EVOLUTION OF AUSTRALIA'S STRATEGIC DEFENCE POLICY
Australia’s leading role in East Timor is testimony to how far Australia’s defence has come over the past century. For the first time in Australia's military history, at the behest of the United Nations (UN Security Resolution 1264 (1999)) Australia took the responsibility to put together a UN-mandated multinational force and to lead that force. Such a leading role would have been unthinkable in the early part of the last century, when Australian governments of all political persuasions took a back seat on defence and security matters. By and large, they took the view that Australia was an indefensible continent - at least with the resources at Australia's disposal. Australia needed and sought the protection of more powerful friends prepared to defend it. To secure this protection, Australian troops were committed all around the world, initially in support of British and, later, American operations. At the time, decisions to fight for broader causes elsewhere were rational - based on assessments by governments of the day that this was in Australia's national interest. Certainly, Australia’s unique strategic circumstances, together with the relatively small size and the then limited capabilities of our armed forces, restricted the range of choices possible on defence and security matters.
The post-Viet Nam era heralded a significant shift in Australian defence thinking. The 1976 Defence White Paper was the first to set out a self-reliant defence policy for Australia, and the 1987 Defence White Paper added substance to this concept of self-reliance. Defence policy no longer rested primarily on attracting the protective attention of powerful friends. When it came to defending its territory, Australia would, for most credible contingencies, not rely on allied combat forces - although we would welcome their assistance and rely on their logistical, intelligence and diplomatic support. Concentrating on the defence of Australia was to be neither at the expense of, nor to the exclusion of, other national security interests with our allies and regional friends.
More recently, particularly since the Strategic Review 1997 - Australia’s Strategic Policy, Defence policy has been based on a more outward-looking focus than reflected in the earlier White Papers, recognising that Australia’s security and future prosperity are increasingly dependent on that of the wider region. Our involvement in East Timor reflects this approach.
Now, at the start of the twenty-first century, the development of Australian strategic policy is at a crossroads. The Government and people of Australia expect the Australian Defence Force to respond to a wide range of tasks, from supporting the community in times of need, such as after natural disasters, through peacekeeping to peace enforcement. However, increasing costs and budgetary pressures have led the Australian Government to the realisation that it must make a number of critical decisions about the future role and shape of the Australian Defence Force. The rapid change in Australia's strategic environment, along with enormous social, economic and technological changes nationally and internationally, has also brought to the forefront questions about Australia’s future security, in the wider sense, and where military capability fits into that future.
The Government is addressing these questions by conducting a fundamental review of defence policy to take account of these changes. In June 2000 the Government launched the Defence Review 2000 Public Discussion Paper, a precursor to the Defence White Paper due to be released in late 2000. A major aspect of the review includes a public consultation program to listen to the views of the Australian community. The intention is to extend the debate on the associated fundamental national policy issues beyond the usual select handful of defence specialists. The feedback from the public consultation process will, in turn, be reported to the National Security Committee of Cabinet so that it can be taken into account during preparation of the White Paper.
The White Paper will be the first major review of defence policy since the 1986 Dibb review.
A well-articulated strategy for how to go forward is fundamental if Australia is to have the type of Australian Defence Force it needs in order to meet all future challenges that lie ahead in this century. Importantly, the Government of the day must have available to it appropriate military options to secure Australia’s strategic objectives. This White Paper will provide the basis for force structuring and preparedness and for resourcing the defence establishment. It is intended to deliver a strategically appropriate and financially sensible policy direction that will shape defence force structure and activities well into the future.
This page last updated 24 September 2007