Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Is there a defence vote?


Northern Australia defence forces exercise

On the one hand the wider Defence community seems to be in the ascendant in Australian society at the moment, yet the Australian Defence Force has still suffered an effective cut in pay over the next three years and there are calls for a Royal Commission into sexual abuse and harassment within that institution, including the Australian Defence Force Academy. 

It is quite impotent to do anything about an adverse pay outcome because it is locked in to the government politically and structurally (through the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal), but it remains to be seen whether the government will set up yet another Royal Commission.

The first element in the general Defence ascendancy is that the ADF has been in almost constant overseas combat operations for a decade or more and is currently deployed against Islamic State. These operations have been widely praised in the Australian community and have brought the members of the defence forces considerable honour. This recognition has come in the form of several awards of the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, and through some civilian honours, including Young Australian of the Year and now the chairmanship of the Australia Day Council to VC winner Ben Roberts-Smith.

Secondly, the Coalition government is in office and the conventional wisdom is that it, rather than Labor, represents the Defence interest better. Within the Coalition parties former Defence force members are growing in numbers and influence. For instance, a former army officer, Stuart Robert, an ADFA graduate, is the Assistant Defence Minister. He was the public face of the government in stamping out any suggestion that the pay decision could be revisited.

Thirdly, former Chiefs of the Defence Force are now very highly placed in Australian society. They occupy the positions of Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, and NSW Governor, David Hurley. At the state level, Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, is a former Army Major.

Fourthly, the military has been thrust front and centre into administering border protection policy. Until recently, the militarisation of that policy has see General Angus Campbell standing beside Immigration Minister Scott Morrison at press conferences.

Finally, we are just beginning the massive commemoration of WW1. Effectively this means a huge focus on the defence forces and on their courage, valour and sacrifice on behalf of the Australian community.

Yet despite Independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie projecting herself as the defender of the defence community and promising to vote against all government policy until the pay offer is upgraded, Defence welfare may not have a big political impact at the next election.

This reflects on the political power of the wider Defence community as expressed through a so-called defence ‘vote’.

The Defence ‘family’ are generally rusted on Coalition voters.  Most are politically and culturally averse to Labor and to its allies such as the trade union movement. It will take a lot to turn them into swinging voters.

Already there has been some speculation that Labor will benefit. The Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Gai Brodtmann, has called on Coalition MPs to stand up for ADF members in their electorates. Allan Thomas, the national president of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans’ Association, hopes that some Coalition MPs will lose their seats over the issue. But this association is just a minor player.

Voters make up their minds not just on personal financial self-interest but on wider policy and cultural issues. Roberts-Smith has already said as much.  ADF members largely remain political allies of the Coalition when it comes to the ballot box.

Criticism of the government by smaller Defence pressure groups will not be enough. Political change will come about only in the unlikely event that the big and generally pro-Coalition pressure groups, like the Returned Services League, not just ‘remain very disappointed with the government’s decision’ (which is actually code for ‘we are still inside the government’s tent’) but start campaigning actively and publicly against the Coalition government.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Northern Australia defence forces exercise image by Wikimedia Commons.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Jacqui Lambie, Defence Forces, Australian politics, welfare



submit a comment

Existing comments

Not sure about the defence vote, but there is a fairness vote. My last pay agreement was for an inflation rate increase, which, for these times, seems fair enough. If that's what most of us are getting, I don't see why the defence forces should get less. The government hasn't explained why their miserable offer isn't unfair.

Russell | 01 December 2014  

Generally speaking conservative governments are more prone to have policies that involve 'law and order' and 'strengthening our defences'. Such policies, naturally gain the support of law enforcement agencies and the defence forces. Social democratic governments generally are more tolerant of a messy democracy and tend to have policies that protect human and civil rights and prefer negotiation in international affairs rather than wielding a big stick and coat-tailing on a great and powerful friend. Such policies attract students, intellectuals and trade unionists and are anathema to the conservatives. The above generalisations are reflected in the way the conservatives and the progressives campaign at elections. The conservatives exploit fear and insecurity; the progressives optimism and risk taking. So, yes, there is a defence vote but it is so dissipated that for the most part, in relatively peaceful times, it is only discernible in electorates that have large defence establishments.

Uncle Pat | 02 December 2014  

I can tell you we Ex ADF PERSONNELHAVE BEEN KEEPING ACROSS ISSUES ELECTRONICALLY FOR SOME YEARS NOW and we are not happy campers re conditions of Service, pay and leave. Most of us I suspect have been horrified over the persistent until recent years cultural malaise concerning all mannner of bullying,and abuse. Defence families continue to be 'Split - Us - Under' as a result of their love ones service and in particular border security. Many I would suggest vote for what they think is best for the country they voluntarliy serve! Younger current members will not align along historical allegences of the post WWII community and many of us will stand resolute behind them!

Ingrid | 02 December 2014  

The 'defence', 'foreign policy' and 'refugee' topics are, surely intricately connected. I'd like to see the discussion move toward how fear-filled, countries might be appropriately responding to the sense of world-resource scarcity. And whether the armaments industry is really profitable.

helen cantwell | 06 December 2014  

Similar Articles

Ritual procrastination as part of the grieving process

  • Jim Pilmer
  • 05 December 2014

Personal grief, complicated by group dynamics, is a volatile mixture. Phillip Hughes' death reminds us that personal stories highlight the huge variety of needs and perceptions surrounding a death in the workplace. When do we tidy the desk of the colleague who won't be back? There is a time, but maybe it's not yet. 


Why Phil Hughes' death resonates

  • Kerry Murphy
  • 01 December 2014

Young people are dying every day around the world, in tragic circumstances. Yes somehow the sudden and unexpected death of a young cricketer has the headlines. Maybe it was because he just did what he loved and did not make a fuss about being dropped from the test team, but he went back to working hard and making his way back into selection.