For months, the Abbott Government has been warning of a super-tough budget in May — an unpleasant but necessary step, it argues, to curb ballooning public spending and ensure Australia lives within its means in coming years.
Cuts to health, welfare and the age pension have been foreshadowed, while the least well-off will reportedly be charged A$6 ($6.50) every time they see a GP. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, says Australia has "run out of money", and "every Australian is going to be asked to contribute to the budget repair". He says no section of society will be spared.
It has become apparent, however, that not everyone will experience the same pain. Take the defence force, which is to receive 58 spanking new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, at a cost of A$12.4 billion. They have been described by Tony Abbott as "the most advanced fighter in production anywhere in the world". Not much austerity there, then. To put it in context, the A$6 payment for a doctor's visit will, if implemented, save around A$750 million over the next four years. Projected cuts to the age pension would save A$900 million a year. That sum equates almost to the total budget of the ABC, which is under siege and reportedly facing cuts of A$20 million a year.
Asked to justify the mind-boggling shopping spree, the Defence Minister, David Johnston, told the ABC that the Government was "committed to defending Australia with the best available platforms", and that the F-35 was "a regionally dominant and cutting-edge platform that will see Australia right out to 2050". Leaving aside the absurd jargon, Johnston's response begged the question: defend Australia against what? Who, exactly, is going to attack? And if the country came under direct assault, would the expensive hardware make much difference?
No one doubts the strategic importance nowadays of the Asia-Pacific, nor the potential threats posed by the fast-growing economies of China and India. China is already flexing its muscle in the South China Sea. Australia's closest neighbour, Indonesia, is on its way to becoming a major regional power. Yet the prospect of Australia going to war with one of those countries is less than unlikely. And the notion that it could alone defend itself, particularly against China, seems far-fetched. Canberra would surely call on its biggest and best friend in the Pacific, the United States, which it has relied on since the fall of Singapore in 1942.
Against that background, the acquisition of the F-35s — one of the biggest defence purchases in Australia's history — looks like mere sabre-rattling. And a pricey rattle of the sabre at that.