Aussie PM's defence stance under scrutiny

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in one of Australia's new Hawkei military vehicles in Victoria last week. Australia said it would spend A$1.3 billion on the new light armoured personnel carriers.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in one of Australia's new Hawkei military vehicles in Victoria last week. Australia said it would spend A$1.3 billion on the new light armoured personnel carriers.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Before he became Australia's Prime Minister last month, Mr Malcolm Turnbull was known as a prominent lawyer, investment banker and politician who was never shy expressing his views on how to fix the nation's problems. 

His beliefs regarding topics such as combating climate change, becoming a republic, legalising same- sex marriage and promoting Internet technology are well known. But analysts say he has had far less to say about defence policy - an area in which he will soon face some crucial decisions.

In the coming months, the federal government is expected to decide whether to award a A$20 billion- plus (S$20.5 billion) contract to build and design Australia's new fleet of submarines to rival bidders from France, Germany or Japan. 

Mr Turnbull will also need to decide whether to stick with ousted leader Tony Abbott's plans to lift defence spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product by 2023, up from about 1.8-1.9 per cent now. 

Most analysts believe Mr Turnbull will not stray from Canberra's bedrock national security positions, but he is expected to take a more nuanced approach.

"One of the big differences in style, if not substance, is the idea (held by Mr Abbott) of a focus on national security as the deliverable that will get you over the line," said Dr John Blaxland, a defence expert at the Australian National University in Canberra. "I don't think Malcolm Turnbull sees it as being as pivotal as Tony Abbott did, so in that sense the defence portfolio will be less controversial."

Some analysts believe that Mr Turnbull, who is on the more progressive side of his Liberal Party, will not want to shift its conservative approach to defence. 

The governing coalition's strong support for Australia's alliance with the United States and for increasing military spending are positions that could risk a political backlash from his party's right wing.

"I don't see Australia taking a significant approach to the US under Turnbull," Dr Blaxland told The Straits Times. "We are too invested in that strategy."

But he added: "It is hard to say what his approach will be (to defence) because he has not said very much about it at all."

An expert on defence policy, Professor Benjamin Schreer of Sydney's Macquarie University, said it is likely "we will see more continuity than change, barring a dramatic external event".

"I am not sure whether you will see any changes in terms of declaratory policy or major procurements," he told The Straits Times. 

"He comes from a party (the Liberal Party) which has traditionally been strong on defence and close to the US. I don't see why it would be in his interest to come up with radically different policies."

Mr Turnbull's rise to the leadership led to speculation that Japan's chances of winning the submarine bid would be reduced, mainly because Mr Abbott had backed Tokyo as  a strategic partner. 

But a Tokyo delegation to Australia last week promised that Japan was willing to share the secrets of its submarine technology and to build the the submarines in Australia or in Japan under Canberra's supervision. Analysts say the winner of the contract is now anyone's guess.

Another upcoming challenge for Mr Turnbull is the release of the coalition's first defence White Paper. Most analysts believe he will not substantially alter the blueprint, but may delay its release by several weeks. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'Aussie PM's defence stance under scrutiny'. Print Edition | Subscribe