At the Kovco inquiry last week Defence Chief Angus Houston gave evidence at odds with earlier statements by Defence Minister Brendan Nelson. So what?

It was a difference; but Houston was not publicly berating his minister, simply providing his best recollection to an inquiry. Ought this have generated breathless prose like “major split”, “deep division”, “Houston contradicts Nelson”?

The facts: Nelson made some ill-considered comments about possible causes of Private Jake Kovco’s death; blamed this on advice from Defence; Houston has now said he gave no such advice. We don’t know how Nelson came to say what he did – whether it was a misunderstanding or if he was set up by the department – but there’s an old maxim: “if it’s either a conspiracy or a c-ck-up, nine times out of ten it’s the latter”.

Houston was one of the few senior Defence people to come out of the “children overboard” affair with dignity and has a reputation for honesty; but that’s no reason to get over-excited when his and Nelson’s recollections are apart. Mistakes happen, memories differ.

This was not a major public disagreement. We have had much larger ones in the past. Senior public servants were once allowed to express views in public, and would even give speeches that (subtly) took a different line to the government. It did not happen every day, but often enough not to be remarkable; John Stone when head of Treasury, or Charlie Perkins at Aboriginal Affairs, are only some noticeable instances in a long line.

The Prime Minister shares the responsibility for this issue spinning out. This government is obsessed with control: managing ministers to keep them “on message”, muzzling public servants’ ability to comment publicly, suppressing disagreements until an official government line has been determined. Remember how Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty was brutally brought into line after daring to speculate mildly that the war in Iraq may not be helping the fight against terrorism? Or that former Defence Secretary Paul Barratt was dismissed by then Defence Minister John Moore over what appeared to be just personality differences? Barratt took an unfair dismissal case to the High Court and won, but it was a pyrrhic victory – it established that a minister could dismiss a secretary for any reason at all, no matter how flimsy, as long as he provided the reason.

The Nelson-Houston differences ought not to have been a big deal. There are far more important issues at the inquiry. But in an environment where there is almost never a disagreement between public servants, military or politicians, the mere fact that there was one this time stood out a mile.

Peter Fray

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