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Battle lines are drawn on Australian defence spending

Picture: Royal Australian Navy/Facebook

For most people, going to the dentist is a grudge service. In marketing, that is a product or service you know you have to have – but not one you enjoy paying for, or necessarily using.

Home insurance and smoke alarms are other examples.

We know we need them, and feel better when we have fulfilled our responsibility to spend money on them, but otherwise they don’t feature high on our day-to-day issues agenda.

People think about Defence spending in a similar way.

The Defence White Paper, released by the government this week, outlines how our defence forces will be resourced to meet the anticipated challenges in our region.

Australians, in our research at Crosby|Textor, usually remember when the Federal Government has announced “more money” for defence, but have typically not recalled where that funding has been committed, except for occasional tangible examples such as anti-terrorism units being deployed in Iraq, or patrol boats on the border.

In other words, people are comfortable about more spending on the defence budget, but they don’t know where the spending is concentrated.

By any measure, Defence will be well funded into the future under the White Paper, with government committing to a $29.9 billion increase in spending over the next decade, to deliver a “more capable, agile and potent” ADF.

There will be many available to debate whether a funding increase to 2% of GDP by 2020-21 is appropriate at a time when the Government has otherwise made clear its budgetary ambition to cut spending.

Others will argue such a commitment is vital in a period of rapidly shifting global allegiances, marked particularly by the rise of China.

Few from either side, however, will take a breath to consider what average Australians think about defence policy, and where it fits in their priorities. Defence and national security have traditionally been assumed to be important issues that any federal government must be seen to be “strong on”.

HMAS Canberra, one of two new $1.5 billion landing helicopter dock ships for the RAN. Photo: Getty Images

But that does not make Defence a vote-winner. Witness Tony Abbott’s decline in public approval, even as he was considered tough on security.

Being reminded too often about the need for rigorous Defence and security programs may have the reverse effect, making us feel fretful and insecure.

What we do want to know is that the tools will work when they are needed. In this respect, a well-presented and efficient Defence policy may be one way the public measures a government’s competence.

Where Tony Abbott erred was in assuming that continually reminding the public about his commitment to security and defence issues would strike a chord with the public.

Competence is about doing, not talking, and Australians grew tired of hearing about this area of policy, particularly at the expense (no pun intended) of economic policy and their concerns particularly about the rising cost of living.

Another area where nuance is critical – but has too often been missing in political comment – is Australia’s alliance with the United States.

Having a strong relationship with the world’s remaining superpower is not a bad thing in the public mind. As one participant commented recently to a researchers: “We need to have an alliance against these renegade counties; there’s too much bad stuff going on in the country to let it go.”

The Australian-made ‘Bushmaster’ armoured personnel carrier. Photo: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images.

But what has been a concern to Australians is that the US alliance has too often been allowed to be the only tangible evidence of the federal government’s commitment to defence and national security. Even worse is when Australian bureaucrats, officials and commentators become captive to what I have, over 30 years in Australian politics, come to recognise as “US military-industrial gobbledy-gook”.

While they are keen to have a mutually productive relationship with our strongest ally, Australians, born with dry skepticism in their DNA, have an acute ear for when their representatives start gushing like kids who have just come back from a visit to Big School.

Parroting strategy and recommendations from the Washington establishment doesn’t impress them. Witness their disquiet when, towards the end of his otherwise impressive tenure as Prime Minister, John Howard seemed in their eyes to become too comfortable being patted on the head by George W. Bush.

Indeed, what continues to concern soft voters is that not enough is being done to bolster our ability to take care of our own, particularly close to home. A strikingly common sentiment goes on these lines: “We send all our boys off to look after another country and we can’t look after our own.”

The Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty Images.

More than dollars, Australians want to know Defence is well-resourced in practical terms: more ships, more weapons, more local capacity. This includes human resources; they are largely supportive of increasing the number of people overall in our armed forces – and, critically, they want to know that those who choose to serve their country in uniform will be well taken care of throughout their careers and in their retirements.

In straitened economic times, voters have developed an acute desire for evidence that they are getting value for money in any policy commitment. In Defence particularly, one powerful way of demonstrating this to Australians – and one which has been poorly appreciated by those enamoured with US gobbledy-gook – is through building local capacity, and showing confidence in Australian innovations and independent thinking.

Mark Textor is co-founder of campaign strategy firm Crosby|Textor, which advises the Coalition government. He also chairs the Amy Gillett foundation. You can follow him on Twitter.

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