The Morrison government has recently made two announcements about extra funding for defence to the tune of $270 billion dollars, and an increase of numbers of students in the tertiary education sector for no extra funding (a move which essentially amounts to less funding per student across the board in tertiary education).
In what follows I’d like to address the value proposition implied in those two decisions, presenting the argument that the government gets far more ‘bang for its buck’ from education than from military spending. I’d also like to present an alternative proposal that would achieve the goals of making Australia more secure, resilient and wealthy than the government’s current plan.
The alternative is this: we would have a more secure Australia if we sunk $270 billion dollars into funding community gardens than we will if we buy new planes, missiles and submarines. It also makes a lot more sense, and this post explains why.
The case for education
Just to be clear in his recent announcement education minister Dan Tehan spelled out that the Australian Government already subsidises universities to the tune of $18 billion dollars a year. TAFEs and other tertiary education entities appear to receive the remaining $20 billion. That’s no small change but the amount the government spends on education as a whole (including schools, and early learning) is still less than defence.
Now while some people go on endlessly about how education is always the best investment, I’m more than aware that such wishy washy arguments aren’t likely to sway Scott Morrison, who likes to base policy on facts . (that is, unless these facts suggest that his party used sports funding to pork barrel the last election or that coal use leads to climate change, which contributes to increased bush fires).
But what I think does make a compelling argument for university education is that the $18 billion dollar investment generates around $37 billion of income for the Australian economy. Critics point out that only about $15 billion of that is direct income for universities in the shape of international student fees – the rest comes from the contribution international students make to the economy. However, I think it is fair to argue that if it wasn’t for Australia’s world leading university sector (Australia has 7 universities in the top 100 in the world, with more than China (6) and only fewer than the US and UK – an impressive result for a small country), these students would not be in Australia spending their money.
While COVID has clearly undermined the income universities receive from international students, the government could, with a little strategising around quarantine, use Australia’s relative COVID-free status to promote Australian universities globally and turn this into a massive windfall for our economy and our society. How many international students would jump at the chance to move to Australia to study considering we are the only country with world class universities that remains COVID free (well us and the University of Auckland)? This could also encourage immigration of the best and brightest from overseas, helping address Australia’s population decline in the best possible way.
But that’s not what they’re doing, choosing instead to defund the industry at its time of greatest need. To paraphrase Rove:
The case for military spending
Let me just say at the outset that I have massive respect for the people who serve in this country’s armed forces. As I’ve commented on before, I’m the first male of my direct ancestors for four generations that hasn’t served in the Army. I had great grandfathers on both sides of my family in WW1, both of my grandfathers served in WW2, with my mother’s father actually being shot in Borneo. My father did national service during Vietnam; my uncles also both served, with one spending his entire career in the Army. I appreciate the courage and the sacrifice they made – along with every other person who has dedicated themselves to defence.
That does not mean, however, that defence is above or beyond critique, and that we shouldn’t carefully consider how we spend our money in that capacity. We don’t honour our heroes by endorsing militarism, we honour them by creating a world that is good enough to justify their sacrifice.
And with that in mind, I don’t think that the Morrison government’s decision to spend $270 billion dollars over the next decade on new military equipment makes any sense. It doesn’t make sense financially, it doesn’t make sense militarily and it also doesn’t make sense in terms of the strategic goals of Australian people.
Morrison justified the expense by pointing out that the post COVID world was likely to be more mean spiritied, less compassionate and more ruthless. Of course, with people like him in charge, maybe that is the case. But I’d like some explanation as to why, after humanity has been so united as a species in working together to beat this virus, why does he think we will suddenly devolve into trying to kill each other? More to the point, isn’t avoiding conflict, not creating conflict, one of the key skills of leadership? With a massive failure of leadership and imagination, Scott Morrison has fallen back upon the idea that more and bigger guns are what will give Australia security.
Q: Do you know what would give Australia more security than more and bigger guns?
(the answer I want is not ‘anything’, but that is also correct)
A: One of the great stories to come out of COVID is the resurgence in urban farming and communities sharing food. This is something that has happened worldwide and in many senses replicates the emergence of ‘victory gardens’, planted by Aussie communities during the first and second world war, to ensure food security. What a wonderful idea – apparently beyond Scott Morrison – to imagine that a challenge could actually make a community stronger.
Because when you think about armed conflict in the past 50 years, no invading army has been able to subdue and control a country which has a population that resists occupation. Think about Afghanistan (both US and Russian versions), Vietnam (French and US versions), Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands and Iraq. In all of these cases, a far more ‘advanced’ and EXPENSIVE armed force was unable to successfully exercise control over a population that was motivated to resist the aggression.
