The central question this inquiry sought to address is how bipartisanship can better support the development and implementation of long‑term defence capability plans.
This chapter considers definitions of bipartisanship and examines the practice of bipartisanship and parliamentary engagement in defence policy since Federation. It highlights that bipartisanship is not clearly defined and has many different meanings that have changed over time.
This chapter highlights concerns raised by submitters about a form of bipartisanship which may act as a process to restrict debate and discussion. Submitters argued this form of bipartisanship presents significant risks for Australia’s long-term defence policy.
This chapter sets out the Committee’s definition of bipartisanship as an outcome of robust parliamentary discussion and debate. The Committee asserts that this form of bipartisanship would enhance and enrich the development and implementation of Australia’s defence capability plans.
Bipartisanship and defence
In Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy a key function of the Parliament is to scrutinise and exercise oversight of the executive branch of government. Since Federation, this system has facilitated an adversarial relationship between government and opposition parties, characteristic of other Westminster models inherited from the United Kingdom (UK).
‘Bipartisanship’ is understood in Australia to refer broadly to agreement or congruence between government and opposition parties on particular issues, rather than the adversarial, partisan nature of usual political debate.
The Committee notes that in recent decades, Government and Opposition parties have often sought to elevate certain policy areas, such as foreign affairs, defence and immigration, ‘above politics’ and have committed to approaching these issues in a bipartisanship manner.
For example, both the Government and Opposition have recently expressed continuing support for bipartisanship on defence policy. In response to the Minister for Defence Industry’s 2017 statement on defence industry, the Shadow Minister for Defence, the Hon Richard Marles MP, told the House:
Labor's attitude, when it comes to national security and when it comes to defence, begins with a spirit of bipartisanship.
However, the Committee notes that despite the prevalence of the term ‘bipartisanship’ in contemporary political debates, there has been limited detailed discussion of what it actually means or how it is consistently defined and commonly understood.
A 1988 paper by Trevor Matthews and John Ravenhill from the University of Sydney highlighted the ambiguity of the term bipartisanship which was then emerging in the context of Australian foreign policy. Matthews and Ravenhill highlighted that the term ‘is capable of carrying a range of distinct (and not always compatible) meanings’ and its ‘usage is confused and inconsistent’.
The Committee found that this ambiguity over the definition of bipartisanship continues today, where the concept is not only ‘used impressionistically; it is used as if the meaning were self evident’.
The uses of ‘bipartisanship’ in debates on Australian defence policy since 1901 and the changing role of parliamentary engagement are outlined below.
History of bipartisanship and defence
Section 51 (vi) of the Australian Constitution gives the Parliament power to make laws for the ‘naval and military defence of the Commonwealth and the several states, and the control of the forces to execute and maintain the laws of the Commonwealth’.
Consistent with the political system inherited from the UK, and confirmed in the early debates of the new Australian Parliament, the development of defence policy in Australia has been the prerogative of the Executive Government. However, since Federation the Australian Parliament has made an important contribution to shaping Australia’s approach to defence.
Since the introduction of the first Defence Bill in 1901 seeking to establish a new national Australian defence force, the Parliament has progressively ceded increasing power to the Executive to administer Australia’s defence. Historian Professor Joan Beaumont has observed that since Federation, parliamentarians have shaped Australian defence history through ‘setting of politico-strategic priorities, and their allocation of budgetary resources’.
From 1901 Australia’s defence policy had predominately aligned with British strategic defence priorities. Following the Second World War, Australia adopted a policy of ‘forward defence’ to counter threats to Australian security in the region, particularly the spread of communism. Following the Vietnam War, subsequent Australian Governments shifted towards a policy of ‘self-reliance’ and developing and maintaining strategic alliances.
Federation and early defence policy
The earliest pieces of defence legislation developed by governments in 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1909 were extensively debated in the newly formed Commonwealth Parliament. Professor Jeffrey Grey suggests that defence was ‘not a prominent issue’ in the early days of the first parliament and:
… in so far as the country’s early legislators took an interest in the subject, they were motivated by a desire to reduce spending on defence, not increase it.
