The head-to-head debates organised by the National Press Club and other organisations finally wrapped up last week. Despite Mr Howard’s apparent willingness to debate Mr Rudd on economics ‘any time’, it doesn’t look like we’ll see anything of that sort.
The final debates were Brendan Nelson and Joel Fitzgibbon on Defence, held at the Lowy Institute, and Helen Coonan and Stephen Conroy on Communications. The latter wasn’t so much a debate as it was a moderated interview in the Sky Australia studios – and perhaps that accounts for the appalling behaviour demonstrated therein. I’ll get to that in my mext post.
The first thing that has to be said about the Defence debate is that the quality of the audio was truly horrendous. Rather than take a direct audio feed, the broadcast relied on camera microphones – the result was a muddy-sounding, echoing mumble. Accordingly, this report is going to be a little less detailed than others, I’m afraid.
The Coalition have a formula, and they’re sticking to it – a recap of the wonderful things they’ve done for Australia. In the case of Defence, this largely came out as Labor-bashing. The Coalition, on gaining office in 1996, inherited a huge debt, which they’ve systematically eliminated – and all without cutting defence spending at all. The number of combat-ready troops is up, our ocean borders are comprehensively defended, and vague assertions of efficiency were made. Nelson’s opening also included a tribute to the 4100 defence personnel currently serving in the capacity of ‘protecting the Australian people on our borders, in the region and in the world’. Tribute made, the room was treated to a few minutes of jingoism – that there are some truths in Australia by which we live, and which are worthwhile to defend. Just what those truths were went unspecified.
Moving on to plans for the future, Nelson gave the audience a shopping list. Under a Coalition government, there will be new helicopters, new planes, new destroyers, and new contracts for defence projects. The defence sector will employ 7000 more people over the next five years. Two defence technical colleges, in Queensland and Adelaide, will be up and running, as will a ‘National Defence Skills Institute’, that will train 1100 students in university and vocational training positions. There will also be a $450 million increase in funding to Army reserves.
He wound up by warning that the challenges posed by defence were increasingly diverse – population shifts, pandemics, terrorism and maritime security were all mentioned. Then the bogeyman was let out of the wardrobe – the ‘global struggle against extremism’, which, he said, was ‘essentially a global movement of Muslim extremism’, was our biggest challenge. For this reason, it is necessary to maintain troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘We owe it to our children to stand up for the values that made Australia great’, Nelson said, and it was important that we didn’t ‘allow terrorism to change the shape of our country and our world’.
Questions zeroed in on the Coalition’s lack of meaningful natural security policy, the lack of an exit strategy from Iraq, and the possible increasing of Australian forces in Afghanistan to make up for the probable withdrawal of Dutch forces. Nelson’s answers were largely inaudible. What could be heard were broad statements about having spend $10 million on intelligence, the fostering of ‘fledgling democracy’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and Timor, and the inevitable accusation that Labor had failed to spend ‘enough’ money on its policies. This last was in response to the questions about Labor’s dental/health care plan – a plan which the Coalition does not, apparently, have in its own policy.
There was a fair amount of sledging going on in answering questions, too. Labor in government was, he accused, was unable to keep planes in the air, and half our our trains and trucks were broken down. He also asked, somewhat petulantly and disingenuously, ‘How come we can fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and not Iraq?’
Fitzgibbon, too, was reading from his party’s playbook, thanking everyone present and sharing a joke with the audience – in this case, ‘I bet you’re all grateful the election is coming up soon – especially the advertising blackout’.
His initial approach was oblique – a general denial of the ‘me-too’ label that the Coalition has attempted to attach to the ALP’s policies throughout this election. Drawing the differences between the parties on health, education, climate change and industrial relations, he also acknowledged that common ground between the parties should not necessarily be surprising – a nod to the oft-repeated ‘economic conservative’ strategy.
He went on to give the list of common ground – and carefully pointed out the small but (he believes) significant differences in their policies. The US-Australia alliance is critical to national security – but Labor would push for a greater level of independence. Greater procurement of defence materiel is important – but it must be part of a systematic program, not a series of ad hoc decisions. Higher numbers of recruits are important – but retention of personnel is a greater problem – and he announced the extension of health and dental care for families of ADF personnel.
The only area of complete agreement with the Coalition was on Afghanistan. We have to stay, said Fitzgibbon, and ‘we commit to that’.
Common ground dispensed with, Fitzgibbon got down to the criticism. He alleged the Coalition’s spending programs were full of cost blowouts, that the recruiting program was without structure, and that their failure to produce a Defence White Paper (which draws together all the facts and figures on defence spending, commitments and logistics needs) amounted to a ‘lack of strategic direction’. A Rudd government, he said, would immediately commission such a White Paper.
Finally, Fitzgibbon got to the issue for which the room had, undoubtedly, been waiting – Iraq. It was ‘sad’, he said, that the parties could not be bipartisan on it, but in Labor’s view, Australia simply does not have the capacity to lock up so many resources in this war (which he added in an aside was a mistake in the first place). Praising the troops, he said we needed to focus on the ongoing problems in Afghanistan and the region, rather than in the Middle East.
Fitzgibbon’s questions were somewhat kinder, although he repeatedly failed to come up with concrete policies on just how Labor would provide incentives to new recruits other than health care. His answers were as vague as Nelson’s, but where Nelson appealed to nationalism and ‘values’, Fitzgibbon – in keeping with Labor’s ‘looking after ordinary Australians’ focus – championed what he called ‘kitchen table needs’.
The single most telling point made in an otherwise largely uninspiring and uninteresting debate (even without the audio problems) came from Fitzgibbon. When Australia was asked to make a small contribution to peacekeeping and protection duty for aid workers in Darfur, the Howard government was forced to decline, because of our troop commitment in Iraq. This, Fitzgibbon said, was bad enough – but what about next time, especially if that ‘next time’ was in our region?