You would think the federal government had secured Edward Scissorhands to co-chair the Defence Strategic Review, given the reaction from various quarters over the appointment of former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith.
Smith was the defence minister who got the military worked up over cuts to Defence when he was the minister and got a frosty reaction from parts of the Defence community when his appointment to conduct the review was announced.
Never mind the fact that Smith might actually have an understanding of the portfolio, and his knowledge of the workings of government brings some degree of value to the process.
It is the process of cutting the defence budget that he is remembered for and this means the defence strategic review he is undertaking with former chief of the defence force Sir Angus Houston will inevitably be read by hard markers wanting to see whether they see echoes of Smith’s past in that report.
There is no dispute the strategic circumstances faced by Australia merit a review and that people with government and military experience are well suited to conduct it. That makes eminent sense. You would not appoint a basket-weaving expert, for example, to conduct a Defence strategic review. They know nothing about defence.
Smith and Houston have a combined skill set required to conduct a review that bridges the creation of policy and its implementation by the Defence establishment.
It may be best for everyone concerned, given the strategic concerns Australia’s politicians have articulated ad nauseum, if the review was judged on its own merits once completed.
There is another reason for this to be the mindset. Anything said in public about the reviewers appointed to a role is not just being said or reported to a domestic audience.
Criticisms of a panel appointed to review end up being heard and read by those very powers who are evaluating us from afar. What passes for free-wheeling democratic discourse in Australia is simply open-source intelligence for those countries having an interest in undermining Australia’s influence in the region.
What, if anything, will they make and say about a review of defence strategy when it is published by the Albanese government?
You would have had to have been living under a rock to not notice the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, trolling Australia on Twitter when the Brereton Report was released in 2020.
A Twitter post embedding a caricature of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a child circulated widely and got an immediate response from then prime minister Scott Morrison, who called for an apology for the post.
The release of the Brereton Report was important. It was critical for accountability that be released but it provided China with an opportunity to level criticisms of Australia given the allegations of brutality contained in the Brereton document.
China got what it wanted. The reaction was explosive from Australia, and it demonstrates how effective the Chinese use of what is known as wolf warrior diplomacy is, online.
An open discourse about inquiries and appointments is necessary for an open democracy, but we should not be surprised if countries that are assessed as national security threats pick up and run with negative analysis as a part of anti-Australian propaganda.