Commentary about Senator Marise Payne becoming the first female to be appointed Minister for Defence has been overly influenced by two rather irrelevant perspectives: gender and polarised intra-party politics. The first has either celebrated the appointment as yet another fallen male bastion or criticised it as being more dependent on her gender than her merit. The second reflects Liberal Party factionalism following Tony Abbott's replacement as prime minister by Malcolm Turnbull.
Both perspectives are surely too narrow. They ignore the history of the Defence portfolio and mostly discount Senator Payne's career to date. The key issue is maximising effective governance of the cabinet portfolio with probably the longest-term focus and the most supra-partisan national responsibilities.
Over the last half-century, 21 men have been minister for defence. Eleven served less than two years (with five serving under one) and a further two just over two years. Only five have served longer than three years (with one of them only four days more).
The Defence portfolio has a reputation for devouring its ministers, but four (Malcolm Fraser, Ian Sinclair, Kim Beazley and Brendan Nelson) went on to lead their parties. Another, John Gorton, had already been PM. The real problem is that many ministers have been kicked sideways into the Defence portfolio, often in the twilight of their careers, and then serve a short time before retirement. This occurs because the perceived seniority of the position is misused to warehouse long-serving or perhaps controversial ministers who cannot be appointed foreign minister or treasurer (or have been and must be moved). In recent years we saw this occur with Stephen Smith when former prime minister Kevin Rudd returned to cabinet as foreign minister. It was also the first portfolio mooted by many for Joe Hockey if he had stayed in cabinet following the recent reshuffle.
The unfortunate result is that more often than not, Defence has had ministers with little or no interest in the portfolio (or worse — Stephen Smith's open personal and political resentment greatly hindered his ability to do the job).
Any discussion of who should be appointed Minister for Defence in any government therefore needs to begin with studying the most effective of the 21 ministers over the last half-century. They have shared at least two or three of the following five key criteria (in rough order of importance).
- A longstanding and genuine interest in strategic security and defence issues (Kim Beazley), and/or instead, a strong sense of public duty and ministerial responsibility as being more than just a political office (Robert Ray, Robert Hill, Brendan Nelson, John Faulkner).
- Lengthy periods as Minister for Defence (Beazley – 5¼ years; Ray – 6 years; Hill – 5¼ years).
- Being a senator (Ray, Hill, Faulkner), not an MHR, because it enables more time to devote to what is not only a complex portfolio but one that involves issues primarily beyond day-to-day party politics or indeed politics at all.
- Previous service in the portfolio as a junior minister or parliamentary secretary (Beazley, Nelson, Faulkner) provides a better grounding. The British recognise the importance of this by having a career path for potential defence ministers. We should too.
- Being government leader or deputy leader in the Senate, or having past experience of such a post (Hill, Faulkner, Ray), is an advantage. It denotes seniority in parliament and party and adds gravitas to the role of defence minister. Moreover, if you want a job done well, give it to someone who is already busy. It can even sometimes help if such a senior minister has factional or other differences with their prime minister, such as Hill with John Howard and Ray with Paul Keating.
Some of these criteria on their own do not lead to outstanding ministerial records. Jim Killen and Stephen Smith, for example, had six-and-a-half years and just over three years in the portfolio respectively but come in at number 7 or 8 (Killen) and 18 or 19 (Smith) in the Australia Defence Association's rating of the 21 ministers. Previous portfolio experience on its own is also not enough. Gorton's record as Minister for the Navy (1958-63) is commonly regarded by naval historians as the best ever, but his 7-month period as Minister for Defence in 1972 (after stepping down as PM) has earned a rating of 18.
On the Tuesday of the week the cabinet reshuffle was being formulated I was rung by a journalist dedicated to defence coverage. He naturally asked who the ADA thought would be the new minister. We discussed the most likely options based on the longstanding habit of party-political expediency tending to win out over good governance in the national interest. When my interlocutor then asked me who I thought it should be, I replied that it should be someone actually interested in the portfolio. I suggested that while 'the brave choice would be Marise Payne', I did not think they would be brave.
Since her subsequent appointment there has been much surprise and some criticism. Both mostly result from ahistoric perspectives and insufficient knowledge of Senator Payne's interests and parliamentary career to date. Given she comes from the moderate wing of the NSW Liberal Party, the criticism also seems mainly derived from continuing factional tensions or the loyalty to the deposed PM felt by some public commentators.
While there was an obvious desire to appoint more female cabinet ministers, and Defence offered one of the few opportunities to do so, placing her appointment against the above five criteria provides a better perspective.
First, she is a senator.
Second, she has long been one of the 20 or so (out of 226) parliamentarians genuinely interested in strategic security and defence issues ? and one of the only four females in this group. While her implementation of this interest has been questioned by some, her work on relevant Senate and joint committees has long been recognised by those who keep up with such issues.
One notable and telling example remains her chairing of the Senate committee reviewing the first tranche of reformed counter-terrorism legislation in 2004. The all-party committee was fractious due to competing perceptions of electoral advantage. The bills also attracted irrational opposition from various single-issue fringe groups. Senator Payne adroitly balanced testimony from such a wide range of views.
Third, longevity: if she performs capably in the portfolio, the Coalition wins the 2016 election and she remains willing to serve, Senator Payne should be left there for the next term of government and perhaps longer.
Due to Liberal Party factionalism, it was always likely that Kevin Andrews would be retired to the backbench if Tony Abbott was no longer prime minister. Moreover, even if Abbott had retained the party leadership, a substantial ministerial reshuffle would still have been necessary in the November to February period in order to present a refreshed team for the 2016 election. Given the quality of the emerging Coalition generation, it is likely that Howard-era ministers would have been required to give way to a younger team (as subsequently occurred in the Turnbull reshuffle).
Andrews' argument that he should have been retained for continuity in the Defence portfolio was always problematic, particularly once the party-political aspects are excluded. From the public-interest viewpoint the necessary continuity is instead best achieved in the careful selection of his replacement. Continuity is also enhanced by her junior minister, Mal Brough, a former ADF officer who previously served effectively as a junior minister in the Defence portfolio in the Howard Government. The nearly complete Defence White Paper and the selection process for new submarines, both at the stage where they are effectively the collective responsibility of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, also enhance continuity.
The ADA is optimistic about Senator Payne's appointment as Minister for Defence. That she is the first female to do so is notable but irrelevant to her promotion and her prospects.
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