Australia’s first Defence Bill, introduced in June 1901 by the then Minister for Defence, Sir John Forrest, proved to be highly contested and exhaustively debated over three years before it was ultimately withdrawn. During debates, members clashed over the role of the Executive, the Crown and the Parliament in administering defence policy. One of the many concerns about Forrest’s Bill was the power granted to the Executive on Defence expenditure and lack of Parliamentary oversight. Mr Hume Cook, a Protectionist from Victoria suggested:
… Parliament ought to have greater control over the expenditure than it appears likely to have under this Bill … The Defence department is the one department over which we have least control – in which money may be most easily expended, and in which the best, or rather the most plausible, excuses can be put forward for the expenditure.
Following the withdrawal of the 1901 Bill, a second Defence Bill was introduced in 1903 which became Australia’s first Defence Act 1903. During the 1901 and 1903 debates, members further discussed the constitutional role of the Parliament and the Executive in administering Australia’s defence, particularly during a time of war. In response to concerns raised by future High Court Justice, Mr H.G. Higgins, about the powers granted to the Executive in declaring a ‘time of war’, Sir Thomas Ewing emphasised that any decision by the Executive is ultimately accountable to the Australian people through the Parliament:
We may, I think, assume first that we will have an Executive which can be punished, and that the members of the Executive have a sense of responsibility, and a fear of Parliament. It is right that the Executive should fear to do what Parliament does not desire, or what would be adverse to public opinion, knowing that if it does these things it will be punished for them.
With the Defence Act 1903, the Executive, through the Minister for Defence, was given control and administration of Australia’s armed forces, with Parliament maintaining an oversight role. In response to Mr Higgins, future Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Cook, highlighted that the Parliament would maintain some measure of control over the Defence force through the appropriation of funds through Estimates:
We do not surrender our control of the forces; we may manipulate them as we like in dealing with the Estimates; we may make the permanent force as small as we desire, and may reduce it to one man by the simple exercise of our power when the Estimates are before us.
The role of Parliament in defence policy continued to be discussed in subsequent debates on defence legislation. In debates on the Defence Act 1909, which introduced compulsory military training, the then Minister for Defence, the Hon Sir Thomas Ewing, again reminded the House that defence policy was ‘the responsibility of the Parliament of Australia’:
I take it for granted that in dealing with an important measure of this kind every honourable member will forget that he has any responsibility of party; that we shall all endeavour to rid ourselves of any personal antagonism or party responsibility, and approach the question from a national stand-point, with the determination to arrive jointly at the best possible conclusions. This is a matter not only for the Government, but for the whole House.
Bipartisanship during the World Wars
Following Australia’s commitment to World War I, the Parliament supported the introduction of expanded powers for the Executive through the War Precautions Act 1914 and War Precautions Act 1915. In debates on the 1915 Act, the then Opposition Leader, Sir Joseph Cook, emphasised that the granting of such ‘extraordinary’ powers ‘has necessarily to be performed by the Parliament, which is charged with a supreme and overmastering duty’.
Cook cautioned the Government, led by then Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, of the great responsibility these powers imposed on the Executive in administering Australia’s defence:
I only want to say that the Government, knowing their own intentions concerning the measures, must take full responsibility for them. Everything will depend upon the administration of the Acts, and for that administration the Government, and only the Government, can take full responsibility. We simply say to them, "Take your Bill; use it wisely, as no doubt you will; use it, anyhow, in the interests of the country, and for the purpose of securing the safety and the welfare of its people."
In July 1915, in a ‘show of bipartisanship’, the Government established the Federal Parliamentary War Committee made up of eight Members and four Senators, half nominated by the Government and half by the Opposition which focussed on issues referred to it by the Government. Professor Joan Beaumont notes that the primary role of the Committee and the network of War Councils it established in each state and territory was to coordinate recruitment and repatriation efforts.
