To address similar challenges in securing stability and political support for long‑term defence capability planning, some countries have developed mechanisms to negotiate bipartisan defence agreements, notably Denmark, Sweden and the United States.
This chapter examines the possible risks and benefits of these international models.
International examples of bipartisanship
In Denmark and Sweden, multi-party defence agreements are negotiated between political parties to provide stability for defence funding and capability planning.
Denmark’s political system is characterised by a consensus-seeking approach to policy-making. In Denmark’s multi-party system, no single party has held an absolute majority since 1909 and government bills rarely become law without negotiations and compromise with coalition and opposition parties.
Since 1988, Danish defence policies and defence budgets have been established through multi-year political agreements. Box 4.1 outlines the key features of Danish Defence Agreements.
Box 4.1: Danish Defence Agreements
Danish Defence Agreements (Defence Agreements) are negotiated roughly every five years. Defence Agreements are negotiated among all political parties represented in the Danish Parliament, including governing coalition and opposition parties. Defence Agreements are not related to the election cycle and may be retained following elections and changes of government and ministers.
The Parliament may agree to negotiate new agreements when changes in the strategic environment arise. For example, the 2010-14 Agreement was renegotiated in 2012 due to the winding down of commitments to the Afghanistan conflict, need for savings and new security issues.
Defence Agreements are described as ‘extra-parliamentary’ as negotiations take place outside Parliament at the Ministry of Defence and draft agreements are prepared by the Ministry. The contents of the Defence Agreements are not debated in Parliament or actively discussed by parliamentarians in public.
There are a number of formal requirements to report to all signatories on the implementation of Defence Agreements, including: an annual status meeting to examine annual reports of the armed forces and home guard; quarterly briefings; and monthly confidential briefings by the Ministry of Defence.
The current Defence Agreement for 2013-17 was concluded on 30 November 2012 and signed by all parties in the Parliament except the Socialist People’s Party and Red-Green Alliance. The Defence Agreement 2013-17 outlines plans to reduce defence spending without affecting operational capability.
Where there is a major strategic or political change, the Danish Parliament can also form Defence Commissions to report on defence strategy in reports or white papers. There have been nine Defence Commissions since the first was established in 1866, most recently in 1988, 1997 and 2008. Box 4.2 outlines the functions of the Defence Commissions.
Box 4.2: Danish Defence Commissions
Danish Defence Commissions consist of parliamentary spokespersons for Foreign Affairs and Defence, government officials, officers and external experts such as academics and think tanks. Defence Commissions take around 18 months to report. The Defence Commission Reports provide the basis for the five-yearly Defence Agreements.
The most recent Defence Commission was in 2008 and was chaired by the former Defence Minister, Hans Hækkerup. The report, titled Danish Defence Global Engagement, outlines the expected role for the armed forces to 2025 based on a strategic assessment of the Danish security environment. The report makes a series of recommendations across the defence portfolio including force structure, capabilities and personnel.
Similar to Denmark, Sweden’s political system is characterised by a consensus-seeking approach to policy making. A unique characteristic of the Swedish system is the establishment of ‘commissions’ by government to prepare major policy decisions across a range of portfolios.
Commissions have been used to develop defence policy in Sweden over a long period and form the basis for defence bills. Box 4.3 outlines the key features of Swedish Defence Commissions.
Box 4.3: Swedish Defence Commissions
Swedish Defence Commissions are appointed every four to five years by the government to prepare a report on security and defence, usually after a general election. The composition and scope of the Defence Commission, including budget and timeframe, are proposed by the Ministry of Defence and approved by the government.
The Defence Commission consists of members of parliament from the government and opposition and is chaired by a member from the largest party in government. Government officials from relevant departments also participate and advice is sought from experts.
The Defence Commission generally prepares a ‘security policy’ report outlining security threats and challenges, and a ‘defence policy’ report on how to respond to those challenges. Both reports are then presented to government and are subject to a three month public consultation process. The Ministry of Defence then prepares a bill based on the recommendations which is considered by the Standing Committee on Defence and by the Parliament.
The most recent Defence Commission was established in 9 January 2017 to form the basis of the next defence bill in 2020, covering the period 2021-25. The Commission presented its defence policy report on 20 December 2017, making a number of proposals for Sweden’s ‘total defence’ concept. The Commission is expected to release its security policy by 14 May 2019. According to Ministry of Defence, the aim of the Defence Commission is to ‘achieve the broadest possible unity with respect to how Sweden's defence and security policy is to be designed’.
In the United States, the Congress provides an opportunity for bipartisan discussion on US defence policy, particularly funding and strategy. The role of the Congress and its committees in contributing to defence policy is outlined below.
The United States Constitution provides that the Congress is responsible for providing for the ‘common defense’. Since 1961, the US Congress has annually passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that authorises funding and provides authorities for the US military.
Box 4.4 outlines the processes through which the US Congress contributes to the development of the NDAA.
Box 4.4: US National Defense Authorization Act
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is developed each year by the Executive and submitted to Congress to consider. The NDAA authorises appropriations and sets forth policies for Department of Defense (DOD) programs and activities, including military personnel strengths. It does not provide budget authority, which is provided in subsequent appropriations legislation.
