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Defence White Papers at 40

By Peter Edwards

The Defence White Paper brought down earlier this year (DWP 2016), the seventh of its kind, appeared shortly before the 40th anniversary of the first, which was tabled in parliament by the Defence Minister, James (later Sir James) Killen, in November 1976.

For a governmental practice as for an individual, a 40th anniversary is a good time to stand back and assess the past, present and future.

How is it that Australia managed for the first 75 years after Federation without a Defence White Paper and then produced seven in 40 years, the last three within seven years? How have the White Papers evolved over this time? What do they now achieve, and for which constituencies? Are they still a worthwhile tool for good governance, or might there be better ways of achieving their purpose that are more appropriate to the demands of the 21st century? 

This paper looks in some detail at the context in which the first and second Defence White Papers (DWP 1976 and DWP 1987) were produced. It then surveys the next five more briefly, before making some proposals for the future.