First Published in The New Matilda, 2004

The transparent preposterousness of John Howard's pre-emptive Flying Squad strike force raises - at last - the serious issue of an independent Australian defence policy.

If we could actually muster anything that looked like independent intelligence indicating a danger and of which we were at all confident, it might be a good thing if we could do something about it.

Instead, we have relied on alliances with either the United Kingdom or the United States in the hope that if push came to shove they would come to our rescue.

Faced with a choice of supporting 20 million English speakers with kangaroos or 300 million Muslims with a lot of oil, the White House would establish a sub-committee to report back in a timely fashion.

A physical threat to Australia can only come from or via Indonesia or perhaps Papua New Guinea. One does not have to be Alexander the Great, or Field Marshal Rommel to work that out. Look at a map of the world. While an attack on Fremantle from Johannesburg is as possible as a dawn raid on Sydney from Auckland, it's really the wide red desert and jungle bit from Broome to Cairns that's vulnerable.

Two decades ago when the first Hawke ministry was sworn in, I interviewed the new defence minister, Gordon Scholes, and asked him about plans for our own guerrilla warfare deterrent capability. He had no idea what I was talking about. It was a cultural ignorance as much as a military one.

In some countries like Israel and Thailand the army is part of, and is strongly supported by, the society. Not so Australia with a services "us and them" mentality.

But consider this:

* An army that has platoons and companies based in northern population centres and in some of their downtime from training they assist those communities in development projects - mending fences, building bridges and playgrounds, fundraising barbecues and sports training. Should we ever need them to fight off an invader, they will have much greater support and know the terrain better than any battalion brought up from Melbourne or Adelaide.

* An air force of vertical and short take off and landing multi-role (Harrier, F-35, Saab Gripen) hidden in the bush and moved about, just like the Swedes have been doing for decades.

* A navy/coast guard of fast patrol boats (Super Dvora Mk III) and frigates with attack helicopter capability (pioneered by Canada; the UK's Type 23 Frigate), similarly patrolling our northern waters from Broome to Cairns.

These boys' toys require maintenance and supplies and a few dozen small northern bases could provide a wealth of alternatives should any fall, while supporting the economies of the regional centres.

Another Labor defence minister, Senator Robert Ray, once told me that Australia's best defence was close ties with Indonesia. Anyone wanting to harm Australia (other than Indonesia) would have to deal with Jakarta first. And in a conventional war, he is absolutely correct. At Duntroon and Albury-Wodonga where we have educated many foreign soldiers in the arts of war, we have taught Indonesians all sorts of defence strategies, but hopefully not "Invading Australia 101" or the more important "Graduate Diploma in extending supply lines 1000km across water". It's one thing to invade a country, it's a totally different matter to hold it, as some people are learning in Iraq.

So our best defence is our own guerrilla warfare deterrent. Quick, light and well-hidden, but equally well-known. Little nests of vipers in the dessert and jungles.

In this regard, Labor has made the first noises of heading in the right direction, with the Latham-Beazley statement in Darwin, but what Australia really needs is a total overhaul of its intelligence and defence strategies.

As for defending ourselves against well-planned terrorist attacks, that's a lot trickier and our spies have abysmal track records. Making our international airports hard to penetrate - as they already are - is a great help. A foreign tourist or terrorist has to clear several layers of observation and inspection via Customs, Immigration and random drug and explosives sniffer dog patrols to enter this country; but what of home grown terrorists? Well, we don't really have them. There are a few nutters around like Perth man Jack Roach who wanted to attack Joe Gutnick, but ended up going to ASIO and giving himself up. Australia's indigenous population, the only people with real grounds for a war against Australia have eschewed violence for a political and legal approach.

So Prime Minister John Howard comes out with a preposterous proposal of first strike pre-emptive capability against anyone whom our inadequate intelligence services think might be planning an attack on Australia.

Apart from the fact that such an invasion of a sovereign nation is illegal and likely to be met with a justified and legal response, probably from a better armed service with superior intelligence, the Howard pre-emption doctrine approves others doing the same to us.

If, for example, Lichtenstein hears of a plot to steal their garden gnomes, would Howard approve the invasion of Glebe by Lichtenstein's Flying Squad?

What if we learn of a Jerusalem-based Armenian attack being planned on Turkish assets in Melbourne? Are we going to invade Israel? I don't think so.

Perhaps the blatant stupidity of the Prime Minister's pre-emptive strike policy will give Australians the impetus to debate and demand a 21st century defence force. One that has some hope of doing its job for its people.

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