Commentary: Ukraine mission is OK but big defence decisions needed urgently

5 Jul 2022

Anthony Albanese was right to go to Ukraine – right morally, strategically, symbolically, politically. But his main work on security lies at home. And that must start soon. 

Much more important than anything Albanese will do overseas are the decisions he and Defence Minister Richard Marles will make on actually acquiring military capabilities. The previous government, for all its rhetoric, was hopeless, as were the Labor governments that preceded it.

Labor has been in office only six weeks. But very soon it has to take big decisions on defence capability if we are not to lose another term to inaction in this critical area.

No one loves submarines more than I do, but even nuclear-powered submarines are not the be-all and end-all of deterrence. We already suffer pervasive capability gaps all over defence. We have neither lethality, survivability nor mass. We have nothing at all of an asymmetric capability that would deter any potential aggressor in our maritime approaches.

There is, in fact, a colossal mess in defence to be sorted out and fixed up. There were two plausible approaches Marles could have taken. One was to sack everyone at the top to show that the old culture of endless delay, irrelevant spending, hopelessly mismanaged projects, nobody ever taking responsibility, useless capabilities soaking up billions of dollars, was no longer going to be the operating system for defence.

The other approach was to keep existing structures in place but bend them to the government’s will. Albanese, Marles, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, former defence spokesman Brendan O’Connor and others in speeches and interviews have made it clear they understand the urgency of the situation.

Albanese and Marles have decided to keep the Defence leadership in place but task it with these urgent requirements. For this risky strategy to work, it is absolutely vital, of the first order of importance, that the government give clear, unambiguous, time-bound instructions to Defence.