Kevin Andrews was appointed Defence Minister with question marks over whether he was even interested in the portfolio. So as I watched his interview on the ABC's 7:30 program last night on the deployment of additional Australian troops to Iraq, I was impressed by how well he seemed to be across his brief. He spoke with authority on the sectarian make-up of various provinces, and on the role of Australia's forces. If anything, he seemed a little too eager to display his command of the topic. And then this happened:
It was a dreadful moment for Andrews which I'm sure he wishes he had handled better. It may well haunt him, because once a media narrative is established about a minister, it is hard to shake.
But let's be clear: it says nothing about Andrews' competence as a minister. He may very well have known the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and just forgotten in the moment. Or he may not have known at all. Either way, what of it? Andrews probably doesn't know what LHD stands for, either, or what an MH-60R is, yet his Government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these two weapons platforms. Andrews is paid to get the big decisions right, not to memorise details.
As David Wroe commented, we've just had a defence minister who loved nothing better than to toss off military acronyms and weapons-systems designations. But was it important for David Johnston to know that stuff? Did he need to know what an MH-60R was in order to actually do his job, or did he need to know it so that he could appear to be in command of his job?
The two things are not unrelated, of course. It's a minister's job to convincingly advocate for the Government's policies in public, so I suppose Andrews failed in that regard. But it's unfair of Wroe to draw broader conclusions, particularly after he admits that it could just have been a mental blank, and 'we've all been there'.
Or maybe it wasn't a gaffe at all. Maybe the fact that Andrews could not recall al-Baghdadi's name indicates that Andrews has his priorities straight. Andrews is paid to make the truly big decisions about the nation's defence, and having the name of the ISIS leader at the forefront of your mind just doesn't serve an obvious purpose in that regard. For someone like Andrews, it is completely rational, reasonable and efficient to offload that bit of data to an adviser or to a briefing note, rather than memorise it. The only context in which it would be useful for him to have that information at immediate command is in a media interview; in every other part of Andrews' job, it makes no sense for him to know it off the top of his head.
We should think about where this insistence on the instant command of detail takes us. Which other names and details should Kevin Andrews commit to memory? Would that be the best use of his time? And how many of Andrews' ministerial colleagues wasted hours this morning memorising trivia about their portfolios rather than actually doing their job?