On Anzac Day, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commemorated the centenary of the battle at Villers-Brettoneux, where Australian soldiers defended against the German spring offensive of 1918. The opening of the Sir John Monash Centre honoured the celebrated commander of the Australian Corps in France at the tail end of the first world war.
So you would be forgiven if it appeared the Australian Defence Force was still orientated towards all things European. Indeed, in recent times, Australian forces have fought alongside many of those with whom we will commemorate the events at the Monash centre. France, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, among others, have been close partners in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past two decades.
But the geostrategic context Australia faces in 2018 has changed markedly since 1918, let alone 2001, when Australian forces were committed into action in Afghanistan in the so-called global war on terror.
Australia increasingly is having to engage closely not just with close and trusted partners but with its own neighbours.
A new defence chief, major challenges
The current Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell was announced last week as the next Chief of Defence Force. Campbell has vast experience in military operations, including as a commander with the United Nations in East Timor and commander of Australian forces on operations in the Middle East.
His time as the senior officer running Operation Sovereign Borders earned him some controversy for efficiently and effectively implementing the government’s “stop the boats” policy.
But the experience helped reinforce to him the significance of Australia’s relations with its immediate neighbours, most notably Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Campbell understands that operations far away tend to be ones of choice, while those closer to shore potentially present greater challenges for the nation.
The challenges ahead
Later this year, the ADF will assist with the APEC Forum in Port Moresby. Elements of the army, navy and air force will be assigned to provide critical security and other support for the smooth running of the forum, and to counter any potential crisis.
Beyond that, the Bougainville referendum is expected to be held in 2019. This was a date set 20 years ago, picked as a means to defuse tensions and postpone the inevitable question of autonomy or independence for the people of Bougainville. It is a particularly sensitive issue for Papua New Guinea, and managing bilateral relations over this could prove problematic.
In the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia, concerns about regional terrorist initiatives and a possible repeat of the circumstances that led to the battle of Marawi have prompted the ADF to look to engage more closely with counterparts in the armed forces of Australia’s neighbours.
Defence Cooperation Program activities are on the increase. These include partner exercises, training programs, ship visits, exchanges and various educational and training forums.
Across the Pacific, the prospect of human-generated or other environmental crises or disasters will continue to demand close attention from the ADF and Australian aid agencies.
Beyond such environmental challenges, the prospect of increased power contestation is focusing the minds of security policymakers on the importance of bolstering ties in places like Vanuatu, Tonga and Fiji. Partly in response, the Pacific patrol boat program is being revamped. Australia is supplying a fleet of new patrol boats with associated training, logistics and other related support included.
The “Pacific Quad” also is emerging as a significant and growing force. This grouping includes French forces in New Caledonia, working on occasion alongside US, New Zealand and Australian forces, in anticipation of growing environmental and other security challenges where cooperation will be vital.
Another “Quad”, involving Australia, the United States, Japan and India, will likely attract attention as well. It may emerge as a significant body in shaping how to respond to the dramatic, rapid and unprecedented build-up of Chinese military force projection capabilities. This build-up includes modernised and expanded navies, air forces and human-constructed islands.
The spectrum of non-traditional and conventional security concerns in and around the Indo-Pacific suggests Campbell’s focus will be on managing relations with counterparts in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. At the same time, Australia’s legacy of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan means that an enduring but carefully calibrated military footprint can be expected in both those countries.
Meanwhile, key challenges will revolve around managing security concerns in Papua New Guinea, terrorism-related concerns in Southeast Asia, a potential unravelling on the Korean Peninsula and contestation in the East and South China Seas. There will also be the seasonal, expected, but still devastating natural disasters in the Pacific.
With so much of concern nearby, a substantial military commitment alongside allies in Syria is unlikely. A peacekeeping force contribution is possible, though, if a political solution is ever reached.
Ties with the United States can be expected to remain wide, deep, intimate, strong and enduring. Indeed, while not willing to say so publicly, most of Australia’s neighbours remain uneasy about China’s military assertiveness and look to Australia to remain closely engaged with the United States.
