Letter to Sydney Morning Herald by Dr Hannah Middleton
The Federal Government's commitment to community consultation with the release of its discussion paper Defence Review 2000 is welcome. Democratisation of the defence debate may produce a better and more appropriate result than in the past.
However, before discussing competing claims for military spending, we need to examine the complex nature of security and the interconnections between its various dimensions and to re-examine our security priorities. Security is becoming more multi-dimensional and it is bad policy to continue to look at defence in isolation. It is time to assess the best way to balance and integrate our responses.
Security is often interpreted to mean military security -- the capacity to identify and meet perceived threats to a nation by military means, by the use or the threat of the use of force. Australia's security will be enhanced by attention to social, political and humanitarian issues which affect the people of this country as well as in neighbouring states.
The over-emphasis in casting the military as Australia's guarantee of "security" has not engendered a true culture of national security. Resources committed to developing the military have meant that less is available for constructive work such as preventive diplomacy.
In addition, more money spent on the military means less money for developing strong social cohesion and stability within the nation through employment programs and the health, education and housing needs of Australians and our neighbours.
The most obvious economic feature of military expenditure is its "opportunity costs", that is, the opportunities which are foregone for alternative consumption and investment.
The World Bank has reported that "evidence increasingly points to high military spending as contributing to fiscal and debt crises, complicating stabilisation and adjustment, and negatively affecting economic growth and development".
Since military expenditure tends to reduce public and private investment, divert funds and personnel from civilian research and development and to increase the current account deficit, it tends to retard the rate of economic growth.
While Australia's defence is important, the cost to our economy, environment and political rights cannot be too high or we will have little or nothing left worth protecting
There is no readily identifiable threat to Australia of major direct attack. This has been so for decades and there is no evidence it will change in the foreseeable future.
The regional strategic environment is clearly complex and changing, but this does not necessarily mean it is more dangerous for Australia.
Conflicts in the region are predominantly internal. They are not directed against Australia and they cannot be solved by military means.
Australia does face threats from refugees, drug smuggling and international terrorism, but a military response is ineffective in such circumstances. Regional engagement requires that we rethink what we mean by security, develop different relationships with regional states and increase aid to our neighbours.
One of the uses of overseas aid is to assist recipient to cope better with their conflict-inducing social and economic problems.
Overseas aid is a cost effective means of contributing to reducing the problems of people in our region, yet our contribution is minute compared to defence spending.
We cannot afford a continued cold war paradigm which defines regional engagement as interoperability with the United States in potential high intensity conflicts.
This would require expanding strategic strike and force projection capabilities, maintaining a 'knowledge edge' over regional states and remaining a substantial maritime power. Australia simply cannot afford such an approach economically, politically and socially.
A rational reassessment of our security priorities would lead to a number of conclusions which may be at odds with the Federal Government's stated intention of increasing defence spending.
These could include such things as using more defensive and less costly systems as opposed to the long-range, aggressive capabilities currently in use; developing a proper coastal protection system; committing Australia to possess enough military force to defend our territory but not to threaten the territory of other states; purchasing more dual-use equipment (for example, aircraft which can be used for water bombing bushfires as well as for coastal surveillance and interception); investing time and effort in regional arms control through bodies such as ASEAN; increasing the share of GDP allocated to overseas aid; contributing to the elimination of the foreign debt problem; and expanding trade, co-operation in the development of science and medicine, educational and cultural exchanges.
We have the opportunity to take advantage of regional and global changes, to develop a process of disarmament, dedicated peace-making, confidence building and conflict resolution.
The government's goal must be to minimise military expenditure as far as responsible defence strategy allows. More arms make Australia poorer, not safer.
Sydney, 28 June 2000
Dr Hannah Middleton