The federal budget substantially bolstered Australia’s defence spending. But not enough was done to support development and diplomacy.
Last week’s federal budget surprised no one with its focus on national security. Prime Minister Scott Morrison had staked this as the government’s preferred ground, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg described it in his speech as a budget that delivers stronger defence and national security.
If Australia faces its most difficult and dangerous security environment for the last 80 years, how should it respond? Judging by the budget’s allocations, primarily by military means. This continues a long-term trend of not appreciating the role of development and diplomacy in creating a more secure world. So, what was in the federal budget for the three Ds: defence, development, and diplomacy?
On the defence side, there were new investments. Some had already been announced – including the addition of 18,000 people to the Defence workforce. The other most publicised item was REDSPICE, a new ten-year, $9.9 billion investment in Australia’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. Overall, the budget delivered on the government’s promise to commit at least two percent of GDP to defence.
On the development side, there were things to celebrate, including a real increase in the development budget, near-record funding to the Pacific and Southeast Asia, doubling Australia’s climate finance, and increased humanitarian funding to the World Food Programme and the Red Cross. The announcement that will have the most long-term effect is the re-introduction of indexation – this year at 2.5 percent – which is important to arrest the long-term decline of the development budget.
It’s a sign of how hard hit international aid has been in recent years that the sector’s peak bodies – the Australian Council for International Development and the International Development Contractors Community – both welcomed the increases, while noting the need for long-term, sustained, and strategic investment.
On the diplomacy side, there was not much love. I find this strange when I look at what diplomacy has done through the coordinated international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, described by a Russian spokesperson as “total war.” It is a great illustration of how muscular and forceful international cooperation can be.
I’ve calculated that if this federal budget was $100, Australia would be spending $6 on defence, 72 cents on development, and a copper coin on the practice of diplomacy. In its primary focus on military responses, Australia risks being behind international trends.
To give some contrast, the United States’ recent Indo-Pacific Strategy identifies a security problem – coercion and aggression by the People’s Republic of China – but its prescriptions to deal with this issue are mostly not military. The US strategy includes building resilience within countries – including a free press, vibrant civil societies, and fiscal transparency to expose corruption – and building connections within and beyond the region through bilateral and multilateral engagement. It also focuses on driving regional prosperity by setting out economic frameworks and supporting digital economic governance, decarbonisation, clean energy investments, infrastructure, and secure supply chains.
And this is not an outlier. President Joe Biden has described development as a core pillar of US foreign policy, with USAID administrator Samantha Power part of the National Security Council. To some degree, this stems from expanding the idea of what we mean by security. If we understand national security as based fundamentally on the security of the individual, then Australia’s international strategy should see investing in human security and state security as complementary and mutually reinforcing endeavours, not competing paradigms.
Looking at the region around Australia – with democracy going backwards and with enduring hunger, disease, natural disasters, poverty, and inequality that kill more people than war, genocide, and terrorism combined – it’s worth remembering that development is a tool that reduces insecurity and instability, helping to support a secure, stable, and prosperous region.
Security problems demand a range of solutions. Development programs that invest in health, education, and economic cooperation help drive growth and contribute to stability. For example, poor economic growth can create a breeding ground for fundamentalist movements and terrorism, while issues like humanitarian crises, authoritarianism, social unrest, and ethnic tension all contribute to regional instability. Investments in education, health, and sustainable and inclusive economic growth all reap security dividends.
So when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in his budget speech, “The world is less stable. We must invest more in the defence of our nation,” this was missing a step. Yes, the world is less stable. This means we need to consider how we can use all the tools at our disposal to try to shape the world around us.
The danger otherwise is that we find that we have only one tool in our toolbox, and not every problem is a nail.
Melissa Conley Tyler is program lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D).
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