Date: May 05 2012
Almost every Australian Defence white paper has been overtaken by events, and the one launched in 2009 to great fanfare is no exception.
The 2009 white paper, launched by former prime minister Kevin Rudd aboard a warship in Sydney Harbour, appears to have been overtaken by the global financial crisis which made its financial underpinnings fundamentally unsustainable.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard alluded to the shift in circumstances at the launch of the 2013 white paper process on Thursday.
At the time of the 2009 white paper, the global financial crisis was still unfolding, as were its strategic impacts, she said.
''We need to take stock of those impacts for our defence arrangements and for the defence budget for our key defence partners, our allies,'' Ms Gillard said.
The Australia Defence Association's Neil James put it in simpler terms.
''No previous Defence white paper has been funded, so the implicit demise of the 2009 version is no surprise,'' he said.
Defence enjoyed generous funding under the Howard Coalition government after a long period of comparative neglect which left it hard-pressed to respond properly to emerging developments that appeared to come thick and fast.
That started with the 1999 East Timor operation, followed by missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomons.
The generosity continued in the 2009 white paper with defence promised 3 per cent real growth out to 2017-18 and 2.2 per cent until 2030, along with indexation of 2.5 per cent for the entire period.
But even with that generous level of funding, analysts expressed concern that Australia could really afford the military build-up outlined in the 2009 white paper, which included 12 new submarines, three advanced air warfare destroyers, two large landing ships, up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters plus new surveillance aircraft and drones.
Even the US embassy had its doubts, according to one of the US diplomatic cables issued by WikiLeaks.
Part of Defence's problem, manifested in the last two budgets, was that it couldn't spend all the money it had. It made a significant contribution to the bottom line in the May 2011 budget, handing back $1.5 billion, mostly in unspent new-equipment funding.
Defence will again make a very significant contribution to the budget next Tuesday.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith revealed a project for army self-propelled field guns would be cancelled, saving $225 million, while the purchase of the next tranche of 12 JSF aircraft would be deferred, providing a $1.6 billion boost to the budget bottom line. All up, Defence is likely to shed around $4 billion over the next four years.
Under current financial guidance, that money is not lost to Defence and will return in a less financially strained era. But that will mean a very big boost to Defence funding somewhere down the track, and analysts query just how feasible that really is.
The 2009 white paper was remarkably light on financial details, which covered just one and half pages. The 2013 version can be expected to do better. AAP
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