We can't go on like this. We can't keep letting our defence policy drift as a result of ministerial inability to control the Defence Department.
Anyone in Australia who pays attention to China knows that our strategic circumstances have seriously worsened over the past decade. Every defence minister knows that. And none has been able to force a radical policy pivot on the department.
But we have a former politician who is completely up to the job - West Australian Governor and former Labor leader Kim Beazley.
With Beazley's agreement, the government and opposition should make a deal: whoever wins the election, Beazley becomes defence minister. Labor would put him at the top of its West Australian Senate ticket, ensuring his election to Parliament, and if the party did not gain office he would serve in a Liberal-National government.
The idea is unfamiliar, but it's not unprecedented. Britain had unity governments during both world wars, including ministers from what in ordinary times would have been opposition parties. We could have a unity defence minister.
Politicians taking on the Defence portfolio are routinely bamboozled by their department, which, far more than other parts of the federal government, is in a position to say that it knows best. The main reason is that defence is such a technical subject.
Even with expert advisers, a capable politician, such as current Defence Minister Peter Dutton, can hardly resist advice from this entrenched organisation.
But Beazley, who held the portfolio from 1984 to 1990, is a thoroughgoing expert in the field, nicknamed "Bomber" because of his knowledge and enthusiasm. He is exactly what we need - a politician who can look a general in the eye and self-assuredly say: "You're wrong."
And he is no has-been from the Hawke-Keating era. As recently as 2016 he was ambassador to the US, a position that involves handling some of the highest issues of national security - and the most secret. His occasional speeches and articles show keen awareness of current defence issues.
Meanwhile, Australian strategic analysts are universally dissatisfied with policy.
As this column has previously highlighted, the department and our increasingly irrelevant army are influencing Dutton so strongly that he is willing to proceed with an utterly outdated plan for re-equipping the ground forces. Tens of billions of dollars earmarked for this should be shifted to addressing the threat from China.
That's just a current example of political inability to control defence policy. For decades, the services have chosen equipment that pleases them rather than exposing themselves to rigorous and disruptive analysis.
We can see this in the remarkable stability of our forces. For example, the navy has maintained about 12 destroyers and frigates for around 60 years. The fighter and strike fleet has been set at about 100 aircraft for four decades.
Amid changing technological and strategic circumstances, it's simply implausible that these numbers should never change.
The department and forces sometimes go ahead with new kinds of military capability, such as airborne air surveillance. But they are almost never willing to scrap old, low-priority capabilities, which is what countries do when they're under strategic pressure and need to focus.
Kim Beazley, more than any current politician in Australia, could overcome this inertia.
At 73, he is young enough to return to government. I hope our strategic risks worry him enough to make him willing to sacrifice what might instead be three years of retirement. And I hope the two sides of politics, already bipartisan on defence, can take the further step of jointly asking him to come back.
As a right-winger from a Labor government that Coalition supporters remember with admiration, Beazley should be welcomed in a returned Liberal-National administration. If he had ideological difficulty with some non-military policy, he could be excused as a unity minister from publicly defending it.
A pairing arrangement could preserve relative numbers in the Senate.
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Coalition willingness to appoint Beazley would certainly be needed, since he could not be expected to return to Parliament on the basis of a mere hope of Labor victory.
Whichever side won, his inclusion in the next ministry would improve its quality. Some mediocrity at the bottom of the list of ministerial candidates would miss out.
If the two sides and Beazley himself cannot agree on his return to politics, there's an alternative - less satisfactory, but still good. He could be asked to conduct an external review of defence policy, grabbing control of it from the department for at least long enough to powerfully change direction.
Such a review should be completed quickly, ideally no later than six months after the election, because the danger to peace in the western Pacific is already uncomfortably high and keeps rising as China prepares to seize Taiwan.
A review is needed regardless of whether Beazley could preside over it. The last policy statement - issued in 2020 and largely written by the department (of course) - hardly altered planning.
Nor was there much change in the one before that, issued in 2016. Two years after that one was published, one expert said it needed reassessment - the reassessment that didn't come in 2020.
Writing in the sometimes obscure language of defence policy, the expert also listed what was needed: "We need to give higher priority and more disciplined attention to a strategy of denial in our maritime approaches; upgrade collaboration in the south Pacific neighbourhood in particular; bring a sharper focus to the vulnerabilities of our critical mineral provinces; and rapidly incorporate the fifth-generation capabilities coming in with the F-35 in systems across the Australian Defence Force."
That expert was Kim Beazley. He knows what he's talking about.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.