Lessons from Australia's defence review

by Dave Perry with Tom Ring

Embassy News
March 18, 2016

The Trudeau government committed during the election to initiate a comprehensive review of Canada’s defence policy. It subsequently committed to completing it by year’s end and undertaking public consultations along the way, a process expected to begin shortly. 

As the defence policy review starts, Canada might benefit from the recent experience of our allies. In February, the Government of Australia released the results of a nearly two year, consultative process of reassessing Australia’s defence policy. 

The strategic geopolitical circumstances of Canada and Australia are difficult to compare, given the latter’s geographic isolation from its closest ally and proximity to shifting great power balances in its neighborhood.

Australia’s comparable interests in the stability of the global trading system as a trade dependant nation, membership in the Five Eyes community, relative economic and military size, and system of government, however, are all points of commonality.

For those reasons, the Australian approach to undertaking a defence review provides a good template for Canada to use as we conduct our own. While differing timelines will require some deviations, and our specific policies will necessarily be different, the Australian process lays down a clear roadmap to follow.   

The Australian document sets out three specific sovereignty and security interests—homeland defence, near region stability, and broader region and global security—then establishes specific defence objectives that outline the activities the government expects its defence forces to be able to undertake in pursuit of its strategic interests. From that, the investments required to achieve them are itemized, along with a long-term budget plan. Finally, a strategic plan for working with the domestic defence industry to implement the defence policy was also published.

As a result, Australia published a very comprehensive defence white paper, with an accompanying integrated investment program, as well as a defence industry policy statement.

Two novel aspects of the Australian review are worth considering for our own.

The first is its resourcing. For the first time in Australia's history, its defence policy review includes a fully-costed and independently-verified investment plan covering all planned equipment and infrastructure over a 10-year horizon. In doing so, it commits Australia to increasing its defence expenditures to two per cent of GDP, the same target that Canada had long signed up for within NATO but failed to meet.

All told, this will result in an unprecedented investment of approximately $195 billion over the 10-year period. More notable than the money itself is the fact that its adequacy has been independently assured.

The second area that should be of interest in Canada is the document’s clear vision of the strategic partnership with the defence industry in Australia that is needed in order to meet  strategic objectives. This is focused on delivering capability, fostering innovation, driving exports and cutting procurement red tape.

In 2014, the previous Government of Canada outlined similar objectives with the release of its Defence Procurement Strategy. It is unclear whether similar objectives are part of the current government’s approach to defence.

And the new Australian approach of recognizing its defence industry as a fundamental building block of defence capability, and crafting a framework oriented around maintaining sovereign industrial capabilities in key strategic areas, goes far further than Canada’s current procurement strategy in forming a partnership with industry. 

The effort underway to comprehensively review defence is much needed—in part because it has not been done for some time, so the muscle memory in the bureaucracy has atrophied. That's all the more reason to not reinvent the wheel, and borrow liberally from our friends.

Tom Ring is a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and Dave Perry is the Senior Analyst of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Photo credit: The Hill Times photo: Jake Wright

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