• The panel discussing Parliamentary inquiry into bipartisan defence cooperation. (L-R) Dr Brendan Nelson, David Feeney, Sir Roger Carr, Linda Reynolds and Kim Beazley.
ADM Katherine Ziesing
    The panel discussing Parliamentary inquiry into bipartisan defence cooperation. (L-R) Dr Brendan Nelson, David Feeney, Sir Roger Carr, Linda Reynolds and Kim Beazley. ADM Katherine Ziesing

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade Defence sub-committee is looking into the possibility of having a more bipartisan approach to Defence issues.

The terms of reference are as follows:

  • The Defence Sub-Committee will inquire into the benefits and risks of a Bipartisan Australian Defence Agreement as the basis of planning for, and funding of, Australian Defence capability, having particular regard to:
  • The efficacy of Australia’s existing strategic planning processes and associated documents including – but not limited to – the Defence White Paper, Integrated Investment Plan, force structure reviews, Sovereign Defence Industry Plan and Naval Ship Building Plan – to deliver the best and most capable Defence force that Australia can afford.
  • The opportunity cost of short-term and shifting Defence priorities.
  • Precedents in Australia’s parliamentary and political system for both independent and bipartisan inputs to national security policy.
  • Efficacy of bipartisan and / or independent approaches to strategic Defence planning in other nations such as the USA and Denmark.
  • The principles of a process to achieve a Bipartisan Australian Defence Agreement that would be effective within Australia’s Westminster form of executive government.

In the wake of this inquiry, primarily driven by Liberal Senator David Fawcett, ASPI and BAE Systems gathered a panel of speakers in Canberra last night to look at the pros and cons of the approach.

Senator Fawcett, a former Army member, has been kicking the approach around Canberra for some time arguing that the level of Defence debate amongst his parliamentary colleagues needs to be better informed around capability and what the ADF can achieve given its funding levels. Australia’s ‘Washminster’ system (a Washington style upper house and a Westminster style lower house) can cope with such a ‘grand compact’ between the two major parties, despite the adversarial nature of the system.

The panel included former Defence ministers Brendan Nelson and Kim Beazley alongside Senator Linda Reynolds, David Feeney and BAE Systems UK chairman Sir Roger Carr. And there was much debate on the proposal. Of the panel, Dr Nelson was the only member to actively question the approach as ‘a noble ideal that was overly optimistic’ arguing that better Defence outcomes could be achieved through a wider more bipartisan approach to other issues and he was not ‘an advocate’ of the move.

Fellow former Defence minister Kim Beazley observed that should such an agreement become reality, there was a good chance it ‘would lead to a bipartisan process but not necessarily a bipartisan outcome’ as the structure would need ‘a moral and intellectual commitment from both sides’.

Sir Roger, who's company accounts for one per cent of UK's GDP and is the single largest Defence employer in the country, said the process has the potential to be successful as long as it is 'rigourous and contestable'.

Defence sub committee member Senator Reynolds said while she was optimistic about the concept she is a realist, noting that in 117 years of federation and Defence White Papers, not a single one had been delivered in full during that time, and that this cycle needs to be broken somehow.

Member for Batman and avid Defence follower David Feeney was also cautiously optimistic about the approach noting that committee processes would ‘need to change to support the approach and not take power from the executive’. The move could also see Defence and Industry given more certainty about their planning and finances regardless of the political conversations of the day.

The Q&A session of the panel also brought out some interesting concepts, the common theme of competition between the states and how they lobbied for Defence work. Examples of shipbuilding and Land 400 were raised with the panel all stating the same thing with variations; that is business as usual and unlikely to change any time soon. Senator Reynolds said the process was ‘not helpful’ while Dr Beazley said he was ‘personally responsible for the mess thanks to Collins’ explaining how he thought Collins would be built by the Germans in Newcastle rather than the Swedes in Adelaide.

The committee is due to report to government at the end of the first quarter in 2018. Submissions to the inquiry so far can be accessed here

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