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Defence is simply too big for Nick Warner

Of course Nick Warner is the wrong man for the job of Secretary of the Defence Department. That’s because the job is beyond any single individual, and certainly beyond any single Minister. Defence is simply too big.

Debates about the appropriate structure for Australia’s defence organisation are ceaseless. The diarchy, under which the Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Force provide joint leadership of Defence with separate and shared areas of responsibility, has been criticised since Sir Arthur Tange introduced it under the Whitlam Government. There have been either Government or Parliamentary reviews approximately every five years wondering what the best structure might be.

In reality, there hasn’t been a truly effective Secretary since the respected Tony Ayres retired at the end of 1997. Former Trade bureaucrat Paul Barratt, recruited by John Howard from the Business Council of Australia, fell out with new Minister John Moore and was sacked in 1999.

Howard turned to Allan Hawke, who had risen to Deputy Secretary level under Ayres before stints in Paul Keating’s office and as Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs and Transport. Hawke should have been the ideal candidate for the portfolio, particularly to sort out its financial mess. He had a strong background in Defence and at Transport had led the Commonwealth transition to accrual accounting a year ahead of his secretarial colleagues. But Hawke’s period was plagued by cost overruns and delays on major procurement projects, a continuing inability to get control of Defence’s budget  — it became routine for its annual accounts to be “qualified” by the Auditor-General  — and the children overboard affair.

Hawke’s three-year term wasn’t renewed and in 2002 Ric Smith replaced him. Smith’s background was primarily foreign affairs, apart from a short stint in Defence, but he at least managed to end the annual embarrassment of the ANAO publicly declaring no confidence in Defence’s numbers. Warner had no background in Defence when appointed, but, similar to Smith, had worked in foreign affairs and intelligence. His primary qualification for the job seems to have been that he was Howard’s foreign policy adviser.

It also didn’t help that Howard placed a succession of retiring or dud ministers in the portfolio. Ian McLachlan, John Moore and Robert Hill were all heading for the political exit when appointed. Peter Reith arrived after the Phonecard business snapped in two the leadership baton he famously carried in his knapsack. Brendan Nelson, the final Howard Government appointee, looked out of his depth, particularly when ‘fessed up that the attack on Iraq was about oil. As it turned out, it was Nelson’s last position as well.

Last year yet another review was conducted by David Mortimer focussing on defence procurement issues. Mortimer revived a previous recommendation that the Defence Materiel Organisation, first made a separate component of Defence in 2005, be established as an executive agency, separating it from the Department under its own head.

That would reduce some of the burden on the Defence Secretary, but would only really make sense if defence procurement was given its own junior minister to work to. It would also still leave the vast bureaucracy of Defence in place. The Australia Defence Association has suggested that, in addition to a procurement/defence science junior minister, there be a junior minister in charge of “day-to-day operational matters”. There’s almost a case for having a minister purely for defence administration, given the apparently intractable and eternal payroll problems the Department has, and would also address the peculiarity of senior uniformed personnel becoming involved in problems like the SAS pay debacle.

The first step should be for the Government to acknowledge they got it wrong in shifting Greg Combet without replacing him and to strengthen ministerial oversight of Defence simply by providing more of it. One of the biggest enemies of bureaucratic inertia is the knowledge that a minister and their office wants something. A single minister, especially one with a fractured relationship with his department, cannot provide that sort of pressure to an empire as vast as Defence. Junior ministers  — ones who could be considered for promotion to the top job if they prove themselves  — would provide more oversight and greater familiarity with defence issues.

But none of these problems are new. They have been around for decades without resolution and, until a Government accepts that defence as a portfolio needs a senior minister with appropriate support, they’ll continue  — and so, probably, will the reviews.

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