Under Australia’s Constitution, providing for the nation’s defence is one of the key responsibilities of the Commonwealth Parliament. Ensuring that Australia has the best and most capable defence force possible is a goal to which all political leaders, regardless of party affiliation, should aspire.
In 2018, Australia faces an uncertain strategic future. The rapidly changing power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region will continue to challenge Australia’s approach to national security and defence policy, testing old alliances and presenting new opportunities.
This inquiry examines how the Parliament can better collaborate with the Executive and Defence to support Australia’s response to these significant challenges. It examines how ‘bipartisanship’ – agreement reached through the testing and contesting of ideas – can improve long-term stability and security for the development, funding and implementation of Australia’s vitally important defence capabilities.
Overview of inquiry
During its review of the Defence Annual Report 2015-16, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (Committee) examined a range of long-term reforms to Defence processes arising from the implementation of the First Principles Review of Defence.
The Defence Annual Report 2015-16 (Annual Report) highlighted a significant milestone in defence capability planning with the release of the 2016 Defence White Paper (White Paper) in February 2016. The Annual Report noted that for the first time, the White Paper ‘aligns strategy, capability and resources in order to make the Australian Defence Force (ADF) more capable, agile and potent’.
The Annual Report notes that the objectives of the White Paper will be achieved through the implementation of a 10-year Integrated Investment Program (IIP) and Defence Industry Policy Statement (DIP Statement).
The Committee notes that through the White Paper, IIP and DIP Statement, the Australian Government has committed to a long-term program of investment in defence capability, extending beyond electoral cycles over the next decade.
The Committee strongly supports a long-term approach to planning and developing Australia’s defence capabilities. As discussed in its review of the Annual Report, the Committee has confidence that investment decisions made by the Department and Government since 2015-16 will endure to form the core of ADF capability in the future.
However, the Committee is concerned about the risks of political and budget instability on these long-term objectives. The Committee notes that since 2007, Australia has seen five Prime Ministers, seven Defence Minsters and two Defence White Papers in 2013 and 2016.
This inquiry examined how improving parliamentary engagement on defence policy could strengthen and support the long-term planning, development and implementation of Australia’s defence capabilities to meet future threats and challenges.
The Committee notes that this inquiry focussed on opportunities for a constructive, formal contest of ideas leading to a bipartisan agreement on defence capability planning, rather than operational decisions about the deployment of the ADF and decisions to go to war. The Committee notes that the role of the parliament in making decisions about going to war has been the subject of inquiries and debates over recent decades. The Committee affirms that decisions about ADF deployments and war powers should remain the prerogative of the Executive Government.
This inquiry was commenced to consider whether Australia’s defence capability planning could be strengthened and supported through a formal, bipartisan agreement, similar to arrangements in Denmark, Sweden and the United States. These models are examined in detail in chapter 4.
The Committee found that these international models of bipartisanship highlighted that improving parliamentary engagement could have significant benefits for long-term defence capability planning. However, the Committee agreed that these international models would not be compatible with Australia’s parliamentary model without adaptation.
This report proposes a new model for improving long-term parliamentary engagement through the establishment of a statutory committee with a specific focus on defence and defence capability planning. The proposed committee would have powers to access classified defence information, and would subsume the defence-related responsibilities of this Committee, and where appropriate, the defence-related responsibilities of other committees.
As discussed in detail in chapter 6, the Committee recognises that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) provides an important precedent for this recommendation. The PJCIS was established in 2001 to oversee Australia’s intelligence agencies. The PJCIS provides a secure forum for parliamentarians to debate and discuss classified national security issues, and develop well-informed, bipartisan advice to the Executive on national security legislation and policy.
Conduct of the inquiry
Pursuant to paragraph two of its resolution of appointment, the Committee is empowered to consider and report on the annual reports of government agencies, in accordance with a schedule presented by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The Speaker’s schedule lists annual reports from agencies within Defence and Foreign Affairs portfolios as being available for review by the Committee.
On 14 June 2017, the Committee resolved to undertake a further inquiry into the Defence Annual Report 2015-16, specifically the section titled ‘Delivering Now, Building for the Future’ with focus on the benefits and risks of a Bipartisan Defence Agreement.
The Committee referred the inquiry to the Defence Sub-Committee to undertake with the following terms of reference:
The Defence Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade 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.
Any other related matters.
The Inquiry may also make observations and recommendations on whether a Bipartisan Defence Agreement should include the role and responsibilities of other agencies that contribute to Australia’s foreign policy, intelligence and security, and Defence architecture.
The Defence Sub-Committee launched the inquiry on 16 June 2017.
The Committee wrote to over 130 organisations and individuals inviting written submissions. The Committee received and published 16 submissions. Submissions are available on the Committee’s website. The full list of submissions and other evidence is at Appendix A.
The Committee held a public hearing in Canberra on 23 February 2018. The transcript of the hearing is available on the Committee’s website. The full list of witnesses is at Appendix B.
The Committee thanks those submitters and witnesses who have provided evidence to the inquiry.
The Committee is particularly grateful for assistance from the Australian Embassy in Washington and Danish Embassy in Canberra for advice on defence planning processes in those countries.
The Committee also appreciates those contributions to the wider public debate on the merits of a bipartisan agreement. On 22 November 2017, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) hosted a seminar on the proposal for a Bipartisan Defence Agreement with presentations by former Ministers for Defence the Hon Kim Beazley and the Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, as well as Chair of the Committee, Senator David Fawcett, Chair of the Defence Sub-Committee, Senator Linda Reynolds CSC and former Deputy-Chair of the Defence Sub-Committee, the Hon David Feeney. The Committee is grateful to the panel, ASPI and major sponsor BAE Systems Australia for organising this valuable and thought-provoking event.
Outline of report
Chapter 2 considers definitions of ‘bipartisanship’ and examines the history of parliamentary engagement on defence policy in Australia.
Chapter 3 outlines current defence capability planning processes in Australia and examines the key risks to long-term planning.
Chapter 4 examines international models of bipartisan defence agreements and mechanisms, particularly in Denmark, Sweden and the United States.
Chapter 5 assesses the risks and benefits of introducing a Bipartisan Australian Defence Agreement similar to these overseas models.
Chapter 6 proposes a new model of parliamentary engagement on defence policy through the establishment of a new statutory committee, similar to the PJCIS.