In establishing the Committee, Prime Minister Fisher stressed that it would act only as an advisory body and must not interfere with the powers of the Executive:
It is not intended that the Committee shall be a Committee of the House. It is to be a Committee consisting of an equal number of representatives from each political party, and, therefore, non-partisan, to deal with questions referred to it by the Executive. If it were appointed by Parliament we should have two Executives ... The Committee, to be of any use, must be an advisory body … It will be announced to Parliament that the Committee has been formed, and the Committee will act without direction from Parliament, as the circumstances require. If the Committee were appointed by Parliament there would be two Executives, and the last stage would be worse than the first.
Following the announcement of Australia’s commitment to fight with Britain in World War II, then Prime Minister Robert Menzies highlighted the importance of continuing parliamentary debate and constructive scrutiny of the Executive:
However long this conflict may last, I do not seek a muzzled Opposition. Our institutions of parliament, and of liberal thought, free speech, and free criticism, must go on. It would be a tragedy if we found that we had fought for freedom and fair play and the value of the individual human soul, and won the war only to lose the things we were fighting for. Consequently I shall welcome criticism, but I do want to emphasize that our great task, however long this struggle may endure, is in common. If we remember that, all criticism will find its right place and its true perspective.
During World War II, the Government established a bipartisan Advisory War Council which became highly influential in wartime decision-making. Following the September 1940 election, Prime Minister Menzies invited Opposition Leader John Curtin to join a national government. Curtin declined but suggested establishing a War Council made up of Government and Opposition members. The Advisory War Council was established on 28 October and held its first meeting on 29 October 1940, chaired by the Prime Minister and consisted of members of the War Cabinet, together with the Opposition Leader and three other members of the opposition.
At the opening of the 16th Parliament on 20 November 1940, the Governor-General told the Parliament the Advisory War Council had been established ‘with the function of advising the Government in relation to Australia's war effort and the problems which relate thereto’:
Already several meetings of this council have taken place with useful results. My advisers earnestly hope that the experience gained through those deliberations will enable members on both sides of Parliament to concentrate upon the urgent problems of war, and to make that joint contribution to the solution of those problems without which the fullest national effort cannot be achieved.
When Curtin became Prime Minister in October 1941, he told the House that the Advisory War Council would be ‘constantly engaged in ensuring for the administration that co-operation of political parties which will demonstrate to the enemy the essential unity of the nation’. Under Curtin, it was agreed that the Advisory War Council’s decisions would be automatically accepted as War Cabinet decisions, with certain matters being referred to the War Cabinet. However, as official war historian, Sir Paul Hasluck, has noted, the role of the Advisory War Council was still largely controlled by the Executive:
It would be wrong … to assume that the Council henceforward was a substitute for the War Cabinet. A definite field of activity was laid down for the Council with the object of avoiding duplication between its work and that of the War Cabinet … The Prime Minister decided what matters should or should not go to the Council and there were still matters which were dealt by the War Cabinet alone.
Bipartisanship in the post-war years
In the post-war years, defence policy was shaped by regional conflicts in Malaysia, Indonesia and Indochina. The Executive increasingly concentrated advice and decision-making processes on defence outside the Parliament, leading to decidedly more partisan debates. During this period the Executive sought advice on defence policy from directly appointed bodies consisting of relevant Ministers, civilian officials and service chiefs, such as the Council of Defence (established in 1905 and chaired by the Minister for Defence) and the Defence Committee (established in 1929 to provide advice to the Minister for Defence).
In 1963, in the lead up to the Indonesian Confrontation and Vietnam War, Prime Minister Menzies established the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, consisting of seven senior ministers, which was to become the main Executive decision-making body on defence policy. This Committee concentrated decision-making in the hands of senior ministers and excluded the Parliament from discussions on conflicts in Southeast Asia. Official war historian, Professor Peter Edwards, has observed that this committee:
…was the peacetime equivalent of a War Cabinet, discussing strategic policies and taking decisions that excluded not only Parliament and the general public but also the outer ministry and even a large portion of the Cabinet … its formation had the effect of limiting even more closely any significant discussion of the aims and means of Australian national security policy.
