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The myth of the Howard Government's defence competence

By James Sinnamon - posted Wednesday, 21 November 2007


The same opinion polls which predict that John Howard will lose the election on 24 November, nevertheless, also consistently show that Australians still perceive his Government to be competent at handling Australia's defence, or at least more capable than the Labor Opposition. The figures given in the 23 October NewsPoll were 43 per cent to 39 per cent in Howard's favour.

However, this perception is not borne out by the evidence. Although Australia was once governed by leaders who capably managed our defence, this is no longer the case.

Andrew Ross's meticulously researched book Armed and Ready published in 1995 conclusively shows, contrary to the widely promoted myth, that Australia was ready to face a Japanese invasion in 1942 thanks to the visionary work of a number of far-sighted politicians, both conservative and Labor, public servants and industrialists.  Since the 1920's they worked hard to make Australia capable of defending itself without any need for the supply of military equipment from elsewhere as had been the case in the First World War.  The policy goal was to become known as "self containment".

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As a consequence, after war was declared in Europe in September 1939, Australia was able to rapidly convert its peace-time economy so that by June 1942, which is the earliest date before which Japan could possibly have launched an invasion, Australia had eight fully equipped Army divisions and an air force that was at least capable of denying them total air supremacy. Supplies for this defending force would have been maintained by one of the world's most advanced industrialised economies of the time using local raw materials. What little Australia could not have supplied itself could have been obtained from overseas as the invading Japanese would not have been able to maintain an effective naval blockade without having first captured a port the size of Sydney or Melbourne.

Short of the United States reaching a separate peace with Japan, there was no realistic prospect that an invasion could have succeeded. It is for this reason that the Japanese Army vetoed a plan by the Japanese Navy to invade Australia before the US victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea in March 1942.

After the Japanese advance was stopped Australia played the major role until 1943 supplying the manpower and military hardware which drove back the Japanese on land. Of Australia's contribution to the Allied war effort, US President Truman was to say in 1946:

"On balance, the contribution made by Australia, a country having a population of about seven millions, approximately equalled the United States". (Report to congress on Lend Lease, 27 Dec 1946, cited in Armed and Ready)

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Moving forward 65 years to 2007, how does the Howard Government's record stand against the proud record of its ideological predecessors?

Informed Australians understand that in the broader sense of looking after Australia's defence needs by pre-empting likely causes of armed conflict, the Howard Government is a dismal failure. Its role in starting the Iraq war, having previously allowed AU$296 (all dollar figures are Australian dollars unless stated otherwise stated) in bribes to be paid to the regime of Saddam Hussein, has undoubtedly made the world a more dangerous place and raised Australia's own profile in the eyes of terrorist organisations. Furthermore, John Howard's sabotage of international efforts to confront the problem of global warming has exacerbated a threat which even the Pentagon considers greater than that of terrorism.

However, many Australians may be surprised to also learn that the militarily aggressive Howard Government has, paradoxically, been no more competent in safeguarding Australia's security  even in the more narrow sense of managing its defence forces.

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About the Author

James Sinnamon is an environmental and political writer, part-time Linux consultant and web administrator. He administers web sites for progressive and environmental causes. Sites include: citizensagainstsellingtelstra.com and candobetter.org. In March 2008 he stood as a candidate for Lord Mayor of Brisbane. His day job is as a cleaner and he is a member of the Australian Workers Union.

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