The NDAA is reviewed in detail by the Senate Committee on Armed Services and the House Committee on Armed Services. The House and Senate Committees make amendments to the NDAA and present their own respective bills. The two committees then meet in a ‘conference committee’ to reconcile the two different versions. The reconciled bill is then passed by both houses and considered by the President.
For the 2018 fiscal year, the House and Senate Committees introduced Bills proposing amendments to the NDAA in late 2017. At the conference committee in November 2017, the Committees authorised funding $26.1 billion above the President’s budget request, for a total of $700 billion. The final NDAA for 2018 was signed by President Trump on 12 December 2017.
30-year shipbuilding plan
Under the United States Code, the Department of Defence is required to submit a 30‑year shipbuilding plan as part of its budget submission for each fiscal year. These long-term shipbuilding plans have been the subject of Congressional oversight through the House and Senate Armed Services Committees over a long period.
The most recent shipbuilding plan for the fiscal year 2019, presented to Congress in February 2018, outlines the US Navy’s plans to meet its target of a 355 ship fleet.
The South Australian Government submitted that these 30-year shipbuilding plans could provide a useful model for Australia:
It is a strategic document that is regularly updated to reflect progress on naval programs, technology changes, industrial considerations and long-term funding priorities. Key investment decisions and training needs can be derived from the forecast fleet disposition over the next 30 years. It is endorsed by both parties. Whilst it may not be appropriate for other domains, it is considered to be an essential document for managing strategic industrial capabilities.
The NDAA for 2017 introduced a requirement for the Secretary of Defense to provide a National Defense Strategy and established an oversight body, the Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States (Commission). The Commission replaced the Quadrennial Defense Review, the four-yearly review of the Department of Defense.
In January 2018, the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, released the first National Defense Strategy. The Strategy aims to ‘restore America’s competitive military advantage’, particularly to deter Russia and China from challenging the US and its allies. The Strategy builds on the National Security Strategy released by President Trump in December 2017.
In July 2017, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees appointed 12 members to serve on the Commission. The Commission is ‘a panel of bipartisan national security experts appointed by Congress to make recommendations for the nation’s defense strategy at the outset of an administration’. The Commission reviews the current national defense strategy, including:
assumptions, missions, force posture, force structure, and risks associated with the strategy;
conduct a comprehensive assessment of the strategic environment, national security threats, the size, shape, and posture of the force, military readiness and capabilities, and the allocation of resources.
The Secretary of Defense is required to provide the Commission with analysis, briefings, and other information necessary for the fulfilment of its responsibilities. After completing its examination, the Commission will make recommendations to the President, Secretary of Defense, and relevant congressional committees. At the time of this inquiry, the Commission had yet to report.
Discussion of international models
Submitters made limited comment on the possible benefits that international models may offer Australia. Ms Kate Louis from the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) Defence Council told the Committee that international examples ‘could provide some broad models for consideration’.
Denmark and Sweden
In 2015, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael), published a report assessing the benefits and disadvantages of the Danish and Swedish multi-party models of defence agreements.
In relation to the Danish model, the report found that the key advantages are:
providing ‘stability, predictability and continuity’ for defence budget and capability and force structure planning; and
facilitating the ‘depoliticisation’ of defence and security issues through broad agreement of political elite on long-term defence and security policy.
The report also identified a number of disadvantages of the Danish model, including:
lack of transparency and scrutiny, as negotiations take place outside of Parliament between political parties;
lack of opportunity for input for those outside the political elite;
lack of focus on international defence cooperation.
Similarly, the report identified that the key advantages of the Swedish model are:
‘the way in which broad consensus is achieved, both in the political as well as in the public arena’ through debate on the defence bills produced in response to the Defence Commission reports;
informing and educating parliamentarians to create a ‘common level of knowledge’, as well as building high levels of trust between parliamentary parties; and
providing long-term stability and predictability for defence planning, and for defence cooperation with third countries
Like the Danish model, the report suggests there is a lack of transparency in the preparation of the security and defence policy reports and strong influence of the Ministry of Defence over the process. The report also questioned the ‘inclusiveness’ of the Defence Commission:
While the members retain their right to have and publish dissenting voices, it is still a question whether the opposition is not co-opted into a consensus on defence and is silenced in its oppositional role.
The report emphasises that both the Danish and Swedish models are ‘very much embedded’ in the consensus-seeking political culture of those countries and as such ‘might be difficult to replicate in another political context’. In relation to Denmark, the report notes:
The high levels of trust, the consensus-seeking reflex in a political system that is used to functioning with minority governments and the bargaining that comes along with that is very specific for Denmark. Also, the extent of the detail in the Danish Defence Agreements in terms of force structure, capabilities, personnel and budgetary stipulations will be difficult to attain in a more polarised political landscape in which political parties generally aim to enhance their political profile at the expense of common ground.
