Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The politicisation of defence

  • 30 March 2009

Originally published in Eureka Street in April 2002.

In 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,