The government is updating Australia’s Defence Act and should consider past approaches like a 'War Book' as part of our preparations for wartime.

Yesterday the Federal Government committed to reforming Australia’s Defence Act, which, in large part, dates back to 1903. The methods and technologies of war, and related legislation, have profoundly changed since then. It stands to reason that there may be opportunities to improve this key piece of legislation, though what precise provisions of the Act are under scrutiny is not yet clear.

At least as interesting, however, it what is beyond the scope of this move. The consultation paper released by Defence expressly notes that this review process will not include Defence Aid to the Civil Community (DACC), liability to serve in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), intelligence services legislation and defence trade controls, among other things.

Defence, then, understandably wants this reform to be focussed on optimising its legislative architecture to improve its core business – fighting wars.

Given the legislative focus of this reform, what is also out of scope is Australia’s broader machinery of government in wartime conditions. While not Defence’s focus, these broader arrangements should be a concern for the government.

Defence wants this reform to be focussed on optimising its legislative architecture. Photo: Jonathan Goedhart/Department of Defence

Some history is useful here. In the middle of the last century, the Federal Government maintained something called the Commonwealth War Book. A secret document, it was in essence a guide outlining how government would transition from peacetime to wartime arrangements, setting out the functional responsibilities of various government entities in the event of major conflict.

Apparently originating out of British Imperial arrangements in 1923, the Second World War-era version was updated in the early 1950s. The central Commonwealth document was accompanied by various departmental war books and was also shared in collaboration with state jurisdictions. A revision process of the 1956 edition was initiated in 1965-66 and sometime thereafter the document seems to have become defunct.

This is, of course, not to say that Australia does not have a relevant, modern machinery of government that would grapple with a national catastrophe such as war. Most obviously, the National Security Committee of Cabinet has formed the highest-level decision-making body on such matters in several forms since 1977. Certain bureaucratic arrangements are also much more mature than they were in the 1950s, as you might hope. For instance, the Office of National Intelligence now exists both as a peak assessments agency and a coordinating authority for the wider intelligence community. These types of arrangements are clearly relevant.

Any modern equivalent to the War Book would most obviously need to incorporate things like cybersecurity and grapple with a thoroughly deregulated economy.

But there are still large blind spots. For a start, it is unclear if there is standing, interdepartmental guidance at the working level for wartime circumstances. Do Commonwealth departments like Finance and Treasury know what will be expected of them by government were a major war to break out? How conversant are the states and territories with what might be asked of them in such a circumstance?

In the 1950s and 1960s there was substantial contest over this kind of policy, and were it to be revised and re-adopted, we wouldn’t expect anything less now. For instance, the prevailing approach was a ‘minimum’ one, allowing the complete range of ‘departments to give initial consideration to matters they may be called upon to administer’. But there were those who entered a ‘strong plea’ for ‘proper, full-scale’ work that would form a ‘comprehensive guide’.

Our circumstances are more complex now, and any modern equivalent to the War Book would most obviously need to incorporate things like cybersecurity and grapple with a thoroughly deregulated economy. Whatever form it ultimately took, at the most basic level it would be worth the Commonwealth having done this thinking, even if it might in the final question be dramatically revised. Specific plans might well be wrong but the planning process can still be invaluable.

What has also been missing from some of the more breathless coverage of the risk of regional conflict, and Australia’s potential place in such an eventuality, is a full reckoning with the implications of such forecasts.

The value of planning akin to the War Book might also be as a prompt for the full range of national equities (entities?) to engage on this question. Cabinet ought to be understanding risks and making decisions with the most fulsome understanding of what different conflict scenarios would entail across the government and across the country.

Much of this advice would presumably remain secret but it would be a positive step to at least know that it is occurring. Have Treasury or the Reserve Bank of Australia modelled the implications of a miscalculation over Taiwan, for instance? What does Foreign Affairs have to say about how it might approach our Southeast Asian relationships in such an eventuality?

To borrow the words of one senior bureaucratic involved in revisions to the War Book in 1965, “I may be stepping where angels have already been repulsed”. This is fraught area of public policy where much is not public at all and sensitivities often extreme.

Moreover, and to borrow the words of a second mandarin from the same archive, it might be “manifestly silly” to try to map out a future war. Nonetheless, some minimum work is required and “I cannot see how we can do less, if war planning is to be undertaken at all.”

The scope and substance of the announced adjustments to the Defence Act are quite reasonably something the Defence organisation wants to control. But this move might also be a useful prompt for us to look at the considerably broader government machinery and array of stakeholders relevant to such a weighty issue.

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