian defence planning.
  • Each of the defence white papers has been created on the basis that Australia should be able to defend itself against a potential aggressor without outside assistance (the principle of self-reliance), while at the same time stressing the importance of the alliance with the United States.
  • Threat perceptions have changed from the Cold War influences reflected in the 1976 and 1987 white papers to a contemporary focus on terrorism while also incorporating emerging threats such as cyber attacks and the rise of China.
  • Defence white papers are not produced in a vacuum but are informed by key reviews of Australia’s strategic situation, industry policy and force posture.
  • Defence policy is subject to the broader economic conditions of the time and the Department of Defence must contend with many other priorities for government funding.
  • The financial plans set out in the various defence white papers are often ambitious and rarely brought to fruition.
  • On the whole, capability choices have displayed continuity between the different white papers regardless of changes in government. This is understandable given the length of time required for major capital equipment acquisitions.

15 September 2015

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