Despite the tweets emanating from the White House, insiders in Canberra see a significant and enduring overlap of interests and concerns with Washington. That is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, and Angus Campbell knows this well.
The new Australian Defence Force Chief will be Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, Chief of Army since 2015, who became the operational public face of the Coalition government’s Operation Sovereign Borders.
Campbell replaces the present chief, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, 58, who will retire from the ADF in July.
With his promotion, Campbell has jumped over the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, who was involved in controversy over his relationship with a junior officer, whom he later married. Two reviews cleared Griggs of any impropriety. He is now leaving the military.
While the vice chief is frequently promoted to chief, as were Binskin and David Hurley before him, it is not an invariable practice. Neither Angus Houston nor Peter Cosgrove had been vice chief before taking the top role.
Campbell joined the army in 1981, graduating from Duntroon in 1984. Later he served in the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS).
In 2005, he joined the Prime Minister’s Department, rising to become Deputy Secretary and Deputy National Security Adviser. In 2011, he took command of Australian forces deployed in the Middle East area of operations.
He has a Bachelor of Science (honours) from the University of New South Wales and a Master of Philosophy in international relations from Cambridge University.
In his role in Operation Sovereign Borders, Campbell was known for his tight lips in face of questions, often ruling them out as “on water” matters.
Announcing the ADF changes, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Campbell brought leadership and experience to his new position. Defence Minister Marise Payne said he had shown leadership across many roles – “from operational periods of the highest tempo to what some might call a character-building period in Prime Minister and Cabinet some years ago”.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also praised the Campbell appointment, saying it was well-deserved and the Labor Party “wholeheartedly support it”.
The new Vice Chief of the ADF will be Vice Admiral David Johnston, currently Chief of Joint Operations, where his role has been “to plan, control and conduct military campaigns, operations, joint exercises and other activities” to meet Australia’s national objectives.
John Blaxland, Professor of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, praised the appointments, tweeting that these were “a good call”. Both were “well-seasoned, intelligent and highly regarded officers”, he said.
He said Campbell understood the importance of closer engagement with our Southeast Asian and South Pacific neighbours.
Houston said Campbell was “an outstanding appointment”. He was very happy the government had appointed such a “strong and well-credentialed team”.
The new Chief of Army will be Major General Rick Burr.
Rear Admiral Mike Noonan becomes Chief of Navy, replacing Tim Barrett the present Navy Chief, who will also retire in July after a 42 year career.
Air Vice Marshal Mel Hupfeld will become Chief of Joint Operations – he is currently the head of Force Design.
Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, continues in his present position.
Rumour has it that Vanuatu has agreed to a Chinese request to establish a military base. The substance of this rumour is highly speculative at the least and disingenuous at most. Regardless of the truth, the fact that it raises alarm about the threat of Chinese military expansionism speaks volumes about Australian foreign policy, particularly toward the Pacific.
On Monday, Fairfax Media reported that “China had approached Vanuatu” about setting up a “permanent military presence” – in other words, a base.
The article went on to speculate about the dramatic strategic importance of the “globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep”. Furthermore, this Chinese base “would … upend the long standing strategic balance in the region” and would likely be followed by bases elsewhere.
Multiple international mediaoutlets have syndicated the story. Much of the coverage alluded to military threats and a shift in the strategic balance. The language is reminiscent of Cold War bipolarity: “their” gain is “our” loss.
On face value, this sounds like a serious geostrategic issue for Australia. But on close examination, the threat is more apparent than real. An indication of which is that nowhere are Chinese or Vanuatuan interests in provoking this form of strategic competition explained.
From the beginning, every assertion was countered by one of the primary players. Multiple representatives of the Vanuatu government have been at pains to deny the story. For instance, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu was quoted as saying:
No-one in the Vanuatu Government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort.
As the story spiralled out of control, he then told SBS News it was “fake news” concocted by a Fairfax Media journalist.
Multiple Chinese government sources have denied the story and also described it as “fake news”. China also has assured the Australian government that the story has no validity.