In its conclusion, the report suggests that both the Danish and Swedish models offer a range of possible benefits for other countries, including:
create a common understanding on defence across multiple national stakeholders encompassing the legislature, the executive, experts and interest groups;
turn parliamentarians into producers of ideas about defence, policy and strategy instead of consumers;
increase the awareness of parliamentarians about the relation between security challenges, the level of ambition and the budget which is allocated for this purpose;
contribute to the creation of a strategic narrative about the purpose and meaning of defence policies and the armed forces;
generate more public acceptance and support for defence and defence spending, subject to the condition that the process is sufficiently inclusive and transparent;
ring-fence multi-year budget allocations for defence, thereby ensuring stability and continuity in the defence organisation;
establish a more stable horizon on multi-year defence planning, also allowing the alignment of defence and procurement planning, their procedures and decision-making cycles with international partners in defence cooperation;
facilitate longer-term stability and predictability needed for successful international defence cooperation, both in the alignment of procurement planning, cooperation on maintenance, training, education, exercises, up to and including the operational phase;
raise the threshold for turning back on international defence cooperation.
Some submitters suggested the Danish and Swedish models would be of limited application in Australia. Professor Richard Tanter submitted that research on these models indicates ‘that the viability of establishing and sustaining such agreements greatly depends on the broader political culture of these countries’, namely, ‘a tradition and expectation of substantive and sustained cooperation and consultation between government and opposition in most areas of government policy’, which is not characteristic of policy-making in Australia.
Submitters highlighted the importance of Congressional committees in the development of defence policy in the United States. Mr Gerry Wheeler from Raytheon Australia told the Committee:
… the role that congressional committees play in defence is absolutely critical in how national policy is developed in the United States. Parliamentary committees in the US are incredibly powerful when it comes to defence.
However, the Committee heard concerns about adopting a US-style model of negotiating defence budgets annually. Mr Wheeler told the Committee that Australia’s four year budget projections provide more stability than the US:
… Australia is in a much better position than, say, the United States, where it happens on an annual basis … I think that creates a nightmare for planners in the United States. I think in Australia we've struck a reasonable balance.
Further, the Committee notes that the US Congress has fundamentally different constitutional powers in relation to the passage of financial legislation. In Australia, the constitutional and parliamentary principle of the ‘financial initiative of the Executive’ provides that only the Government may initiate financial legislation or move to increase appropriations or taxes. However, as the NDAA process highlights, the US Congress can initiate financial legislation and, as a result, has a much more active role in the formulation and approval of the Executive’s defence budget.
Submitters also noted, like the Danish and Swedish models, that the US model is deeply embedded in the unique political culture of the US. Former VCDF, Lieutenant General (ret’d) Mueller, told the Committee:
People will often offer as an alternative what happens with the United States Congress. I think we need to keep in mind that our national culture and therefore our political culture is quite different to the United States political culture.
The Committee notes that models of bipartisan defence agreements in Denmark and Sweden provide long-term stability for defence budgets and capability planning in those countries.
The Committee recognises that these models provide ‘stability, predictability and continuity’ for defence funding and planning and the ‘de-politicisation’ of defence and security issues through broad agreement by parliamentarians.
The Committee also notes that in the US, the Congress plays a significant role in the development of defence budgets, providing Members of Congress with opportunities for active engagement in long-term defence planning.
However, the Committee recognises that the Danish, Swedish and US models are all products of the specific political culture in those countries, where legislatures exercise their constitutional powers differently to Australia. The Committee acknowledges that in Australia’s system of responsible government, where the Executive is drawn from the legislature, a different approach is required.
The Committee acknowledges that the adoption of the consensus-driven, extra-parliamentary model of Danish Defence Agreements would represent a fundamental change to the operation of and prerogative of the Executive Government in Australia. Similarly, the Swedish model of Defence Commissions incorporates opposition parties into policy development processes that in Australia are the prerogative of the Executive.
The Committee also recognises that the US Constitution grants the Congress significant powers regarding the introduction of financial legislation that in Australia lie with the Executive.
While the Committee agrees that these models would not be appropriate to introduce in Australia without amendment, the Committee recognises that these models highlight the benefits of greater parliamentary engagement and bipartisan discussion and debate on defence policy.
The Committee considers that one of the key strengths of the Danish and Swedish models is in educating parliamentarians on defence issues and turning ‘parliamentarians into producers of ideas about defence policy and strategy instead of consumers’. Similarly, in the US, a key strength of the model is engaging members of Congress in the consideration and development of defence policy.
These models suggest that greater engagement by Australian parliamentarians in defence policy could have significant benefits for Australia.
The Committee notes that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) provides a useful model for improving parliamentary engagement in the Australian political context. Through classified briefings and access to classified information, members of the PJCIS are educated about complex national security issues, enabling members to reach well-informed, bipartisan agreements following a process of robust debate.
As noted in its Review of the Defence Annual Report 2015-16, the Committee considers that improving parliamentary engagement on defence, particularly in monitoring the significant reforms introduced following the First Principles Review and introduction of the Integrated Investment Program, is a key focus of the Defence Sub-Committee’s long-term plans for its relationship with Defence.
Mechanisms to better improve parliamentary engagement on defence, similar to the PJCIS, are examined in detail in Chapter 6.