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The Defence white paper: words without meaning

This Defence white paper (or DWP16 to use the tough, no-nonsense abbreviation favoured by Defence) boasts tough resolve and dedicated commitment. It almost looks too good to be true. But guess what? It is. It's more of a confectioner's delight: sugar, cream, blancmange – it seems as if there's something in it for everyone and yet at its heart it's just flummery. It is, in fact, a creation straight from the template Malcolm Turnbull's busy making his own. Perhaps that's why, like so much else produced by this government, it demonstrates a complete and widening gulf between reality and rhetoric.

This is the third attempt (fourth, if you include Tony Abbott's truncated review) at producing a "comprehensive, complete, and definitive" review of defence in less than seven years. Nevertheless this one is, somehow, meant to be more authoritative than all the previous attempts. Unfortunately, although it's grandiloquent in boastfulness, like all those others it's built on the shallow foundation of political expediency.

The Defence white paper is a recipe for fighting the wars of the past.
The Defence white paper is a recipe for fighting the wars of the past. Photo: Tamara Voninski

The key to unlocking this simple fact is the headline grabber: the one hard commitment Turnbull's etched in stone and written in blood. His guarantee that defence spending will rise to two percent of GDP by financial year 21/22. Piffle! It's a rubbish commitment; pointless in so many ways and rubbish in others. So why make it and what does the very fact of its existence reveal about the dramatic and increasing disjunction between politics and policy in Australia today?

Let's examine it piece by piece. Firstly, pretend the target's meaningful. Ask yourself where is the money coming from? Which hospital is going to be closed or who, precisely, is going to pay more tax? A spending pledge is worthless without money to pay for it, so what's Turnbull putting up to guarantee this splurge? His own house on Sydney harbour? A mansion tax to pay for any shortfall meeting this critical expenditure target? If the money doesn't come from tax rises it must come from slashing spending, so what's it to be: hospitals or pensions? This government insists it won't dodge the hard questions, so what's the answer?

Without this key detail the entire ambitious project falls apart. This is the second deficit: there's no indication of priorities. What's important and what's vital? The document has a hollow core. What's its single animating idea? It doesn't withdraw behind a moat however there's no clear idea of the exact shape or form any expeditionary force might take, nor how, where or when it might be deployed. This lack of theme results in a spending program that could wander off anywhere. And what's to be jettisoned first? It won't be the submarines: Turnbull's locking that in to win South Australian votes, however this isn't a particularly sound method of strategic decision-making.

Spending on the military isn't a tap that can be turned on and off at will. Unless we're going to suddenly splash money on buying equipment overseas, it's very difficult to determine how the government could ever manage to meet its own targets sensibly.

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Which leads to the next problem. DWP16 is old fashioned and a recipe for fighting the wars of the past. Where's the new thinking? It'd be far more reassuring if there was a dedicated commitment to investing in the weapons of the future instead of splurging on technologies of the past. Cavalry, anyone?

But this is just being picky and assuming the spin reflects reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out it doesn't. The real key to making sense of DWP16 comes from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Dr Mark Thompson. He's a wiz at penetrating spin and deducing how the numbers are arrived at and, after a detailed analysis, he's worked it out. The real reason we manage to hit the spending target of two percent of GDP earlier than under Abbott is because the economy's slowing. So the bold headlines aren't misleading – they're completely accurate – however this doesn't mean there's any real spending boost. It's just a case of stacking the statistics to make the government look good.

But finally, what cements the spending ambition as nothing more than a PR blurb is its total and utter detachment from any realistic appreciation of our current strategic situation. Is Turnbull telling us the political situation in our region has deteriorated so much he expects a war pretty soon? A covenant such as this makes absolutely no sense devoid of its immediate political context. The undertaking to spend on regardless has nothing to do with strategy and everything to do with politics.

That's fine, but this strips the document of meaning, leaving it devoid of everything but a warm inner glow. That's it's secret. It's soft light offers reassurance to every constituency, alienating nobody and promising so much. The fact it won't be delivered becomes irrelevant. What's been lost is an opportunity to consider the changing nature of conflict in the modern world; how we'll adapt to the new technologies that are transforming war; and how we should engage with our region.

But back to the key point. Two per cent? Was the spin really necessary? It's been a great soundbite but we now know it means absolutely nothing. It'd be easier to believe a promise that no child would be living in poverty by (insert the date of your choice here). But hang on a minute, Bob Hawke's already made that commitment and it turned out to be empty too. I think Turnbull knows he's talking piffle – but he just doesn't care. He reckons we're all mugs and we'll eat up the spending pledges without thinking too much about them. It's difficult not to suspect our new PM's already abandoned more or less everything but the pretence of good government. DWP16 does lay down a marker. It gives us a precise hour from which to date the failure of the Turnbull government.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.