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Latham's real test is whether he can find a better national security policy

By Gary Brown - posted Wednesday, 17 December 2003

Mark Latham's election as Federal Labor leader raises some interesting questions in the areas of security and defence.

His immediate advocacy of a Department of Homeland Security, to coordinate the numerous overlapping agencies working - or, more accurately, competing - in the area, is a welcome initiative. The government's failure to do this itself is a sign of the arrogance, inertia and resistance to change that tends to overtake all administrations once they have been in office for more than a term or two. The same can be said of its resistance to Labor's earlier Coastguard proposal. Its assertion that the Navy does this job perfectly well reveals its lack of understanding of the inefficiency inherent in using major naval assets for coastal patrol and surveillance. One might just as well use the Army for routine police work.

But we have yet to see whether Latham Labor will offer voters a more clearly defined alternative on overall national security policy. To be sure, his frank assessment of US President Bush's serious limitations reveals a capacity for seeing through the machinations of image makers. Labor's historical reluctance to support Bush's invasion and conquest of Iraq will presumably be maintained under Latham. It may be that Labor will disapprove of the government's foolish decision to formally join the US Missile Defense program.


Nevertheless, important as they are, these issues all arise in the context of an essentially bipartisan approach to national security. Labor's Coastguard proposal, for example, was self-nobbled at the outset by its placement in a wider budgetary framework. Because no thought was given to a more fundamental re-evaluation of military capability spending priorities, Labor was only able to find money to fund three vessels for this purpose. With about 20,000 km of coastline and a huge Exclusive Economic Zone, Australia is going to need many more than three such vessels for effective surveillance. (In any case with three vessels it is probable that much of the time only two will be available due to scheduled maintenance, crew rotation issues and unpredictable malfunctions requiring rectification).

If there were some de-emphasis of the priority accorded major naval surface combatants, such that, eg, instead of the 14 planned for 2015 the Navy had, say, 10 or 11, substantial resources would made available to meet needs more directly relevant to our strategic circumstances. This could only be done, however, as part of a far broader review of Australian strategic policy. Thus far, Labor policy is as innocent of such thinking as a frog is of feathers.

The lack of a wide security policy debate is only compounded by the disarray of the Democrats, who appear to be in terminal meltdown, and the inadequate resources of the Greens. Neither of these minor parties has ever given much real thought to security issues; certainly neither of them has ever spelt out any real alternative to the de facto conservative bipartisan policy framework inside which both Labor and the Coalition have lived since the end of the Vietnam war.

Perhaps this may change if, as appears possible, the Democrat collapse gives the Greens sufficient parliamentary resources to address a wider range of policy issues than is feasible with only two Senators and one Member of the House (the latter by no means guaranteed re-election). But realistically it is going to take a quantum leap in Labor Party thinking to provide sensible security policy alternatives to the Australian people.

This is by no means a risk-free challenge. Australia as been well described (by Alan Renouf, a former diplomat) as "the frightened country". We have a capacity to see threats and conspiracies against our country and its interests which, in an individual, would be almost pathological. This is why the present government's "border protection" mantra resonated so effectively in the electorate. It is the 21st century equivalent of the 60s' "yellow peril" and "threat from the north" peddled by the last generation of conservatives.

Yet in reality, a few hundred pathetic asylum seekers, legal or otherwise, pose no real security threat. Regional militaries could no more mount an invasion of Australia than of the moon, the very real terrorist menace cannot be defeated by traditional military forces and yet here we are arming to the teeth. Our US ally encourages this trend not just because we acquire much of our military material from American sources but because our forces, thus equipped, fill useful "niches" and lend international credibility to US-led operations.


But whereas the Labor Party stoutly resisted the "yellow peril" snake oil in the 60s (winning vindication in December 1972), to date it has shown little capacity and less inclination to take on modern conservatism, preferring instead to quibble at the margins of a paradigm it appears afraid to challenge. Hawke, Hayden, Keating and Beazley each in their own way worked within the conservative framework. East Timor, it will be recalled, was sacrificed on the altar of "constructive engagement" with Suharto's Indonesia because of the latter's anticommunism.

Mark Latham is of a new generation. He heads a party at the crossroads. Unless Labor is able to provide a progressive, reforming alternative to the conservatism that has dominated our political and security landscape for too long it may well be condemning itself to oblivion. After all, if one must have conservatism, let it be the pure creed as preached by Howard and Costello, unalloyed by the hypocrisy of the pallid echo marketed by Beazley, Crean and others of that ilk. Where Latham will position himself and Labor remains to be seen.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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