Indefensible: Abbott’s Attack Over Defence Finds Mark; Gillard Flounders

If you’re Julia Gillard — politically moribund, lurching between crises, facing electoral doom — one would think you’d pick your fights carefully. This time she’s started a brawl in the traditional conservative stronghold of defence policy; the resulting smackdown is nothing if not deserved.

As I begin comment tonight, it’s with a disbelieving shake of the head and a cynical laugh: how could such an intelligent woman, by all accounts a clever enough operator despite her government’s record and her poor personal performance as Prime Minister, end up painted into a corner so badly over such a critical issue?

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is in the US this week; meeting key political figures and industry groups in and around the US government, he is looking and sounding every inch the Prime Minister in waiting.

By most accounts, it’s been quite a successful trip thus far — a reality that must surely grate on Gillard, and generate resentment as the images and reports of the genuinely warm reception given to Abbott and the highly favourable impression he is making on his hosts are beamed back home.

One of the more exquisite ironies of Australian politics at the moment is that whilst Gillard (and her government generally) revel in portraying Tony Abbott as “Dr No” and as a master purveyor of negativity, often it’s the government and the Prime Minister who are the most adept at it.

And this time, it may well rebound on Gillard; in resorting to the usual shrill complaints about “Abbott negativity,” she draws focus to a major and dangerous failure of her government, shrouded in too-smart-by-half semantics and betraying an insidious yet predictable reality of its own.

Abbott, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Washington — a leading US conservative think tank — has said that he was concerned Australia’s defence spending had fallen to its lowest level, as a percentage of GDP, since 1938.

And to summarise: partially in reference to some $6 billion being cut in May from Australia’s defence budget over the next four years, the likes of former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage have echoed Abbott’s sentiments, saying in effect that our resulting spend of 1.6% of GDP is inadequate, and should be at least 2%.

Mr Armitage also observed — pointedly — that a spend of 2% of GDP was an “entry price” to NATO, and that Australia could be construed as enjoying a free ride at the US’ expense on matters of defence.

There was an even a warning, more pointedly, that Australia risked its “credibility” as an ally; this from hard men not given to frivolous intrigues or to the petty vagaries of the internal polity of other countries, be they friend or foe.

Enter Gillard.

“Mr Abbott has reached a new low in negativity by going overseas and criticising this nation’s national security credentials in front of an overseas audience. That is a new low in negativity even for Mr Abbott.”

Well…for starters, I’d be asking who could blame Abbott for doing so? Defence isn’t the sexiest subject, electorally speaking; and to the extent federal issues get media coverage, it’s the carbon tax, the mining tax, Craig Thomson, Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions and Julia Gillard’s abominable performance as Prime Minister that soak up the available airtime.

And quite aside from that, Abbott and the Liberal Party are entering a phase in which they are preparing for a transfer to government; plain speaking to this country’s most important ally and defence partner is entirely appropriate, given the context.

Gillard goes on to accuse Abbott of now attempting to trash a defence budget he voted for at the time it was presented to Parliament as part of the federal budget in May.

This is disingenuous: courtesy of the arrangements Gillard has in place with key Independents and Communists Greens, the numbers simply do not exist for Abbott and his colleagues to attempt to amend these bills; and more to the point, no Liberal leader is ever going to vote against the allocation of money to the defence budget!

Gillard goes on, starting to ruin her argument by saying that defence spending exceeded $100 billion over the four-year forward estimates period for the first time ever under Labor, and remained at that level.

There is no denial, of course, of the cuts to the defence budget the government made in May; we will come back to those.

But looking at her figure of $100 million, this is highly misleading; the amounts are not indexed, meaning their real value will decline by some 3-4% per annum, accounting for inflation, over the very period Gillard trumpets that they will be maintained.

The figures nominated by Gillard do not account for economic growth over the forward estimates period either, which means that as the economy expands by some 3% per annum on average (assuming the government’s figures are correct — which, normally, they are not) the real proportion of defence spending as a percentage of GDP will correspondingly decline over the estimates period.

That decline in proportionate spending is in addition to the fall in its real value on account of the fact it is not indexed.

So who’s hitting which “new low” here, Prime Minister?

It’s an article of faith that Australia’s armed services, by and large, are supportive of conservative governments because conservative governments are supportive of them;  the ALP is a ruthlessly vindictive creature and has been for decades, but defence and national security are areas in which the type of petty payback typically indulged in by Labor is a dangerous game to play — literally.

Gillard tried to assert the superiority of the Labor case, pointing to the recent announcement of American troops to be deployed on Australian soil, starting with the marines in Darwin.

Yet this simply serves to underline the case of Abbott and to validate the arguments of hawks in the US that Australia is taking a free ride at US expense: the enhanced defence arrangements are based squarely on an imported troop presence and hardly amount to anything of substance on the part of the ALP.

But in the wild orgy of hysteria built around the portrayal of Tony Abbott as a carping whinger, Gillard and her cohorts have missed one rather salient point.

All the cuts that were instituted in the May budget this year — of which those inflicted on defence were a mere part — were redirected to the realisation of two objectives, and two objectives only.

The first, of course, was the “paper surplus” — the mad and manic requirement to deliver a surplus budget, after years of promises and non-delivery, even though there is already anecdotal evidence that the $1.2 billion surplus is already on track to come in as a $15 billion deficit.

It was a typically empty gesture at the hand of the incompetent occupant of the Treasurer’s office.

The second was to take every cent of money left over after that exercise has been completed, package it up with a bow, and to fling it at carefully targeted sections of the electorate as bribes, sweeteners and other forms of payoff in a cack-brained attempt to restore the Labor Party’s terminal electoral position.

The fact the bribe didn’t work, and that reputable polling sees the Labor vote drift even further downward, makes the episode even more offensive.

You see, folks, all the money Gillard cut out of defence — and from other areas, to be fair — was all to buy you off, and to buy votes.

It didn’t work, and in the meantime the country’s defence forces, always in need of additional resources, will be stretched that much further over the next few years.

And Australia will be that much more vulnerable if the global political climate goes pear-shaped — with or without the support of Uncle Sam.

With that in mind, if Abbott wants to share a little candour on the subject with his hosts in Washington, I say then so be it.