Government must look closer to home for defence

23 September 2015

We've allowed our regional skills and understanding to slide significantly. I'm hoping that we see now a government that recognises that we need to invest more in our neighbourhood.

A leading defence policy expert at The Australian National University (ANU) has urged new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to stop trying to solve the world's problems in the Middle East and focus defence attention closer to home.

Speaking ahead of the release of a new book on Australia's involvement in East Timor's liberation in 1999, the book's editor Dr John Blaxland described Tony Abbott's enthusiasm for operations in the Middle East as "muddle-headed".

"We have spent the last 15 years distracted by operations in the Middle East meaning today we have few commanders with much experience in our own neighbourhood," said Dr Blaxland, from the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

"We've allowed our regional skills and understanding to slide significantly. I'm hoping that we see now a government that recognises that we need to invest more in our neighbourhood."

East Timor Intervention contains chapters from a range of key participants, including Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, who led the military intervention, and former East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao.

Dr Blaxland, who was the lead intelligence officer for the Australian land force to East Timor, hailed Sir Peter for his role and leadership.

"He was a masterful user of the media. In a conflict where firing first and asking questions later wasn't an option he knew the best way to influence events was through media," he said.

"He'd have them eating out of his hand, and that had enormous international ramifications when people saw this gruff Australian General handling the situation with poise.

"It was just compelling viewing and had a strong effect on the decision makers in Jakarta. It really made a difference."

Dr Blaxland said Australia's involvement in East Timor was handled remarkably well and still served as a benchmark for Australian military operations.

"When we were looking at what could possibly happen once the force deployed to East Timor, there were a range of particularly ugly scenarios that were on the table," he said.

"This one mattered to Australia, we really put our heart and soul into making it work in a way that we have not done for operations of choice far away from Australia.

"When it comes to Australia's immediate environment, the Australian Government and people will 'pony up'. When it's about their patch, they will rise to the occasion."