For a bold man, Peter Dutton's surprisingly shy when it comes to engaging with the media, point-blank refusing to answer awkward questions or explain the detail. It was exactly the same when he appeared at the Press Club on Friday. The Defence Minister arrived. He spoke. He revealed nothing. Noise without content.
There was nothing new. Assertions without evidence; just "believe". He repeated the old, hoary assumption: China's bad, so we need to spend more money on the forces. What he didn't offer, though, was detail on how effectively the money is being spent, or offer any way out of this spiral towards war. Rather the reverse. He talked up conflict, accused Labor of appeasement, and stressed the need to stand up to Beijing.
All that was missing was a plan. This is the measure against which his words must be measured.
He cancelled new submarines without announcing a replacement. The future frigates are running up to two years late. Boxer armoured reconnaissance vehicles are overweight and dependent on ammunition imported from overseas. Both the Taipan and Seahawk helicopter fleets were recently grounded. The list of problems and deficiencies extends into the distance. We can't effectively use the equipment we have. For the minister, however, none of this seems to be a problem.
He insists defence spending will continue to climb. So it will, but it would be nice to get something in return.
The only thing he appears unable to guarantee is that all this expenditure will actually result in the delivery of equipment in a meaningful time frame. Nor will he vouchsafe how we'll pay for this huge spending boost, but without increasing taxes the money will still have to come from somewhere. Medicare, perhaps? Education? Surely not ministerial salaries?
There seem to be two options.
One is that the minister is well-meaning but completely out of his depth. He's simply not up to delivering a coherent plan to boost the current forces, let alone future projects.
The alternative is that his rhetoric is completely dissociated from reality, and represents nothing more than an attempt to elevate defence as an election issue. Either is plausible. Perhaps Dutton himself doesn't know where the truth lies.
His words shifted the audience to a world of make-believe, where intellect is suspended and emotion reigns supreme.
Take his one-liner, reported extensively in the weekend papers: "If Taiwan is taken [by Beijing]," Dutton asserted, "surely the Senkakus are next."
Pardon? Is that really the right order? Is he more worried about five uninhabitable, guano-covered islands and three isolated rocks poking out of the water than the nearly 24 million people living in Taiwan? Does he really see occupation of Chinese Taipei - a country his government doesn't even recognise - as nothing more than a stepping stone to what he asks us to believe is Beijing's ultimate objective: the seizure of a tawdry collection of barren rocks claimed by three countries that can't even agree on a name - Senkaku, Diaoyu or Tiaoyutai?
Although enjoining the audience "please don't rely on your imagination", Dutton then urged everyone to do precisely that. Fantasy, devoid of fact; untethered to reality.
His speaking technique is simple. It plays on the oldest tradition in the world, used by every parent. A scare story with a big, bad bogey-man to frighten credulous children and terrify them into supine acquiescence. You don't need to be a China dove to recognise that whenever Dutton begins to speak, a huge gulf, a gaping chasm, opens up between the rhetoric he's using and the reality he's pretending to describe. There's nothing behind the scenes exept stagehands rushing to wheel new sets into place, as they prepare the stage for the next titanic episode of (always curiously bloodless) conflict.
He isn't ready to accept the death and destruction his words compel.
It is, of course, the sort of thing children love. Perhaps this explains Dutton's appeal. Investigate closely, however, and you see it's a world peopled by stick figures, with all action taking place in two dimensions.
His words don't just match reality: it's rather that they occupy a reality all of their own.
The storyline is simple. He creates danger, conjuring up a Manichean world with an epic struggle taking place between light and dark, good and evil. Then Dutton arrives - ta da! - with swirling cape. Flat-footed simple talk banishes the dastardly villains. It's a compelling narrative, but fails to make the jump from cartoon naivete into the grainy footage of the complex world in which we live. It lacks verisimilitude. Dutton's locked in a world as uncomplicated - and as unrealistic - as a primary school play.
He uses simple phrases and uncomplicated ideas to create a false dichotomy. Unless we're "standing up to China", we become a "tributary state". There's no room for nuance or negotiation, everything is either/or. Perhaps he's frightened by the actuality of a complex world, one where every country in south-east Asia (along with the US) had confronted a similar problem but found a way to back away from conflict, rather than escalate towards it.
If Dutton's fair dinkum on sending diggers to die for Taipei, for example, why doesn't he immediately move to recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Why don't we share military exchanges, or joint exercises? He refuses to be grilled on any of these issues, because he has no answer apart from spin and fairy floss.
Senior cabinet ministers shouldn't be spouting such febrile verbiage full of bluster drifting towards thoughts of war. Is that really where he's heading? Because that's where his words will end.
Attempting to tough it out with Beijing is pointless. Striding out in front of Washington is feckless. Talking so readily about war is dangerous. Worst of all, however, is his inability to administer an effective defence force - or equip it properly for the future. The next war won't have any winners, particularly in Australia.
This is not a game.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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