18 December 2006

Defence tactics

Labor has attracted a lot of criticism about Joel Fitzgibbon becoming Shadow Defence Minister, a trier up against one of Howard's most effective ministers. Beazley has forgotten more than Fitzgibbon has ever learned about Defence, and this may well be true whatever happens over the coming year. However, why would Labor fight an election on Defence? How could it win? Insofar as it's not a contradiction in terms, the genius of Fitzgibbon is becoming apparent.

Steve Lewis from The Australian said Fitzgibbon would appeal to ordinary defence personnel, and he may be right. Those personnel sick of being treated as background for Howard's photo ops may find a sympathetic ear, provided Fitzgibbon doesn't get a big head about his Important New Role.

For the Opposition though, Defence is a management issue. During World War II Missouri Senator Harry Truman initiated investigations into defence maladministration, a campaign that catapulted Truman to prominence and ultimately the Presidency. In the 1980s Congress uncovered similar waste, such as $1000 toilet seats and other examples of overcharging that dented the Reagan Administration's image of strong defence and financial prudence. So too, by careful graft the Labor Opposition can undermine one of the Coalition's real policy and electoral strengths, to get the traction that the wider issue of Iraq hasn't achieved.

Fitzgibbon may be the man to do it, provided he doesn't try and tackle the big stuff. Stories like this are absolute gold for Labor. The Brendan Nelson of old would be all over this, but maybe it doesn't seem to matter when you're off to Washington for chats with Condi. I hope his driver took him past the Watergate - those second-rate burglaries can get messy.

Apart from updating the electronics it isn't clear why the FA-18 needs to be replaced with the F-35. Even if Australia has not been sold a dog of a product this time, the only real argument that can be made is in favour of maintaining the status quo of military hardware among powers in our region. A lot of money to be spent for no apparent gain, apart from the possibility of keeping in sweet with the Americans. Watch hardware costs drop with the advent of pilotless drones capable of speed and payload, then smack your forehead at those who couldn't, wouldn't wait for the sales.

There probably is an argument for increasing defence spending, but it is also true that organisations with unlimited budgets get complacent and wasteful. There are few things more useless than a complacent defence.

Politically, a promise to provide better equipment and crack down on the time-serving lunkheads who constipate any effective fighting force would do wonders for Labor, putting them at least even in an area where they are traditionally weak (even with the overhyped competence of Beazley as leader). Someone so frightened of women cannot claim to be effective at facing the enemy (and it's surprising Labor hasn't made more of this). Members of the Defence Forces are strong Coalition voters - a focus on the basics while neutering any strategic concerns would do wonders for morale and recruitment, giving the ADF the sense of an organisation that's going somewhere. Politically, making defence personnel disposed to Labor would put several Coalition seats in peril.

Howard will move where he has to on Iraq, changing course as far as possible without imperilling a consistent image of pro-Americanism. He might investigate lax security at bases if he had to, but by then it might be too late. He'd lack both the wider context and the small-scale managerialism on an issue built up as a core Howard value. For Labor to take the high ground on Defence would be a grave danger for the dominant political tactician of the past dozen years. It might even lead to a realignment about what the Australian Defence Force is for, and should do - but it's way too early to tell, and too much to expect Fitzgibbon to do it by himself.

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