Writing in 1969, historian T.B. Millar highlighted the need for parliamentarians to more openly challenge, debate and discuss the future of Australia’s defence policy:
The temptation of the government is to be the prisoner of inertia, of its own past decisions, good or bad; the temptation of the Opposition is to make defence policy the servant of mending party fences and achieving public office. The country needs so much more.
Australia’s involvement in the highly controversial conflict in Vietnam from 1965 spurred vigorous debates over Australia’s strategic outlook and defence policy, particularly conscription, both in Parliament and in the broader Australian community. Following these debates, Peter Edwards has noted that:
… by the mid-1970s the combination of events within Australia and around the world created a broad consensus that Australia needed not just a new defence policy but a virtual revolution in the way that strategic and defence policies were considered, decided and implemented.
It was this consensus that led to the development of the first Defence White Paper in 1976, largely driven by the then Secretary of Defence, Sir Arthur Tange, which built on work by the Whitlam Government and was completed by the Fraser Government. The then Minister for Defence, the Hon James Killen MP, told the House the White Paper aimed to develop a bipartisan approach on defence policy:
The White Paper endeavours to lay the basis for mature debate upon the new role which this country has in the world. It acknowledges the changed circumstances. It lays stress upon the need for this country to be self-reliant. It seeks to encourage the development of a genuine bipartisan approach to defence matters. There are and there must be areas of political endeavour which should be free of party conflict. The security of the nation is surely one of them. No political party represented in this Parliament has a monopoly of patriotism. That fact should spur us all to contribute whatever we can to gaining a highly desirable national goal.
The then Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Bill Hayden MP, welcomed the tabling of the White Paper and the appeal for a bipartisan approach:
I appreciate the calmer and more reasonable tones in which this paper has been presented to the Parliament – calmer and more reasonable than generally we have been used to in defence debates in this country and especially in this Parliament. The Minister for Defence suggests that his paper may provide the basis for the development of a genuine bipartisan approach to defence matters, and it may just do that.
Since 1976, Australia’s major political parties have largely agreed on the basic tenets of defence policy. Analysis by the Parliamentary Library indicates that white papers by the Hawke Government in 1987 and the Howard Government in 2000 also received largely bipartisan support.
A definition of bipartisanship
The Committee heard that since the 1980s, successive Australian Governments have sought a bipartisan approach to defence and national security policies. Dr Andrew Carr from the Australian National University’s (ANU) Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, who has written extensively on bipartisanship and national security policy, has observed that bipartisanship, ‘or at least the appearance of it, is a fundamental part of how Australia’s national security apparatus operates’.
The Committee heard that a key challenge for defence policy is to balance the need for cooperation through bipartisanship with the need for scrutiny through debate. Former Vice Chief of the Defence Force (VCDF), Lieutenant General (ret’d) Des Mueller AO told the Committee:
Defence policy can be viewed in one of two ways. Either it is too important to be the victim of partisan politics, or it is too important to be a bipartisan issue and should therefore always remain a contest of ideas.
Bipartisanship as an outcome
Dr Carr suggests that contemporary bipartisanship takes at least two different forms. The first is of bipartisanship as an outcome of political debate ‘based on agreement as to the existence and nature of policy challenges, and the correct policy prescriptions to address them’. Dr Carr argues that bipartisanship as an outcome of debate should be welcomed.
Bipartisanship in this context refers to agreement on a set of principles outlining a particular policy challenge, allowing the individual decisions made by governments to remain open to contestability and debate.
In discussing the emergence of bipartisanship in foreign policy in 1986, Professor Henry Albinski suggested that bipartisanship ‘denotes convergence on basics rather than on details’ and ‘implies a sharing of basic outlooks about a nation’s objectives in relation to the external environment, and about the appropriate content and conduct of policy’.