In the original article, it was noted that talks between China and Vanuatu were only “preliminary discussions” and that “no formal proposals had been put to Vanuatu’s government.” So given these caveats, and the comprehensive denials, this raises some serious questions about why this rumour was newsworthy in the first place.
So where did it come from? Presumably Fairfax Media would only have acted if the information was from a highly placed Australian government source that could be verified. Presumably this unnamed source has leaked sensitive intelligence, but it is curious that no Australian Federal Police investigation has been announced.
This has been the past practice from the Turnbull government in relation to national security leaks, and there is no sign the government is at all concerned about this leak.
In contrast, it has used this rumour for megaphone diplomacy against both Vanuatu and China. For example, after accepting the Chinese government’s denial, the prime minister said:
We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours of ours.
And it was the latter rather than the former statement that was covered by many media outlets.
This is very telling. Canberra is clearly sending signals to Beijing and Port Vila that it maintains significant strategic interests in the region (and is a message not lost on other Pacific capitals).
This approach simply rehashes colonial tropes about Pacific Island Nations being economically unsustainable, corrupt, and easily influenced by great powers. This is reinforced by China’s alleged influence borne from budget support, and capital and aid flows into the Pacific.
What these colonial stereotypes fail to acknowledge is that the foreign policies of Pacific Island countries have matured. Vanuatu is a committed member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), eschewing formal military alliances and entanglements with great powers. The lesson of Fiji’s strong stance against Australian sanctions is that it too has created an independent foreign policy. Neither country will be easily influenced by foreign powers, including Australia.
Returning to the “truth”. It is true that China’s influence in the region has grown dramatically in recent years, especially during the sanctions years from 2006 to 2014, when Canberra attempted to isolate Fiji.
It is also true that military diplomacy is a key element of China’s foreign policy approach (to the Pacific as in Africa). A final truth is that Vanuatu has a high level of debt dependence on China and is a major beneficiary of Chinese aid. However, this does not mean that Vanuatu is being influenced into accepting a Chinese military base.
At some stage, Vanuatu might very well sign an agreement that allows transit and refuelling of Chinese vessels, as is commonplace in international relations. As Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop told Radio National: “these sorts of visits are normal for many neighbours around the world.”
If so, then all we have learned from this episode is that old colonial habits die hard, and the chances of dispassionately dealing with the geo-strategic rise of China are narrowing.
Malcolm Turnbull has appointed his chief-of-staff Greg Moriarty – who has a strong background in defence, foreign affairs and counter-terrorism – as the new secretary of the defence department.
Moriarty, who replaces the recently retired Dennis Richardson, worked in defence between 1986 and 1995, primarily in the Defence Intelligence Organisation.
He served in the headquarters of the US Central Command in the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
While in the foreign affairs department Moriarty was senior negotiator with the Peace Monitoring Group on Bougainville, ambassador to Iran, ambassador to Indonesia, and a deputy secretary.
When he was ambassador to Iran he gave two lengthy briefings to George W. Bush, in 2006 and 2007, at the Americans’ request.
In 2015 he became the first Commonwealth counter-terrorism co-ordinator. He joined Malcolm Turnbull’s office in August 2016 as adviser on international and national security, before becoming chief-of-staff.
He is described as having a good policy mind and being very steady under pressure. He is said to have been well regarded by Labor’s Stephen Smith when Smith was foreign minister.
Moriarty’s name emerged publicly quite late in the speculation about Richardson’s replacement. The field also included Mike Pezzullo, who heads immigration and border protection, and Peter Jennings, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Presumably Pezzullo will now remain to head Peter Dutton’s new home affairs department, the core of which is the current immigration department.
Turnbull’s new chief-of-staff will be Peter Woolcott, currently high commissioner to New Zealand.
Woolcott has previously served as ambassador for the environment, where he dealt with international climate change issues, permanent representative to the UN in Geneva and ambassador for disarmament, ambassador for people-smuggling issues, and ambassador to Italy. Between 2002 and 2004 he was chief-of-staff to the then foreign minister, Alexander Downer.
