The 2016 federal budget was a gift to defence. Over the coming year, the government will commit a staggering $32.4 billion to the sector alone. A further $686 million will be spent on Australian military operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
The dramatic increase in military spending is planned to reach 2% of predicted GDP by 2020-21, and this quantity will be locked in even if GDP growth predictions turn out to be wrong. This massive waste has the support of both the major parties. Based on current projections, by 2025-26 the defence budget will balloon to $59 billion per year!
Treasurer Scott Morrison justified the decision by explaining that against the backdrop of a slowing economy, the additional defence spending over the next decade would “drive jobs and growth in the new economy we are building”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The unprecedented military build up is driven entirely by Australian capitalism’s desires to advance their own economic and strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute lists Australia as the world’s 3rd largest arms importer during 2015, and Australia ranks 12th in the world in total military spending. The centrepiece of the government’s defence strategy will continue this trend. Over the next decade, the government will spend a further $195 billion on new submarines, warships, joint strike fighters, drones and array of other military hardware.
$50 billion of that will be spent on 12 new submarines to be built in South Australia by French state-owned shipbuilder DCNS. The latest defence white paper only budgets for the construction of the fleet – when lifetime maintenance is included, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that the cost of the project could blowout to $150 billion!
Many people have asked why the government needs to spend so much on the military while they are making cuts elsewhere. The answer lies with Australian capitalism’s support for US foreign policy and the defence of their profits. When Obama visited Australia in 2011 he announced that the US would play a greater role in shaping the future of the Asia-Pacific region. Since then the US has moved 60% of its forces to the region. This reflects concern that China is becoming a more dominant international power.
As well as moving their own forces into the region, another important element of the US’s “pivot to Asia” is to push its allies to also play more of a role. Australia is seen as a key partner in this effort. Successive governments have maintained US spy bases on Australian soil and under Julia Gillard an agreement was signed to establish a permanent base for US marines in Darwin by 2017. The newest defence white paper justifies the submarine fleet by emphasising “interoperability” with the US navy.
This situation however places Australian capitalism in a precarious situation. Since WW2 the Australian ruling class has aligned itself with the US as a means of advancing its interests in the region. More recently however that political relationship is coming into conflict with Australia’s economic interests, particularly exports to China. Increasingly, balancing these conflicting interests is becoming more and more difficult.
The government’s military build up is seen as a way of protecting the profit interests of Australian capitalism but the problem is that things could become even more fraught if tensions between the US and China increase further. Aligning with only one or the other would be a disaster and with so much at stake a neutral stance is not a viable option.
The whole situation highlights the fact that tensions and conflicts between nation states are inherent to the capitalist system. Ordinary people’s interests are not being served in this tussle between competing profiteers. The alternative to this capitalist madness is to utilise the billions of dollars wasted on military spending to improve people’s lives by investing in jobs and social services. A socialist society based on co-operation and solidarity between people of different nations would be the only way to achieve this.
By Conor Flynn