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Defence, the unwieldy beast: Why is it so?

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COMMENTS

3 April 2009 13:29

The average Australian Defence Minister spends the first year trying to understand the hydra which is Defence. The second year is about re-arranging or even lopping heads and trying to redirect the hydra. If the Minister makes it to year three, he can spend a bit of time bedding down the changes and trying to drive the machine. On average, though, at that point his time is up.

The woes of Joel Fitzgibbon give fresh life to a venerable Canberra debate: could anyone fully discharge the job of Defence Minister as currently structured?

Fitzgibbon is the 13th Minister to preside over the unified Defence structure (without junior Ministers for Army, Navy and Air Force), and the sixth from Labor. The lineage starts in 1972 with the election of the Whitlam Government. Lance Barnard announced that he would be Defence Minister, taking unto himself also the tasks previously done by the three service Ministers.

Having made the change at the top, Barnard turned to the secretary of Defence, Arthur Tange, to design a matching bureaucratic machine. At this moment of creation, the seeds of dissension were sown. The military was outraged that the redesign job was given only to the civilian head of the department rather than made a joint task involving the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Whitlam had given Tange an assurance of support in facing down the service chiefs, instructing: ‘I want you to bring them into line.’

From that day to this, argument continues about the tensions inherent in the diarchy — the civilian public servant and the military officer jointly at the top — and how well this serves the Minister. Yet despite constant review, the unified Defence structure under a single Cabinet Minister is one of the few major bureaucratic reorganisations in Canberra that has stood the test of the decades. It ranks with the unification of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the creation of a separate Finance Department to stand beside Treasury.

A Defence Minister carrying the whole load meets the needs of both sides of politics, even at the cost of massive administrative overload for the politician in the chair. One advantage of the single Minister at the top of Defence is that he can have the political and policy debates with himself while shaving.

Junior Ministers could carry some of the administrative load, but a junior Minister with responsibility for the three services would only move the diarchy issue from Russell Hill to Parliament House. And it’s hard to give them clear responsibilities where they can reign undisturbed by the senior Minister. Jim Killen, who served as both a junior Minister (Navy) and as Defence Minister remarked on the sad lot of the junior Minister. He was consulted on small matters. On many decisions, though, the lot of the service Minister was merely to ‘support a Government decision although not in any way privy to its making’.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been able to function reasonably well on those occasions when the Foreign and Trade Ministers were hardly capable of talking to each other (DFAT is going through one of those periods at the moment, but more on that in a future post). Defence could not afford that luxury.

The most effective extra political support for the Defence Minister seems to be the working of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, created by the Howard Government. Beyond that, Australia’s ministerial system doesn’t seem capable of lessening the load on the Defence Minister.

Photo (of the Australian-American Memorial, Canberra, known as 'The rabbit's ears') by Flickr user Tim Riley, used under a Creative Commons license.

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