Grasping the Defence nettle

There’s a reason why the defence portfolio has typically been awarded to a minister at the end of his or her career—they need the fortitude that often comes with having little to lose. Image: Defence.

Written by

Lesley Seebeck

Recent days have covered the apparent—and to insiders, longstanding—differences between the defence minister and his department.

First reported in the Australian Financial Review last week, the fractures include a mutual disregard, frustrations over slowness on managing decisions on the part of the minister and reforms on the part of the department.  Senior officials—who surely have better things to do with their time—now spend time proofreading submissions for the spelling errors that the minister finds so vexing.

The defence portfolio has long been a source of frustration for ministers. Indeed, harmonious relations more likely than not suggest overly compliant, or lax, ministers. 

Ministers are often captured by the military, which has learnt to bring to bear the glamour of their profession and the weightiness of their business to impress and even cow ministers. Placing former ADF people in civilian decision-making roles is no panacea: they are burdened by the expectation of loyalty to their former service, even to the point of trumping public interest. 

The situation may be exacerbated by Canberran public service culture, which values consensus, not rocking the boat, and ‘singing from the same song sheet’ more than rigour and contestability.  The consequential passive-aggressive behaviour can be mirrored in ministerial offices, especially by brash and inexperienced political staffers. 

The challenge is that the policy and political class—of both persuasions—has become inured to problems in the defence portfolio.  It’s too easy for a minister to instigate a review, lecture the defence public service, which includes the military, and use the blunt instrument of the budget to bludgeon outcomes, while seeking the validation that the military confers upon proximate civilian leaders.

Typically, overdue reform is left unaddressed, lost in the personality politics of Canberra.  And that’s increasingly problematic for Australia, for two fundamental reasons.

The first is the increasingly challenging and dynamic geostrategic environment.  The focus of the Strategic Defence Review was the Indo-Pacific. It laboured under the misapprehension that somehow, Australia could fence off that region—and, even more, retreat to some form of Australian ‘heartland’ and seek ongoing savings from the Defence budget.

There’s a rationale to concentrating resources and tailoring a posture to a set of specific, foreseeable scenarios.  But that assumes a more certain and slow-moving environment than is currently the case—and more ability to shape circumstances and trends. 

Australia remains more a taker, than a shaper or a maker.  Worryingly, that’s left us well behind in terms of realising and scaling innovation quickly, particularly while relying on our own resources: we’re highly dependent on others for basic technologies, materials, and wherewithal. That’s reflected in our ability to deliver reliably both on large-scale national projects, from Snowy Hydro to shipbuilding, and to adapt to fast moving developments, such as the emerging importance of drone warfare.  All of which raises the question of the value we should be getting from the defence budget, as well as other government initiatives, from electrification, our health and education systems, to the National Reconstruction Fund.

It’s worth noting that Australia is not the only Western nation whose defence establishment is in trouble. The Economist’s recent piece on the British military forces argues for desperately needed reform; an earlier report reflects Western European nations’ struggle to overcome atrophy.  That limits our ability to rely on others for help, as we’ve often done in the past.

And Australia may yet have to deal with a second Trump Administration. While it’s unlikely to signal an end to ANZUS, and possibly AUKUS, at the very least it will increase uncertainties around decision-making and worry other allies. Australia has to lift its game, and expenditure, on defence.

Our ability to manage such changing circumstances leads me to my second critical concern: the state of civilian control of the military in Australia. 

Recently, commenting on President Zelensky’s removal of General Zaluzhny, Kori Schake noted in The Atlantic, there are two basic measures of civilian control in a democracy: the readiness of the civilian leadership to fire its military advisors; and the willingness of the military to undertake diligently policies its leaders disagree with.

In Australia, governments are exceedingly wary of firing—or even criticising—its military advisors.  As former Defence Secretary Paul Barrett will attest, it’s easier to sack a civilian Secretary than a Chief of the Defence Force. 

On the question of following political guidance and expectations, Defence’s performance has been questionable, from the behaviour of troops in Afghanistan to the issues identified in recent reporting, specifically around force structure, capability, and procurement.

As Schake says, where professional military judgement and professional policy judgement clash, both sides can be right.  And ‘when civil-military relations function well, the parties work towards compromise.’

However, Australia has a limited system of civil, not civilian, control, which mitigates against such mature, informed, discussion.  That was perhaps best expressed during the Children Overboard enquiry, when former Defence Secretary Dr Allan Hawke held—to Senator John Faulkner’s concern—that civilians do not comment on operational matters. 

In other words, the only oversight of military affairs is through the person of the minister themselves. But as Whitlam’s Defence Minister, Bill Morrison said, the minister alone, as an individual, cannot meet the requirements of agency—garnering independent information, checking implementation and assessing outcomes—when even the verity and quality of the advice he receives from Defence is uncertain.

That’s why it’s necessary for the minister to receive high quality civilian advice on military affairs from his department, and why the civilians must be directed and empowered to appropriately inform the minister and ensure directives are followed.

Direction by shouting will not get the minister very far. Australia needs a defence civilian capability that’s knowledgeable about military affairs—and prepared to ask smart, informed questions about assumptions, and actively contest these, to provide the minister and government with the best possible advice. 

In turn, it is then in the military’s interest to ensure that civilians are well educated on what the military’s doing, rather than being denied insight and knowledge, improving decision-making overall. Doing so would reflect the military’s professionalism and encourage it to see civilians as true partners in the endeavour of securing national interests through the use of force. There is a role here, too, for a community of expertise outside the Australian Public Service, pertinent to the recently announced Commonwealth Review of funding for national security strategic policy work.

Defence will not improve until political decision-makers grasp the nettle of true reform. There’s a reason why the defence portfolio has typically been awarded to a minister at the end of his or her career—they need the fortitude that often comes with having little to lose.