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The woes of the Defence Minister

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COMMENTS

7 March 2012 10:48

Two high-profile Labor men reached for the Foreign Ministry last week – Bob Carr and Stephen Smith. Carr won because the Prime Minister asserted herself.

On this reading, Smith got second prize – he gets to stay as Defence Minister. The line coming out of the Labor Party is that Smith 'took one for the side – again!' First, he gives up being Foreign Minister for Kevin Rudd, then he does it again for Bob Carr. Who knew Foreign was such a prize? Especially when the received wisdom has been that what Smith really wanted was to be Attorney-General.

If Smith had gone back to Foreign, Defence would have had an Oscar Wilde-Lady Bracknell moment: to lose one Defence Minister is a misfortune, to lose three looks like carelessness. And Labor would have been on to its fourth Defence Minister in as many years. Smith needed to stay just to keep the churn-misfortune-carelessness index in check.

The Russell complex already knew its Minister was less than enamoured; now it knows in some public detail the depths of that discontent. Joel Fitzgibbon left Defence with a bitter and angry heart; John Faulkner left the job with a heavy and troubled heart. Whatever the state of Smith's heart, we know it does not lie with Defence. 

To get some feel for the heaviness of the Smith heart, read the transcript of the quick presser he gave on Friday after Carr got Foreign. In its way, this is a minor classic in the doorstop mode. Note how Smith says he asked to go to Defence in the first place and how he is 'very happy as Defence Minister'. 

Bear in mind a few basic doorstop rules: any politician is always happy to be in government and always happy to be a Minister and always happy with what the Prime Minister has decided. Remember also the strange dialectic of doorstops: what you deny is often the same as what you confirm. And recall the rule laid down by Smith's predecessor Jim Killen: a Minister can give public voice to his private views on only two things – his friends and what horses to back.

Smith's 'happiness' with Defence is illustrated by the barrage of inquiries he has launched – into everything from the failures of military culture to the inability to repair ships. 

The Minister's distaste for the failures he is confronting in Defence is richly returned from the other direction. Click on the Australia Defence Association's latest Brief, which devotes plenty of space to  'Stephen Smith's ministerial failings.' The key headlines are: 'Stephen Smith: Background to a crisis', 'Stephen Smith: Hoist on his own petard' and 'Stephen Smith: a study in failure'. Detect a trend?

Tolstoy's insight (every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way) usually applies to the relationship between an Australian Defence Minister and their Department. Even those who clearly loved Defence (Killen, Beazley, Nelson) struggled on their dark days with the thought that the job could not be done by one man (and so far they've all been blokes). The ebullient Killen – two years as Navy Minister and seven years as Defence Minister – sometimes ruminated that Defence was bad for your health.

The pressures of the Defence job mean few ministers can come close to Killen's longevity. A while ago this column propounded the three-year rule for Australian Defence Ministers: the average 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, at that point his time is up.

The three-year rule dates from 1972 when the three junior ministries (Army, Navy, Air Force) were abolished. Smith is the 15th Minister in charge of everything, so the actual average is trending down toward 2.5 years.

Take all that as context for the observation that some in Defence now dislike Smith with the same intensity they once loathed Peter Reith. Look out for the leaks to start. Yes, Defence will keep ticking over and the show will go on. But there ain't much trust left – on either side.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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