The proposed changes may help to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the role of state police and the ADF in responding to terror attacks. However, to prove effective in practice, the changes will depend heavily on the willingness of state police to accept military advice and assistance.
Changes to call-out powers
The major change proposed is to relax the call-out powers for ADF assistance during a terrorist attack. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the existing law as “cumbersome” – and it certainly sets a high bar for requesting military involvement.
Currently, the Commonwealth Defence Act provides that the ADF can be called out to respond to violence within state boundaries, but only where:
a state government requests such assistance; and
the state “is not, or is unlikely to be, able to protect itself”.
This is consistent with the Constitution, which allows the Commonwealth to protect states against internal violence “on the application of the executive government of the state”.
A formal request for ADF assistance was not made during the Sydney siege. Despite the many recognised problems with its response, the NSW police force did not believe its capacity to respond to a single armed offender was inadequate.
Details of the proposed changes have not yet been released. But it appears that state governments will be able to request “specialist” or “niche” assistance from the ADF. For example, they may request assistance with specific weaponry such as sniper rifles or other high-powered weapons.
This will provide more flexible arrangements for state governments to request ADF involvement. Rather than admitting that its overall capacity to respond to a terrorist incident is inadequate, a state government could request assistance on more specific grounds.
However, it appears the process will still require state governments to request assistance from the Commonwealth. Whether state police forces will concede that their ability to respond to terrorism is inadequate – even on more specific grounds – remains to be seen.
It also appears that requests for ADF involvement will depend on whether state police classify an incident as an act of terrorism. This in itself is open to interpretation, and may prove difficult to determine in practice.
Changes to military liaisons
Another proposed change is to embed military liaison officers within state counter-terrorism police units. This will help build a closer relationship between the ADF and state police forces – if they can work together well.
During the Sydney siege, ADF liaison officers attended the police forward command post. In his report, the NSW coroner noted that the role of these officers was poorly understood, and that NSW police could have drawn on their expertise to a greater extent.
Controversy remains over whether police failed to heed military advice that their bullets would fragment on hard-tiled surfaces.
Formalising military liaison positions will help clarify the ADF’s role in circumstances that fall short of a formal call-out. However, it seems the key problem to date has not been an absence of military advice, but a lack of willingness to accept it.
Changes to training
A third major change is for special forces soldiers to provide enhanced training to state counter-terrorism police. This is likely to be the most effective strategy for improving operational responses to terrorism.
The ADF has two tactical assault groups – East and West – based in Sydney and Perth respectively. Realistically, these specialist units could only respond to a terrorist attack in one of those cities, or in the event of an extended siege. Having specially trained state police is crucial if first responders are to deal adequately with the threat of terrorism.
Improved training procedures will enable state police to draw on the expertise of Australia’s special forces, while avoiding territorial issues as to who should have jurisdiction in the event of an attack. They also avoid difficult constitutional and democratic issues regarding the expanding role of the military in domestic crime control.
North Korea’s test this week of an intercontinental ballistic missile has reignited interest and debate on the feasibility of ballistic missile defence systems, and whether countries such as Australia should seek to acquire them.
But what are these systems, and how do they work? How effective would they be in providing a defence against a potential missile attack?
How do they work?
All ballistic missile defence systems consist of a network of tracking and guidance radars, and the interceptor launchers.
On detecting a ballistic missile launch, the radars track the missile’s trajectory, fire an interceptor to shoot it down, and prepare further interceptors to be launched if the first one misses.
This is referred to as a “shoot-look-shoot” strategy, as opposed to a strategy of saturation – where the defender simply shoots as many interceptors as possible in the hope of achieving a kill.
Modern defence systems use interceptor missiles carrying kinetic kill vehicles. These are warheads that are non-explosive and designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles by simply crashing into them.
All of the systems mentioned below are intended to work in conjunction with one another. They are integrated to provide the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles throughout their flight path. However, they are also capable of operating independently, although with less effectiveness than if operated in conjunction with other systems.