Conversely the only example I can think of where an armed invasion ended with something like success would be the Russian incursion into Crimea, which is both far from over and is also a situation where a near majority of people in the region (apparently) welcomed the intervention (as was the case in places such as Austria and Vichy France in WW2). So the determining factor in successful defence over the past 50 years seems to be the desire within the invaded population to resist the invading force.
Why then, when history clearly shows this, do we remain so steadfastly focused on buying more and ‘better’ military technology (when having more and better military technology has not led to military success for the US, French, Russians etc)? Funding community gardening programs would do more to increase community unity and resilience in the face of an external military threat. And at much smaller cost.
And when I say much smaller cost, I mean much, much, much smaller. Leaving more tax payers’ money for community inclusion initiatives, combatting domestic violence, toxic online culture and for funding more innovation and community resilience through education.
At this point I just want to point out that I’m not a hippy, I am fascinated by military aircraft and military power in general. There’s something about its potency that is intoxicating. I get it. I made a 1/32 scale model of an F4-J Phantom II during COVID because I think jets look cool. When I was a kid, I wanted to design military aircraft.
It’s just that I’ve reaslised that something looking cool, or feeling powerful, shouldn’t determine policy, or truth (sorry Nietzsche).
I know that as an adult that has to look after kids.
But the entire ‘defence’ and international relations sector continues to carry on as though the ultimate purpose of the national economy is to have the best toys. Not education. Not health. Not community prosperity. Not security understood assafety from violence and repression. Not managing global warming and the ecological disasters its bringing.
Just having the coolest new technology that can be used to kill people more quickly, from further away.
So I could talk about the cost of the new attack class submarines (12 at $80 billion dollars), which are replacing the 6 collins class submarines (6 at $5 billion in the 1990s) that never fired a shot in anger. Or I could talk about the cost of invading Iraq (over $5 billion). But because I like jets let’s look at Australia’s procurement of the F-35 – an fighter/attack aircraft (72 aircraft at $9 billion or only $126 million per plane).
For $126 million dollars per plane, the Australian government has bought a plane that can’t fly above the speed of sound without losing its stealth paint coating. According to reports, it has numerous issues with avionics and the cannon can’t shoot straight. In fact the plane still has more than 150 registered design flaws and the patch up job has become so bad that Lockheed Martin have decided just to reclassify ‘deadly’ flaws as less severe. That may be why they keep crashing. And why it is already 10 years behind schedule.
Despite this, the F35 has had it’s share of backers and even now, journalists who will spruik the plane are provided with fully funded ‘fact finding’ trips to various air shows and factories where they can get ‘the facts’. Take this rallying cry about the plane published in Forbes, and note that the author is a heavy hitter in the defence industries and military, and that Lockheed Martin paid for him to gather information on the piece he wrote.
The lobbying power of the defence industry is phenomenal, hardly surprising when you look at the billions poured into the industry. The industry also enjoys the stewardship of ex-ministers such as former Defence Industry minister Christopher Pyne, who left his role as defence industry minister in the Morrison government to join Saber Aeronatics, a company that have been awarded $2.7 million in government defence contracts.
Think of the political influence that hundreds of billions of dollars buys.
And again, for all that spending, we are not necessarily any safer for having a fleet of F-35s. Even our own Defence chiefs have suggested that the aircraft will not serve our needs (whatever they are) when it arrives.
And dear reader, I don’t know what work you do – but I know in my industry if I was so ineffective at my job that I was constantly over budget, late on deadlines and then not coming through with the goods, I’d be out of work and destitute. Why is the defence industry like the rich kid who can’t be relied on to do anything but somehow still gets promoted because his dad is a billionaire (and either owns the company, or owns the guy who does)?
So then I think of Pyne, Morrison and Dan Tehan and how they think they can make decisions like taking money from universities and using that to buy more over-priced and ineffective jets from the trillion dollar international arms industry. And I realise that if another country was to come invading the state they have created, I’m not sure I would be that upset about that. I can’t get passionate about defending the version of Australia they are creating. Because they aren’t creating it for us, they are creating it for the trillion dollar international arms industry.
If they were spending $270 billion dollars on community gardening initiatives, I would fight who ever came here until they were thrown back into the sea. I’d have a sense of community, access to food, strong local organisations and local knowledge – and most importantly an Australia I could believe in.
But in Scott Morrison we have a PM who has not just defunded education while boosting military spending. He has also sanctioned the gagging of journalists, he has supported the collection of metadata to spy on his own citizens, he has used taxpayers dollars to illegally secure an election win, he has defunded our most trusted source of news during a fake news crisis and he has continued to celebrate burning coal while his nation burns to the ground, and gone on holiday while it does so.
Tell me this: Who is going to invade Australia, and why would they be worse than Scott Morrison’s government?
If we truly lived in a democracy we would get rid of him.