- CTF Comms
Sydney Morning Herald,
At a time of growing global economic and political uncertainly, voters are looking for strength, certainty and competence. Far from seeing themselves as dependent on middleclass welfare or the like, they are adapting to the challenging with an increasing desire for self-reliance, independence and economic security.
It is against this setting that they are deeply uncomfortable with any government, budget or economic policy that is effectively reliant on one industry or income stream. Australians do not like dependency, at best they like partnership. They get no comfort from being economically stronger than other nations but, rather, desire that the nation independently build and maintain their core strengths, making their own luck. Economic comparisons with the rest of the world are no salve to voters' economic concerns.
In any partnership - voter with government, employee with employer, husband and wife - there may be an acknowledgement that one partner may economically or otherwise contribute more than the other. Unhealthy relationships develop when one partner takes that dominance for granted, abuses the privilege, or when the other partner senses an over-dependency, whether that is intended or not.
The more obvious manifestation of this dependency hesitation was the reaction to the federal budget where many thought it too dependent on the mining boom - in this case to fund the surplus. Rather than being seen as a reallocation of the benefits of the mining industry boom, the budget was, to many, overly reliant on an assumption that this boom would continue. Yet most are well aware of the vulnerability of this sector, and, by extension, of the budget as a whole. This did not go unnoticed by some in the commentatriat.
But there was a sleeper issue in the Budget that was as fundamental to many: the cuts to defence. While these cuts have not been spoken of much, particularly amid the growing circus surrounding the events in the national Parliament, there is a now a continuing questioning of our lack of investment in defence.
While many did question former prime minister John Howard's commitments on Iraq specifically, voters did take pride and comfort in the re-establishment of an operationally coherent defence force that beyond Iraq was perceived to be significant. Against disastrous interdictions by the US in other fields, Australia's successful leadership in East Timor was seen to be a unique success. The competence of that operation gave national confidence and therefore comfort and a sense of security. We had partners in Timor but were not seen to be dependent on them.
Many in the non-Keating era defence field say the real cuts to defence are bigger than the $5.5 billion reportedly in the budget. They say that in real impact terms the cuts are closer to $8.5 billion. This would take our defence expenditure down to the levels found during the appeasement. The suspicion is that deep cuts to defence, while "low hanging fruit" to politicians are short-termism writ large. The fear is that we may not be able to quickly re-equip the forces when it is needed, or at least not to the level of East Timor competence.
There is also concern that lazy politicians will rely on the newly announced and speculated increase in US forces in Australia to abdicate our own responsibility. People want politicians to get the basics right, to as much as possible take care of the first job of Government "the defence of the realm" (as well as life and property when it comes to bikie wars). This juvenile abdication of responsibilities is deeply troubling. The implicit suggestion that we can lean on someone else and not play our part in regional security is offensive.
Other vectors, such as a record number of boat arrivals, an increasing sense that precious oil, gas and other land assets need protecting from an energy and food hungry word, as well as a broader sense that the rest of the world wants what we have in Australia, make this a growing concern.
Far from Defence being seen as a "defensive" spend, it is seen as a useful investment, and an active insurance of our independence - the very independence and self-reliance we've been told we must nurture as a nation.
Many Australians see trouble in political and economic weakness.They think Defence strength is one antidote to it. Like Reagan said: peace through strength.
As for dollar choices. I'm with one US conservative who observed: ''What should never be in disagreement is the federal government's constitutional obligation to secure the defence of the country, even when it requires significant sacrifice.''