Missile defence systems in the region
The US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific currently deploy several ballistic missile defence systems. These would be used in the unlikely event that North Korea decided to actually launch a ballistic missile attack.
The first and most prominent is Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, which the US has deployed in South Korea. THAAD is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the terminal phase of flight – that is, as the ballistic missile is re-entering the atmosphere to strike its target.
The second relevant system is Patriot PAC-3, which is designed to provide late terminal phase interception – that is, after the missile has re-entered the atmosphere. It is deployed by US forces operating in the region, as well as Japan.
Perhaps the most capable system currently in operation in the region is the Aegis naval system, which is deployed on US and Japanese destroyers. It is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in the mid-course phase of flight – that is, when the missile is outside of earth’s atmosphere and transiting to its target.
What all of these systems have in common is they are theatre ballistic missile defence systems, designed to provide protection against short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the one tested by North Korea this week, fly too high and fast for these systems to engage with.
Aegis has demonstrated some limited capability to engage targets similar to intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was used to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite in 2008, but has never been tested against an actual intercontinental ballistic missile target.
The only system expressly designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles is the US Ground-based Midcourse Defence. However, this has a very patchy record in testing. By the end of 2017 it will only have 44 interceptors deployed.
How effective are they?
None of these systems is 100% effective, and most have an iffy record in testing. Aegis has succeeded in 35 out of 42 tests, while Ground-based Midcourse Defence has had only ten successes in 18 tests. However, THAAD has been successful in 18 out of 18 tests.
Tests are conducted in favourable conditions – and it is reasonable to expect the success rates to be lower in actual combat use.
The true difficulty lies with intercontinental ballistic missiles. An intercontinental ballistic missile can attain altitudes well in excess of low earth orbit. Those fired on a typical long-range trajectory can exceed 1,200km in altitude. The high-trajectory, short-range test shot North Korea conducted this week attained an altitude of 2,700km.
However, the altitude intercontinental ballistic missiles attain is only part of the problem. The other major challenge facing ballistic missile defence is the truly enormous speeds that missiles attain during the terminal phase. They often hit or exceed 20 times the speed of sound.
A common comparison used is that ballistic missile defence is akin to shooting a bullet in flight with another bullet. The reality is even more extreme.
For example, a .300 Winchester Magnum (a high-velocity hunting and sniper round) can achieve a velocity of 2,950 feet per second as it leaves the barrel. This equates to 3,237km/h, or 2.62 times the speed of sound. An intercontinental ballistic missile can achieve speeds almost eight times faster than this. As a result, it is almost impossible to reliably defend against such missiles.
This is not necessarily a problem for countries such as Japan and South Korea. Any ballistic missile used by North Korea against them would be a shorter-range ballistic missile that these systems could engage.
However, countries should be mindful that these systems provide limited-to-no capability to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles. In Australia’s case, the only missiles capable of reaching this far from North Korea are intercontinental ballistic missiles. Thus, even if Australia decided to invest in ballistic missile defence, it would provide little-to-no protection from a potential North Korean nuclear attack.
… larger and more complex than the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and the National Broadband Network.
Irrespective of this particular claim’s validity, the investment of A$89 billion for nine new frigates, 12 submarines and 12 offshore patrol vessels is a substantial commitment to Australia’s security. The plan is a comprehensive approach to establishing a continuous program for building these platforms in Australia.
Apart from the future introduction of these and other vessels into service, one of the plan’s key outcomes is a “sovereign Australian capability to deliver affordable and achievable naval shipbuilding and sustainment”. The development of a sovereign capability is stated as “the government’s clear priority”.
But what is sovereignty in this context? And is it attainable from the naval shipbuilding plan?
Two clear weaknesses
The plan has two interconnected weaknesses when it comes to sovereignty.
First, the Australian defence industry environment is dominated by companies whose parentage and ultimate control rest offshore. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But given the shipbuilding plan’s focus on Australian jobs and resources, it is a reality that needs confronting.
