Australia’s politicians are expected to treat issues of national security and foreign and defence policy in a ‘bipartisan’ fashion. Doing so is believed to create good policy, ensure national unity and protect the military. Polling for this report by The Australia Institute shows 71% of Australians agree that ‘bipartisanship is generally a good thing’.
Yet bipartisanship has costs. It weakens the quality of national policy, reduces accountability, lowers public engagement, and risks estrangement between the military and civil leadership. As it currently operates, the demand for bipartisanship is putting Australia at risk.
Australians recognise these costs; 48% agree that bipartisanship leads to less scrutiny of issues. Australians also give failing grades to several policies settings which have bipartisan support, including handling the US and China relationship, our role in the South China Sea dispute and ensuring stability in the South Pacific.
In times of quiet these concerns could be dismissed, but these are not quiet times. The election of Donald J. Trump as US president demonstrates that the US neither seeks nor wants to maintain its 20th century leadership role. China and Russia are challenging elements of the established global order, while terrorism and climate change require fresh approaches and new thinking.
Given the growing range of problems in Australia’s security environment, politicians should treat security policy as they do economic or social policy and be willing to openly argue. Only by using the full capabilities of our adversarial and democratic political structure will Australia have both the flexibility and resilience needed to find our way in Asia’s troubled security environment.