Former Australian Parliamentary Fellow, Dr Kate Burton, has suggested that bipartisanship in foreign and national security policy broadly covers agreement on:
the Executive’s prerogative in foreign affairs and national security; and
‘general principles’ that ‘foreign policy should advance the national interest and that the national interest must be built upon national values’.
This definition was articulated by former Senator Robert Ray in debates on the 2003 decision to commit Australian troops to Iraq:
Bipartisanship is often misunderstood. It is not about agreeing on all matters to do with foreign affairs and defence. It is more about agreeing on general principles and ceding to executive government the right to make tough decisions without being subject to opportunist attack.
Bipartisanship and parliamentary committees
This form of bipartisanship as an outcome is most frequently demonstrated in the Parliament through its committee system.
Committees have been a feature of the Australian Parliament since 1901 and perform much of the detailed scrutiny and accountability work of the Parliament through conducting inquiries. Committee inquiries are often characterised by a bipartisan approach. Committee inquiries allow Members and Senators from all sides of politics to engage in well-informed debate and discussion on policy, legislation and financial measures and to develop agreed bipartisan proposals for the Executive to consider.
Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice notes that the ‘multi-partisan composition and approach’ of parliamentary committees:
… provides opportunity for proponents of divergent views to find common ground. The orderly gathering of evidence by committees and the provision of a forum for all views can often result in the dissipation of political heat, consideration of issues on their merits and the development of recommendations that are acceptable to all sides.
House of Representatives Practice notes that the oversight and scrutiny of the Executive by parliamentary committees:
… contribute towards better government. They also assist in ensuring a more informed administration and policy-making process, in working with the Executive on proposed legislation and other government initiatives.
The Committee agrees that parliamentary committees perform a vital role in the effective functioning of responsible government in Australia. It is through committees that the Parliament performs its accountability role, and the forum where bipartisan agreement can be negotiated following a process of well-informed, robust debate and discussion.
Bipartisanship as a process
However, Dr Carr argues that a second form of bipartisanship currently dominates political debate on defence policy in Australia. This form of bipartisanship operates as a process for:
… addressing and resolving political issues, via a norm established as a standard of appropriate behaviour against partisan debate which punishes those who are seen to transgress it.
Dr Carr argues that bipartisanship, as a ‘rigid process which inhibits the normal working of Australia’s parliamentary democracy’ has become ‘a straitjacket to the conduct of national policy’ and ‘must be overturned’.
A key example of this form of bipartisanship cited by Dr Carr was the 2016 announcement by the then Shadow Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Stephen Conroy, following the release of the Defence White Paper which stressed the opposition’s commitment to bipartisanship, rather than discussing and debating the content of the paper.
Dr Carr argues that this form of bipartisanship ‘restricts policy creativity and accountability, reduces public engagement with critical issues and saps national unity’. Rather than a ‘default approach of bipartisanship’, Dr Carr urged Australia’s political leaders to have an ‘urgent’ debate on how to address our global and regional strategic challenges:
… given the growing instability of Australia’s strategic environment, it is urgent that our political class fulfil their responsibility to openly debate what principles this country stands for, how we will act and what costs we will pay to protect other states and ourselves.
Similarly, in her 2005 analysis, Dr Burton argued that the preference for bipartisanship ‘produces caution rather than thorough probing and critique’ and drives self-censorship by members of Parliament. Dr Burton argued that this impedes the ability of parliamentary committees to properly scrutinise and debate foreign and national security issues:
… this self-censorship can be driven by an overly reverential attitude towards national security and intelligence. It can also be driven by political calculations, especially by opposition parties, such as the need to be seen as responsible on national security and the desire by government and opposition committee members to maintain bipartisan responsibility in this area.
Dr Burton argued that due to a desire to be ‘bipartisan’, in committee inquiries into foreign affairs and national security:
Consensus, rather than dissent and rigorous questioning, is the normal modus operandi. As a result, difficult questions about the rights and wrongs of certain foreign policy decisions are not always asked, or are not asked of people in a position to know.
