The politicisation of defence


Originally published in Eureka Street in April 2002.

Flick image by owen.jIn March 2001, the managing director of a Melbourne-based management firm, the Value Creation Group, announced that his company had been hired by the Department of Defence to help 'realign' the leadership of Defence with the aims of the defence minister of the time. The report in the Canberra Times continued:

Dr Hawke [secretary of Defence] and former defence minister John Moore decided some time ago that top officers and their civilian counterparts needed more political savvy. Some officers thought they served the Queen. Others thought they served the Governor-General. Others thought they owed loyalty to the national interest.

In fact, as both men passionately believed, defence officers served the minister.

There are many sceptics, of course, in the public service and elsewhere, when it comes to the value of management consultants. While we do not know yet the cost of the Value Creation Group consultancy, the most recent annual report from Defence tells us that, for example, Keystone Corporate Positioning was paid $105,000 to 'advise on the formation, design and development of a balanced scorecard-based business planning and quality management system' and that the Phillips Group was paid $113,336 to 'develop a plan to help improve Navy's reputation internally and externally'. That might now seem to be money wasted.

Many in Defence may not yet know what a 'scorecard·based business plan' is but presumably few are unaware that the 'realignment' of senior officers with the minister worked brilliantly in the months leading to the last federal election.

Yet spare a thought for those who are confused about their role in the military forces; there is as yet no developed symbolism to show this essential link between Defence and its minister. Unfortunately, as the leadership may believe, the older symbols prevail. The Governor-General is still designated as the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force; he still signs officers' commissions and, as rank increases, so does the prominence of the Crown on the officer's uniform.

As for the national interest, doesn't the army still have as its motto 'Serving the Nation', the motto that used to adorn even its vehicle registration plates?

It might come as a shock to many in the military, and in the wider community, that the noble profession of arms has been realigned to be simply doing the bidding of the government of the day.

With typical Australian irreverence we have taken some glee in the conflict between politicians and the military across time. Indeed in our history there has been a certain tension, not to say a distrust, between the military and politicians in Australia.

Was General, later Field Marshal, Sir Thomas Blamey showing ultimate realignment with minister, Frank Forde, by appointing Major-General 'Gaffer' Lloyd as Adjutant-General in the last years of the Second World War? It was General Berryman who commented that 'Gaffer' appealed to Blamey because 'Lloyd could lie to Frankie Forde'. A nation at war may not want the minister in the dark; but soldiers then liked at least to sidestep fussy ministers.

In Eric Andrews' government-sponsored history of the Department of Defence in the Australian Centenary History of Defence Series there are so many examples of tensions between ministers and the defence hierarchy as to defy easy counting. And there is no index entry for 'ministers', 'realignment' or otherwise.

To pluck a couple of examples to stand for all the others: for a fortnight Malcolm Fraser, minister for defence, and his secretary, Sir Arthur Tange, were not on speaking terms because Tange believed that Fraser had trespassed into his areas of responsibility; Fraser had a legendary falling out with the Army Chief, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Daly, in 1971.

Men such as Daly and Tange knew how to fight for their corner. They also knew why they should do so.

Some have spoken of the 'politicisation' of Defence, exemplified by Admiral Chris Barrie's pathetic press conference when he finally admitted that he knew what everyone in Defence had known for months about the 'children overboard'.

Barrie had to restore his standing with the Defence leadership group, especially after the prime minister, so adept at wedge politics, had opened a gap between the Chief of Defence Force, Barrie, and the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston.

'Last night,' Howard gloated in parliament the day before Barrie recanted, '[the oppositionj thought they had an Exocet from the air marshal. I think you have had a decent torpedo from the admiral.'

This is the politicisation of the Defence Force: my admiral against your air marshal. A strong minister and supine Defence leadership had meant that what might have been spoken of, in the national interest during an election campaign, went unspoken. 'Political savvy' meant not inconveniencing the minister with facts. And it was done in the name of managerialism. Of making Defence responsive.

Perhaps the Defence Force is only halfway down the path of reform. As the annual report explains, in 2000–2001 defence capability would be strengthened in three ways: building alignment with government; building accountability for performance; building trust within and toward the senior leadership of Defence through the creation of a shared value base.

Few would now doubt that the realignment, the political savvy, has worked in the way the minister wanted. But there does seem to be room for more work on building trust towards the senior leadership. How the Value Creation Group will work that one out is anyone's guess.

Michael McKernan was a senior lecturer in History at the University of New South Wales, Deputy Director at the Australian War Memorial, and author of This War Never Ends: The Pain of Separation and Return. He is a writer, reviewer, public speaker and broadcaster. This article appeared in Eureka Street in April 2002.

Topic tags: Michael McKernan, Defence mechanisms, Value Creation Group, air force, army, navy



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Existing comments

McKernan's views are even more apposite today. Thank you re-issuing the article.
Show me an ambitious soldier and I will show you a Major-General who rose to the top with 'political savvy'.
Show me a brave soldier and I will show you a private who never rose above the trenches because that where his mates were.
Show me a "successful" defence bureaucrat and I will show you a clerk who rose to the top with Machiavellian strategy and tactics.
Uncle Pat | 30 March 2009

Thank you Michael; I had known for some time that , " war was too important to be left to Generals, "(Lloyd George), that , "war was not
an extension of diplomacy by other means." (Clausiwitz) and that the only two groups of people who exhibit courage in war, " are front-line soldiers and conscientious objectors" ( Lidell-Hart)
The situation you have described in your paper shows the declarers of war, military action, armed intervention, etc as,
"those who taught the young to hate!"
The 'go on' not the 'come on'!

John McQualter | 01 April 2009

It is a pity that Michael McKernan's otherwise fine piece was not re-drafted to give it contemporary relevance. At the heart of the current imbroglio is not the alignment between the Minister and the Defence leadership (that has largely been resolved) but the ability of the Defence organisation to implement the directions of the Minister and government of the day. If it doesn't work for the Minister, for whom does it work? The Secretary of Defence has described his department as "broken-backed". If it can't pay its SAS troopers properly, and can't bring in major procurements on budget and on time, then there are reasonable grounds for doubt that it is up to the more demanding task of national defence.
Allan Behm | 02 April 2009


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