We use stories to make sense of the world around us.
Some - like the idea that the Reserve Bank's full of technocratic boffins, perching over abacuses and using interest-rate movements to precisely fine tune the economy - are just confabulations, but still have their uses. Imagining the dour, suit-wearing economists as Gringotts' bankers from Harry Potter offers a short-cut to understanding what's really going on. Picturing them as a horde of squabbling goblins allows us to see the world in a new way. Of course their economic model is broken and of course we need to engage with reality in a new way. The way we do monetary policy needs to be reformed.
Changing the narrative reveals new insights. It opens up new opportunities and that's why politics revolves around telling stories. Reframing the picture allows change: bad ones lead to a dead-end, successively closing-off options.
This was how the previous government left defence.
Its grand narrative was simple: the inevitability of conflict with China. This led to the more detailed story: a need to boost spending on conventional forces. Australia would spend massive sums on acquiring expensive items of equipment (like submarines), designed for single missions (fighting in the South China Sea), committed to an unwavering strategy (supporting the US). The only thing it failed to explain was where the money to pay for all this was going to be found: who will pay more tax, or which hospitals will shut? The Coalition's story backed the country into a corner. Labor needs a pathway out.
That's why Defence Minister Richard Marles has appointed a predecessor, Stephen Smith, together with the massively respected former forces' boss Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, to conduct a strategic review into force structure, preparedness and investments.
Marles has recognised the unaffordable futility of continuing down the path laid out by Peter Dutton. Establishing this review provides the critical off ramp. It's a highly sophisticated way of allowing Labor to change the narrative, or story, about the way this country goes about defending itself.
That's why Marles chose his writers carefully. Smith needs no introduction. His understanding of defence is visceral and instinctive. He will finesse the report to ensure its findings are politically watertight and financially affordable and deliver support from Labor doubters who want to cut defence spending.
Houston provides the strategic, technocratic brain with top-notch reasoning and reliable analysis of weapons capability and development. Together their analysis will be unimpeachable offering Marles the opportunity to redesign defence strategy and remake the forces. Together they'll craft a plausible and accurate story; one the nation can get behind.
In reality it's a white paper in everything but name.
At one time these were foundational strategic documents; authored by luminaries; endorsed by the services; presenting a bipartisan view of the world. Over the past two decades however, they've degenerated into little more than political cudgels to beat the opposition, reassure the public, and share out spoils. The most recent (2016 and the update in 2020) were simply poorly camouflaged political documents offering spending plans for new equipment but not showing where the money necessary to pay for them would coming from. They didn't integrate equipment into any overarching strategy and just assumed we would fight alongside the US. They failed to explain that inevitable scientific advances risked making huge items of expenditure (think submarines and armoured vehicles) suddenly obsolete.
This report will explain how the world has altered dramatically but our strategic guidance - the story we tell ourselves about how we're defending the country - is now hopelessly outdated. Without having to go through the slow fuss, consultation process and rigmarole of a white paper Marles will get exactly what he needs to push anyone beating the "drums of war" back into their box. He's crafting an entirely new, Labor defence strategy, based on an understanding of technology, capability and cost.
And guess what? It will be very different from the way things were done in the past.
To understand just how vital this is just take one of the shibboleths of defence, the new submarine.
This has been an intractable problem since first appearing in the 2009 white paper after a brain-wave from the fertile mind of Kevin Rudd. Back then it seemed like a brilliant idea: today, not so much. The concept was right then and remains right today - the only problem is that it can't be done without breaking the budget or placing all our eggs in the one basket. The plan gone through so many different iterations - conventional to nuclear; silent and small yet long-range and capable; Australian to French; built here to built overseas, from $50 billion to costing more than $110 billion and counting - for the simple reason that what's needed is physically impossible. It can't be done.
Then there's the army's $49 billion - billion - project to buy armoured vehicles originally designed for a land battle against Russians in Europe or the North Koreans in Asia. Both contenders are great items of equipment, but that doesn't mean a 45-tonne vehicle is an appropriate answer for Australia's requirements in the very different strategic circumstances of the Pacific.
Marles has other tasks, too.
Defence Chief Angus Campbell's attempt to bring the atrocious indiscipline and egregious, murderous, and out-of-control actions of some soldiers in the Middle East were stymied the moment they hit Dutton's desk. Before confirming the new generation of service chiefs in their jobs Marles ensured he received guarantees ensuring they're on board with his vision of the future.
The new minister has carefully and deliberately established a structure that will allow him to make a clean break with the past. Any islands of resistance holding out for a return to the old ways of the past will be quickly overcome and the force structure will be guided by this strategic framework. This review will enable Marles to implement the dramatic changes he believes in. He's turning out to be a dynamic minister after all.
A fresh wind is blowing through the corridors of Russell Offices.
- Nicholas Stuart is editor of ability.news and a regular columnist.