To that end one might have expected to see, both in this document and in earlier ones, a definition of Australia’s defence industry – what it is and, importantly, what it is not.
The UK’s 2005 description of its defence industry embraces the combination of local and offshore companies contributing to defence outcomes in terms of:
… where the technology is created, where the skills and intellectual property reside, where the jobs are created and sustained, and where the investment is made.
A similar definition for Australia would provide a foundation for sovereignty in the shipbuilding environment to be properly assessed. The plan suggests the Australian subsidiaries of offshore companies will be considered as sovereign without discussing how local control might be maintained, and how Australian sensitivities might be tackled.
The proposed definition for defence industry also highlights the second weakness of the shipbuilding plan: it is focused on building and sustaining the structural component (the “float” and “move” aspects), rather than the total capability the ship or submarine represents.
The lists of skills cited as necessary are those primarily associated with building and sustaining the structure. The shipbuilding plan gives scant coverage to the important combat system and weapons elements upon which the war-fighting capability rests.
The plan does not address the industrial capabilities necessary for the local maintenance and improvement of these ships. Access to the detailed design information for the combat and sensor systems in particular is required so that such systems can be upgraded locally if required. An offshore equipment supplier may not give the same priority to our needs.
The plan for naval shipbuilding in Australia says it will source many systems of the future frigate and other naval platforms from the US. However, the closest it gets to recognition of this reality in the context of sovereignty is that:
Australia’s alliance with the US, and the access to advanced technology and information it provides, will remain critical.
The plan therefore implies that sovereignty is sought for the “float” and “move” aspects of the naval capabilities, but not necessarily for the important “fight” aspects. This means the systems elements of ships and submarines will be tackled in some other context – outside the naval shipbuilding plan.
More than just ‘doing stuff’
The naval shipbuilding plan is undoubtedly a major step forward for industrial capability in Australia.
A successful implementation will provide significant benefits for the Navy in terms of force structure, for industry in terms of a long-term enterprise upon which to grow overall capability and capacity, for innovation, for workers in terms of continuity of effort, and for the development of shipbuilding-related STEM skills. These are all worthy outcomes.
But sovereignty is more than just “doing stuff” in the country.
If the plan really wanted to tackle sovereignty, it should have provided a foundation on which aspects of industrial and operational sovereignty could be properly assessed, prioritised and managed. It would also have addressed the systems aspects of ships, rather than just the structure.
The government hopes to save A$632 million over five years from 2016-17 by strengthening penalties for non-compliance in Work for the Dole programs. Failure to meet requirements will result in suspended payments, and then escalating penalties.
Defence spending will rise to 2% of GDP by 2020-21 as the government increases spending by $50 billion over the forward estimates. The Australian Federal Police will receive $321.4 million over four years to support counter-terrorism, and operations against organised drug imports, violent criminal gangs, cybercrime and serious financial crimes.
Foreign aid has risen with inflation to $3.9 billion in the budget, and will rise again to $4.01 billion in 2018-19. However, it will remain at that level for the following two years.
The current broadcaster licence fees will be replaced with new ones, costing the government $414.5 million over the forward estimates.
The Conversation’s experts respond to these and other aspects of the budget below.
A populist attack on welfare recipients
Ben Spies-Butcher, Senior Lecturer in Economy and Society, Department of Sociology, Macquarie University
For a budget that has shifted considerable ground in areas like education and health – and, to a lesser extent, housing – it strongly plays to existing Coalition themes on welfare. These reinforce punitive welfare measures and the divide between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor.
There are some mildly positive reforms for older Australians – enabling access to state concessions – and some additional funds to assist single parents return to work. However, it is strongly punitive towards many of the most vulnerable.
The budget seeks to save $4 billion in new “integrity” and “mutual obligation” reforms. There is no funding to increase what is now a tragically low unemployment benefit (Newstart). Instead, there are new enforcement measures. These are largely constructed around drug and alcohol use. They include measures to force more recipients to access their money through a “cashless welfare card” that directs how people spend their money.
