The Miseries of a Defence Minister

When reports alleging that defence officials had been spying on their minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, the early media slant was that such behaviour was utterly reprehensible. One of Saint Kevin’s anointed was being attacked, and by the military. Heads must roll, especially if they wear coloured clothes. Quite soon, once the various phones around the Russell Hill defence complex and the parliamentary press gallery were hung up and brains engaged, the emphasis changed.

Various stories began to emerge. The military were found not guilty—if only on this occasion—and attention focused upon various parts of the department itself. It might have been the Defence Security Branch investigating the minister’s association with the Chinese-Australian businesswoman Helen Liu, a long-time friend of Fitzgibbon’s. One version had it that it was a plot among the Right wing of the New South Wales Labor Party to get rid of Fitzgibbon. Conspiracies abounded and disappeared only to be resurrected a few days later. ASIO went public to say that Ms Liu was not being investigated, by them at any rate. The Inspector General of Security launched another futile investigation of the story that at least had the advantage of giving his staff something to do.

Fitzgibbon, that bad boy, was finally found guilty of having accepted gifts from Liu including paid trips to China before he became minister, and then not declaring them. Forced to apologise to parliament, he set the Opposition off on a typically pointless scalp-hunting expedition that kept the media in a state of rare excitement, anxiously seeking opportunities for further headlines and bylines for their individual portfolios. More and more, Ms Liu and her links with the Chinese military became the focus of media attention, mostly speculative and gossip-mongering. Nearly all the journalists managed to ignore the real story, and those who did try to raise it were swamped by the related games of political conspiracy.

The real story is that Fitzgibbon has upset too many influential bureaucrats in the gross monstrosity that is the Department of Defence. Joel Fitzgibbon’s problems with a Chinese friend—whoever she is—pale into insignificance compared with his problems with the Defence Department.

A few journalists noted that no minister since Robert Ray has had a comfortable relationship with the department but all the commentary on the point seems to be based upon an assumption that the ministers have been at fault or that the military are out of control. Seemingly, public service departments are sacrosanct in the eyes of the press gallery. Such microscopes as have been turned on the department have looked in the wrong places. I have no wish to repeat what I wrote in the January-February 2008 issue of Quadrant (“The Pen-Pusher is Mightier than the Soldier”) except to suggest that Fitzgibbon’s woes are simply the latest manifestation of a problem that no government seems willing or able to fix.

Looking back, one could argue that being handed the Defence portfolio is the most poisonous of chalices for a politician. Since Robert Ray’s time and under John Howard’s government, Ian McLachlan, John Moore and Robert Hill gave up trying to reform the department and moved out of politics. Peter Reith self-destructed over the children-overboard affair and Brendan Nelson left courtesy of the electors. All had at best a tense relationship with the department.

When Ray’s boss fell foul of the electors, it prob-ably saved Ray from a similar fate. Certainly the auguries were not good as the demands for operational deployments of the Defence Force began to snowball, albeit in little more than token ones. In any case, it could be said that Ray was popular with the department because he presided over a 28 per cent reduction in military manpower. That reduction was also popular with some career military people because almost the whole of it was achieved at the expense of other ranks rather than officers. Of course, that left a lot of officers seriously under-employed, and jobs had to be created for them.

Defence is in a mess not so much because its people are incompetent or crooks but because the whole notion of an integrated defence organisation with two co-equal heads is fundamentally flawed. In this organisation, responsibility and accountability can always be avoided except in rhetorical terms. Many senior officers have indeed publicly accepted responsibility for something that went wrong but none saw a need to resign, as is the norm in Israel in such circumstances. Overall, the defence organisation has lost sight of its central reason for being and has become largely self-serving and self-managing in its own bureaucratic interest. Process has become more important than outcome, so all the reorganisations tend merely to refine processes, often making them even more complex and expensive.

The fundamental purposes of an orthodox department of state on the one hand and a fighting force on the other are incompatible. And the more the Defence Force is committed to combat operations, the more serious will be manifestations of that incompatibility. It was once said by a former minister in defensive mode that the Defence department was not organised to fight a war. To which the logical response must be: what is it for then? The task of the Defence Force is to engage in combat operations at the behest of the elected government. In the process, it will develop capabilities, skills and experience which will, one hopes, deter attacks on Australian interests wherever those interests exist.

For its part, the task of the Defence Department should not extend beyond the provision of administrative and home-based logistic support for the Defence Force. It should have no other role; certainly it should not be making defence strategy, developing combat capabilities or making military plans, because it is simply not qualified in any but abstract terms.

Strategic policy in its wider sense should emanate from a National Security Council capable of integrating military, economic, political and internal security policies and advising government accordingly. The council’s task should be to identify the scope of Australian interests and vulnerabilities, something the Defence Department is simply unable to do effectively. Then, just maybe, we can overcome a century-old orthodoxy and recognise that defence involves much more than preparing to defeat an invasion of Australian territory, and that the actual deployments to various regions of the globe since 1914 arose from a recognition at the time that Australia’s interests were engaged. Unfortunately, we have never been prepared for the reality when it bit because of that juvenile orthodoxy.

To a considerable degree, the mess that Fitzgibbon is trying to deal with is beyond the capacity of any one or even a group of ministers. The National Security Committee of cabinet needs to admit the problem and take vigorous control of the solution. As John Donovan pointed out in the April 2008 issue of Quadrant (“Reforming Defence”), the oft-repeated attempts to fix the mess have failed because the culprits have been put in command of the process. It needs to be said, too, that this is not simply a matter of putting the soldiers in charge. We now have almost two generations of military officers who have never experienced any other way of doing business, so that too many are much too comfortable with the mutual back-scratching that is all too common at Russell Hill.

On a more positive note, the growth of combat experience among the military in the many deployments of the Defence Force over the past couple of decades means that there will be more and more who will not be so comfortable. If they are prepared to kick the system, they will need outside support from both government and opposition. They may even get some recognition from the denizens of the press gallery, who appear to have been brainwashed into believing that all uniforms are bad and all civil servants are good. Or that political games are more important than good government.

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