Australia has a new defence minister in John Faulkner, but what our nation needs is a new way of thinking about defence.
The Defence White Paper released by the Rudd Government in April revealed a defence establishment still locked into a Cold War mentality. Its huge commitment to arms spending looks like a plan designed for a mid 20th century "hot" war, rather than the kinds of small wars Australia is currently fighting, and the era of insurgencies, destabilisation operations and small-group terrorist conflicts that seem like the more probable future scenario.
For these security threats, defence needs human assets like intelligence analysts and linguists, stabilisation teams, military police, doctors and engineers, as well as Special Forces teams and light infantry. Submarines and Joint Strike Fighters won’t help one bit.
It’s telling that the White Paper dismisses climate change as a likely security threat in the next 20 years. Instead, the White Paper proposes a force structure to protect Australia against a militarily aggressive China. It doesn’t matter that neither the United States’ nor Australia’s intelligence agencies think military aggression from China is likely. Apparently this is the strategic future Australia is preparing for, and the price of that insurance policy is upwards of $100 billion in new hardware.
Of course, China is doing something very harmful that poses a huge threat to Australia. It is building new coal-fired power stations at a rapid pace. If China keeps up this rate until 2030, the race to prevent dangerous global warming will be over – and we will have lost it. Australia may have a brand new fleet of fancy submarines, but they will be protecting a continent with little agriculture in the Murray Darling, no snow in the Snowy Mountains, no reef tourism industry in North Queensland and no water in Adelaide. How will aggressive re-armament help Australia convince China not to build those coal-fired power plants? It won’t, of course. Perhaps we can use them against the climate refugees. When a threat as clear and present as climate change is blithely dismissed as "not likely to be felt before 2030", it’s very hard to take the rest of the White Paper seriously. Australia’s defence planners have set out a thoughtful, well-reasoned and logical plan for the defence of Australia against threats that don’t exist, while completely ignoring the threats that do. In doing so, it reflects a larger failure of Australia’s political classes, which as a whole have comprehensively failed to understand the scale and nature of the looming climate change disaster.