More surprisingly, there are harsh measures that include trials of drug tests, harsher breaching rules (that often leave recipients with no income), and even restrictions on accessing support for disabilities related to substance use.
That reflects a very strong populist attack on some of the most vulnerable. It also reaffirms an important political dynamic in Australia: when we frame action for everyone (as we do with health, education and housing), it is much easier to achieve equitable action. And when action is focused on the very poor, the political instinct is to attack.
Aid gets another cut, but not the unkindest
Robin Davies, Associate Director, Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
The Coalition once again cut overseas aid, as it has done now for several years running. However, the cuts in this budget will not be felt for another two years and are smaller in annual terms than those inflicted in the previous two years.
Aid spending will, as promised last year by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, increase in line with CPI in 2017-18, rising from $3.8 billion to $3.9 billion, and also in 2018-19, when it will reach $4 billion.
For the following two years, though, the indexation of aid to CPI will be suspended and the resulting savings, $303 million, redirected to “other policy priorities” of the government. CPI indexation, according to the government, will resume thereafter.
Since coming to power in late 2013, the Coalition has fashioned five aid budgets, starting with its revision of Labor’s 2013-14 aid budget. In addition, it has now set notional bottom lines for the next three, out to 2020-21.
Over these aid budgets, aid has been or will be cut in real terms six times. The biggest cuts were in the last two budgets, 2015-16 and 2016-17, where aid was cut by 20.2% and 7.4% respectively.
After the reprieve in 2017-18 and 2018-19, when there will no real growth in aid, the cuts resume in 2019-20 and 2020-21 at the modest rate of 2.5% per year. The cumulative cut in aid from 2013-14 to 2020-21 will be 32.8%: basically one-third.
Australia’s aid as a proportion of its gross national income will stagnate at the historically low level of 0.22% for several years, and could fall to 0.2% by 2020-21. Australia’s aid generosity is now very far below the OECD average of 0.32%. We rank 17th among our peer countries on this measure.
It appears that The Australian was taking some dramatic licence when it reported, just before the budget, that:
The Turnbull government will divert foreign aid funds to boost Australia’s intelligence agencies as part of its escalation of the war on terror.
However, it had the basic story about right.
The Coalition pledged in late 2013 to increase aid in line with inflation. Last year, implying that it had finished cutting aid, it revived that pledge.
However, the Coalition has only maintained aid in real terms in two of eight years. While it cannot be claimed that aid is funding domestic policing or foreign intelligence, these are prominent among the “other policy priorities” the government is able to pursue by cutting aid.
No news is good news for defence
Andrew Carr, Senior Lecturer in Strategic and Defence Studies, Australian National University
Defence wasn’t expecting anything in tonight’s budget, and didn’t get it. The 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2016-17 budget both proposed minimal changes for defence in 2017-18. This was not because of a lack of support, but because the ten-year funding plan to raise the defence budget to match 2% of GDP by 2020-21 is largely backloaded, and because the Department of Defence is struggling to spend the funds it already has.
The 2017-18 budget papers’ main change was an efficiency reclaim of $304.1 million over the next four years, aimed at:
… reductions in the numbers of consultants and contractors used in Defence, as well as limiting the costs of non-operational overseas and business travel.
There is also $350 million in support for Veterans Health – an important and popular measure that was announced two days ago.
Freed of the need to devote new significant resources, the treasurer’s speech confidently reiterated the government’s commitment to the 2% target. While there are underlying issues with the notion of tying defence spending with the health of your economy — namely the worse the global situation, the easier the 2% target becomes – this stability itself is welcome.
Over the last decade, defence has seen significant promises of spending and some harsh cuts on budget night. So no news is good news.
Many will also be pleased to see the return to surplus remains a priority. While not a defence measure, this provides additional flexibility and resilience, which could be important for Australia’s security in the unpredictable Trump era.
Government levels the playing field for traditional media
Andrew Dodd, Program Director – Journalism, Swinburne University of Technology
There are no big shocks for the ABC in this budget, as the national broadcaster is only one year into its current round of triennial funding. SBS has won a cash injection to make up for lost advertising revenue, and broadcasters in general have won a reprieve from licence fees.
