Preparing for war isn't a suitable economic boost
As a society, do we want the government to focus on using military spending as a way of creating jobs? Defence spending has been "decoupled" from the fiscal restraint of the rest of the Australian economy, with generous increases in funding. It is now on target to reach 2 per cent of GDP by 2021, significantly earlier than initially planned.
Preparing for war should not be regarded as a job-creation scheme. The consequences of building massive weapons systems that could only conceivably be used in a major war go far beyond the jobs they create. They undermine peace in our region as nations compete for bigger and more costly weapons systems. It is in no one's interest to have a regional arms race.
The increases in our military spending are all the more remarkable in light of this year's Defence White Paper which reported that "there is no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future". Why then are we spending many tens of billions of dollars on submarines and on the even more controversial Joint Strike Fighter planes? Could it have something to do with President Obama urging allies to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence?
There are more jobs in health, education and renewable energies, for the same amount of investment, than there are in the military sector. Professor Hugh Gusterson of George Washington University, writing in 2011, found that "$1 million spent on the military creates 8.3 jobs, whereas $1 million spent on education creates 15.5 jobs, and $1 million spent on healthcare creates 14.3 jobs".
A study at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2011 reported similarly. It concluded that $1 billion spent on clean energy, health care or education would create substantially more jobs than $1 billion spent on military projects. The additional jobs in clean energy, health care or education were across all pay ranges.
While these studies were conducted in the US, there is no reason to believe that the situation in Australia would be greatly different. Unlike other jobs, military jobs are generally in large identifiable locations that can be directly linked to a parliamentary decision. Other jobs are less visible and more widely dispersed, and their advocates lack the huge lobbying resources of a large weapons manufacturer. South Australia's high unemployment rate combined with some marginal electorates should not skew spending to defence at the expense of other sectors
Meanwhile, health care for Australians was a very low-key concern in the Treasurer's vision for our nation. With Medicare rebates frozen for three years, health care in Australia will become more and more a two-tier system. Public hospitals are struggling with long waiting lists and reductions in many services. The $54 billion cuts to hospitals from the Abbott era remain.
The federal government is more concerned with threats abroad than addressing the family violence which kills an average of one Australian woman every week. Critical specialist domestic violence services, community legal centres and primary prevention initiatives continue to be inadequately funded and resourced.
On the international scene, the Treasurer's budget speech was totally silent on Australia's shameful slashing of overseas aid, which is now set to reach its lowest levels ever. A further $224 million is gone from the aid budget, meaning that $11.3 billion has now been cut over the last two years. Aid is now 23 cents in every $100. This contrasts with the UN recommended levels of 70 cents per $100 (0.7 per cent of GDP), a level that the UK, for example, has reached and enshrined into law. While spending huge sums on building weapons, we are devastating previous aid programs that boost international goodwill towards Australia and stabilise societies. We also need to improve diplomatic mission funding, instead of ramping up weapons expenditure. Prevention of conflict is very cost effective, and saves many lives.
And one of the biggest of all economic threats – climate change – was totally ignored in the budget. The government seems oblivious to the huge threats to our economy and our security that climate change represents. This is a significant strategic error.
In this World War I commemorative period, the primary lesson of that cataclysmic failure of policy – that arms races do not deter warfare or achieve security – is stark, but ignored. At the end of the war, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary in 1914, concluded: "The moral is obvious: it is that great armaments lead inevitably to war." A century on, our misplaced faith in weapons to deter wars persists.
As our healthcare system and many other critical services are struggling with inadequate resources, and our overseas aid has dropped to shameful levels, we need to be clear what we want as a society. Do we want to prioritise preparing for war, or prioritise keeping our community healthy and building good relations with other nations? Actions speak louder than words.
Dr Margaret Beavis is president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, Australia.
Sydney Morning Herald, 16 May 2016