Submitters suggested that bipartisanship has contributed to a lack of political debate and low level of public understanding and engagement of defence issues. Dr Carr told the Committee:
Australia’s currently high levels of defence bipartisanship are in turn leading to lower public unity and undermining careful management of our defence forces. With defence issues rarely debated in the parliament, the scope for the media to cover these topics in depth and the public to learn and engage is reduced.
A number of submitters expressed concern about the low level of public understanding and engagement on defence policy in Australia. Former Vice Chief of the Defence Force (VCDF), Lieutenant-General Mueller told the Committee that there is a lack of public engagement on defence policy:
… the electorate at large has no interest whatsoever in defence policy. If you go into the pubs, clubs and coffee houses of Australia, you will not find people caracoling in vertiginous circles in debate about defence policy.
The Committee heard concerns that the limited political debate on defence focuses on economic activity (costs and delivery of acquisitions), rather than geo-political strategy and the merits of individual capabilities. Mr Gerry Wheeler from Raytheon Australia told the Committee that in relation to current defence projects:
I think the current discussion about the future submarine, the future frigate and Land 400 are examples where members of parliament should be openly having a public discussion about capability, cost, risk and schedule. Instead, the only discussion is about economic activity. That may be very important, and it is, but that is crowding out the public discussion about what sort of defence capability the ADF is going to get. I think that is a very bad thing.
The Committee notes that most recent debates on defence policy have focussed on funding and capability acquisitions, such as the long-running debates on the Collins class submarines. Analysis by the Parliamentary Library highlights that the 1994, 2009 and 2013 Defence White Papers were not supported by the Opposition for largely economic reasons, including lack of detail on how capabilities would be funded and timeframes for delivery.
The Committee recognises that ‘bipartisanship’ is a term lacking a clear and consistent definition and may be used to describe different forms of collaboration between government and opposition parties.
The Committee notes that over Australia’s history, the Executive has sought input and advice from the Parliament on the development and implementation of defence policy. This bipartisanship has provided valuable support for Australia’s defence, particularly in times of war and conflict.
The Committee recognises that since the 1980s, government and oppositions have sought a bipartisan approach to defence and national security policy with no clear and agreed understanding of what ‘bipartisanship’ means. The Committee agrees that national security and defence are the highest priorities for any national government and strongly supports government and opposition parties working together to advance Australia’s national interests.
However, the Committee recognises that ‘bipartisanship’ can operate in different ways. The Committee strongly supports bipartisanship that is reached following a process of informal discussion and debate between parliamentarians about how to best develop and support Australia’s defence forces.
The Committee recognises that parliamentarians do, and should, have different ideas about how to best address the strategic challenges that Australia faces in the coming decades. This contest of ideas can contribute to the development of stronger, more robust defence policy in the interests of all Australians. The Committee considers that agreement on defence policy achieved in this way represents ‘true’ bipartisanship.
The Committee recognises the important role of parliamentary committees in providing a forum in which debates and discussions can occur in order to reach agreed, bipartisan proposals for the Executive to consider.
The Committee recognises that this form of bipartisanship currently operates in relation to national security, as demonstrated by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS). Through the PJCIS, government and opposition members develop bipartisan agreements on national security policy following robust debate and discussion which is informed by classified briefings and access to classified documents.
The Committee recognises and shares concerns that bipartisanship operating as a process, rather than an outcome, can have a negative impact on defence policy and restrict much-needed political and public debate. The Committee shares the concerns of submitters that political and public debate on defence policy in Australia is limited and agrees that this should be improved.
The Committee considers that the Parliament, through its committees, could play an important role in facilitating debate and discussion of defence policy. The examples from Australia’s history outlined in this chapter have demonstrated the positive role Parliament can play in assisting the Executive in the development of defence policy.
The Committee’s proposal for improving bipartisan debate and discussion on Defence through the establishment of a statutory committee similar to the PJCIS, is examined in the following chapters.