MIKE SCRAFTON. ASPI’s Agenda for change 2019

To pinch an epigram from former Air Force colleagues in Defence, ASPI’s ‘Agenda for change 2019: Strategic choices for the next government’ is a target rich environment. The contributors set out a smorgasbord of advice on strategic policy issues for the next government to chew on; some of which is commonplace, some keen insights, some very soundly based, and some more controversial and contestable.

Peter Jennings sets the tone in the first essay. Most observers would agree when he says, ‘it certainly feels like 2019 will be a year when big strategic risks and complex policy decisions will make the business of government harder’. His overview survey of the sources that potentially could give rise to strategic challenges is a comprehensive ‘list of woes and worries’.

The first real concern arises when he argues, that ‘[T]o make and implement good strategy, you must be able to explain policy in simple language, to stay ‘on message’ and to dominate the policy agenda in ways that make your preferred option the best available choice’. This is the voice of a ministerial adviser. Here Jennings broaches subject matter that worried Walter Lippmann at another dangerous and challenging juncture in strategic affairs. Good strategic policy is not the most likely outcome of public relations exercises or propaganda designed to drown out alternative approaches and seduce public opinion.

In Essays in Public Philosophy (1955), reflecting on the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century, Lippmann wrote, ‘Where mass opinion dominates the government, there is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power. The derangement brings about the enfeeblement, verging on paralysis, of the capacity to govern’. Moreover, he judged that in matters of war and peace, ‘[T]he unhappy truth is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junctures’.

In technical areas of policy like economics, scientific research, health care, environment and global warming, and international relations there are few who have the time and resources to master the professional expertise and gain the practical experience required to set objectives, develop options and assess risks. Such analysis does not have to be shrouded in unintelligible techno-speak of specialist elites. The contributions to the ASPI document are proof of this.

Strategic policy must be debated transparently and publicly by knowledgeable and credible parties. But not as a political exercise to be won. Not through a war of talking points. The ideas involved in strategic policy can be expressed clearly without dumbing down the language as can the risks and costs of options. Jennings advocacy of reviving ministerial statements on major policy, avoiding the trap where ‘social media take the nuance and complexity out of policy argument’, is to be lauded. But their content must be contested and not marketed!

The debate over strategic policy must be robust and transparent and focussed on clarifying the consequences of pursuing a range of options in current and future situations. The debate and the policy will be degraded if it becomes a popularity contest. Crucially, governments in the end must be prepared to adopt unpopular policies if necessary.

Two important, and predictable, contributions to the collection that come from Michael Shoebridge demonstrate the necessity for a debate. A strong advocate of the US-Australia alliance in a time of great-power competition, Shoebridge claims ‘our strategic and defence policy with the US has been on autopilot.’ His main prescription is that the continuing ‘separation of strategic and economic interests’ is ‘untenable for current and future Australian Governments’.

Shoebridge conflates the national interest with the narrow sectional interests of the national security community. The next government must ‘bring the domestic voices and interests that advocate the primacy of economic interests together with those that advocate strategic interests’. He exaggerates the extent of Australia’s vulnerability to malign Chinese influences because of the current trading relationship and minimises or avoids the possible impacts on Australia as it gradually diversifies its ‘economy to reduce the business and strategic risks from relying too heavily on a single country’.

Shoebridge also underplays the enormity of the task of reshaping Australia’s trading profile to shift away from China and the associated risk. While he notes that Chinese investment in Australia is relatively minor—2017 Chinese investment in Australia amounted to $116.6 billion or 4 percent of the total—he fails to acknowledge that in 2107-18 Australia exported $52 billion more to China in goods and services that than imported. Of Australia’s top two exports, in 2017-18; 81 percent of iron ore and concentrates and 22 percent of coal went to China. Between them these exports amounted to 30 percent of Australia’s exports in goods and services in 2017-18. No simple matter to find a replacement destination for these items.

The national security implications of the economic relationship are not just overplayed. The availability of alternative markets for the major items of trade remains unconfirmed, and, if found, the consequences during this withdrawal from China for Australia’s capital markets, employment, and overall economy are not weighed in Shoebridge’s advice.

In addition, like much strategic policy advocacy, the premise is that somehow Australia can act as if in a vacuum and that there would be no reaction or retaliation from China to what would be patently hostile policies. While he acknowledges China’s employment of all its national assets in pursuit of its interests, that China might respond to hostile economic policies with non-trade measures is not addressed.

Anything that furthers the debate on strategic policy in these uncertain times is to be welcomed. ASPI has stepped boldly and confidently into this space. The incoming government certainly will over its term face a constant barrage of difficult choices as it seeks to find a place for Australia in the transforming international environment.

Not only should those with specific responsibilities for advising the next government should be looking prudently, closely and sceptically at, and engaging in, the debate. In the coming election we need to hear politicians discussing China, the alliance, and strategic policy.

Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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