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Dr Knuckles: ‘Guns or butter?’

Posted by ReBelle Blogger on

CRAMP’s resident political columnist Dr Knuckles explains why we should be paying more attention to foreign policy and defence in Australia. Did you know the Australian government spent $17 billion on planes that can’t shoot straight? Read on to find out more.

In the age of social media, there is no shortage of news. Whether it’s ‘fake’ or otherwise or ‘outrage politics’. Currently, my twitter feed is going ape shit over cabinet files being hilariously lost in a literal cabinet, Donald Trump’s predictable #SOTU2018 address, and the ongoing confusion about whether Aziz Ansari is a sexual harasser or just a lousy root (#metoo? How about #whohasnt?).

As interesting, weird and important as these news items are, other issues get comparatively less attention. For example, foreign policy and defence. Academic studies have repeatedly shown that Australians are less interested in foreign policy than domestic political, economic and social issues – except in the case of significant events, such as the Iraq War.

Given the amount of money that is funnelled into defence (approx. 2% of Australia’s GDP) it seems a shame that more outrage isn’t directed toward it. So buckle up – here are three examples of why we should be paying more attention to what Australia government is doing in defence and foreign policy.

Firstly, under the Howard Government, Australia committed to buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighters – in other words, planes with guns. New testing revealed that this fifth generation, top of the range defence equipment has over 200 flaws. What’s more, the JSF’s cannot shoot straight. That’s right, they can’t hit a target. And Australia bought 72 of these shit heaps at a cost of $17 billion. We seem to have missed the conversation about what Australian air forces would or should be aiming at.  

Secondly, the Australian government has just announced lofty ambitions to transform this country into a top 10 world exporter of arms. In case this news passed you by, the government plans to use a $3.8 billion fund to underwrite a massive expansion of arms exports by providing finance to local defence equipment manufacturers. The government has hailed this ‘new defence export strategy’ as a jobs creation plan. 

Making the top 10 is an almost impossible task. It would require Australia to overtake countries that already have significant infrastructure in the development of large arms like submarines, strike fighters and the like. Australian defence think tank – the Australian Strategic Policy Institute – suggested that arms exporters in this country have little trouble finding private funding, so even the economic rationale for the government’s funding plan is problematic. This is what is commonly known as ‘military keynesianism’; the propping up of domestic industries that produce defence capabilities. For example, defence is the only industry in Australia exempt from its bilateral and multilateral free trade commitments, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Other industries, such as car manufacturing, haven’t been so lucky.

Meanwhile, the Australian 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper ostensibly committed us to promoting peace and stability in the region and across the globe. Yet, arms exports allow bloody civil wars to continue long after they’re over. The purchasing of big weapons allows security spirals to develop increased insecurity and mistrust in the international system. At the same time, the coalition has made successive cuts in humanitarian aid. What kind of message does this send to the international community about Australian values?

Thirdly and less recently, let us not forget the submarines. The 2016 Defence White Paper committed Australia to $50 billion on submarines to be built in South Australia under the tender of a French company, DCNS. Former defence minister David Johnston infamously said he “wouldn’t trust South Australian submarine builders to build a canoe”. One of the central motivators for this spend was good old-fashioned pork barrelling - vulnerable Liberal ministers such as Christopher Pyne needed to shore up electoral support in South Australia, by propping up the flailing manufacturing industry. 

All these examples highlight the secrecy that surrounds decisions about defence spending. Not only is this anti-democratic, it grossly lacks both accountability and transparency. To the voters, governments can justify defence spending using rhetoric around national security. Any oppositions that dispute the plans can be cast as soft on defence of the country, which isn’t a situation any political party wants to be in.

In the field of international relations, debates about defence spending are often described as ‘guns or butter’. Essentially, it’s a question of how government should balance their priorities. Should they allocate funds to defend the country from ‘threat’ (however that might be defined), or on social programs like education or health? Is it more prudent for governments to spend money on exporting arms or providing overseas aid and development funds for communities in need? 

The other part of the problem is the language around defence policy and procurements, hilariously lampooned on the episode about the Defence White Policy on ABC’s Utopia. The white policy is bad, but there is worse. For example, if you try to read any documents from the producers of the F-35 – US company Lockheed Martin – you hit a veritable wall of jargonistic phases such as ‘interoperability capabilities’, ‘avionic mission systems’ and ‘Multifunctional Advanced Data Link’.

Finally, the defence discussions largely exclude women. While Marise Payne is responsible for the defence portfolio, issues of defence policy in both decision-making and public discussion continue to be the purview of men. I read dozens of policy commentaries after the 2016 Defence White Paper was released and only one was from a woman, and she was arguing that a foreign aid white paper was needed. I mentioned this to male defence expert and he replied, “Why is this a problem?” Sigh. It’s a problem because this spending is enabled by a masculinised culture that excludes female voices, and promotes skewed ideas about what ‘security’, ‘power’ and ‘defence’ mean.

Missiles are even shaped like dicks, for fuck’s sake. 

- Dr Knuckles

Photos: Nat Rowe

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