However, it’s women’s sport on pay TV that seems to have done best of all out of the 2017 budget.
The government has levelled the playing field for media companies that are struggling to compete against internet-based media by abolishing licence fees for broadcasters and datacasters that use broadcast spectrum. However, it is also broadening the revenue base through a new regime of apparatus licence fees for broadcasting spectrum. The change is estimated to cost $414.5 million over the forward estimates period.
The budget provides a “transitional support package” for those licensees who will be left worse off. The Treasury estimates state this:
… support package is estimated to have a cost of $24.8 million over the forward estimates period.
And the Australian Communications and Media Authority will receive a small cash injection to make the transitional support package work.
The budget is also providing $30 million over four years to support:
… underrepresented sports on subscription television, including women’s sports, niche sports, and sports with a high level of community involvement and participation.
In addition, $6 million will be spent over two years to support the development of Australian film and television content.
SBS will get $8.8 million in 2017-18 to:
… restore revenue that could not be raised due to the delayed passage of legislation, which would allow SBS further flexibility in the way it advertises.
Science flies under the radar
Les Field, Vice-President & Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), UNSW
Science has largely flown under the radar in a restrained budget, with no big spending measures and no major cuts apart from the university funding changes announced last week.
It is pleasing to see an astronomy partnership with the European Southern Observatory that will ensure Australia’s access to world-leading optical astronomy facilities, as well as new funding and administrative improvements in health and medical research, including the first investments from the Medical Research Future Fund.
It is also positive that the tried-and-tested CRC program will benefit from the government’s advanced manufacturing industry focus. But it was disappointing that the budget didn’t include any of the recommendations of the review of the R&D tax incentives.
There are small decreases in indexation of funding across the forward estimates equating to savings of several million dollars per year in agencies such as ANSTO and CSIRO, and funding programs such as the ARC and NHMRC. These will certainly be absorbed, but will add to the challenge of doing important science and innovation in areas of critical national importance.
The science sector will now look ahead to the 2030 Strategy for Science and Innovation, to be finalised by the end of the year, and the government’s response to the Research Infrastructure Roadmap – which will determine priorities for new capital investment.
John Rice, Adjunct Professor, University of Adelaide
As far as science is concerned the 2017 budget could be described as 2014 budget-lite. There is no vision for the role of science and technology in Australia’s future. Instead what stands out are the cuts to universities and to the CSIRO.
The National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) made the 2016 budget very exciting, even if a little disconcerting. There wasn’t much new money behind it and what there was largely reversed the disasters of 2014 and 2015.
But NISA was the kind of vision that we ought to expect from a budget, a vision for the economic direction of the country, one that can guide its productive capacity, meet current challenges and show the way to continuing prosperity.
Where did that vision go? There is none of it in the 2017 budget.
A less-than-enthusiastic electorate reminded politicians there needs to be more to an innovation-driven economy than everyone developing an app. Clearly the average citizen needed to understand where innovation-driven automation and other labour productivity improvements leave them in relation to earning a living.
If the 2017 budget does nothing else it confirms that the government has not risen to these challenges, and has lost its faith. In the face of the electoral blowtorch it has simply melted away.
There are a few modest and sensible initiatives that are a legacy of the 2016 rush of blood. Their gestation has been so long, like the activation of the Medical Research Futures Fund, that you would have expected an elephant rather than a mouse, but they are positive moves nonetheless.
What is seriously disappointing is the cutting of funding to the universities and to the CSIRO. Universities contribute probably more than three-quarters of Australia’s basic research. University research is seriously underfunded, and the underfunding is made up via transfers from other areas, particularly teaching. The cuts will make this worse, which leaves no room, let alone incentive, to engage university research and teaching more with industry.
What this budget represents for science is a retreat from any serious vision for an innovation-based economy, and a return to the unthinking cost cutting of the 2014-15 budgets.