Only a leadership contest is more enjoyable for the Press Gallery than speculating about who will get a Cabinet vacancy. Factions, geography, experience and even talent form the complicated matrix against which candidates must be considered. It’s a game the whole family can play.

Replacing Joel Fitzgibbon has the added interest of working out which contender if big and ugly enough to scare the hell out of Defence bureaucrats.

There’s the youth-v-experience dilemma — Greg Combet, the ex-procurement parl sec who can get his feet under the desk very rapidly, or a veteran like John Faulkner or Simon Crean, who have gravitas and stature within the Government and plenty of ministerial experience. There’s the problem of keeping the factional balance, although ostensibly Rudd is beyond all that sort of nonsense these days. And there’s the problem of maintaining representation from NSW and the Hunter, a major Labor support base and coal heartland as well — at a time when the coal industry has been singled out as the only industry to miss out on the bulk handouts that constitute the CPRS.

Greg Combet, of course, holds the seat of Charlton, just south of Newcastle. Mark Arbib is from NSW and the Right. One of them will be promoted, if not given the Defence ministry. Poor Bill Shorten, who has knuckled down and laboured hard in Disabilities and the Victorian bushfire recovery, might be left wondering quite how his star got eclipsed.

Sticking a rising talent into Defence is likely to lead to one less star in the Government. The portfolio was a graveyard throughout the Howard years — John Moore, Ian MacLachlan, Peter Reith and Robert Hill all went to Russell Hill and never returned, along with a couple of Departmental Secretaries. It has proved similarly deadly to Joel Fitzgibbon.

That’s the larger issue that Rudd has to address.

The elements within Defence who engaged in undermining their Minister — helped or not by people within Fitzgibbon’s own office, as he bizarrely suggested last night — are not “whistleblowers”. The material they leaked to the Fairfax press on Helen Liu showed no wrongdoing of any kind — but rather, a sinophobia, or perhaps, more simply, blatant racism. Even the reactionaries at ASIO felt prompted to declare there was no problem with Ms Liu. Moreover, Fitzgibbons’s opponents were clearly motivated by a resentment that he was evidently determined to drive the Government’s reform agenda, which involves big investment in defence procurement but coupled with substantial savings. They are probably also the sort of conservative types who don’t believe mere politicians should be running Defence.

This was more crypto-fascism than whistleblowing.

And they are there, whatever Nick Warner might say. Warner was justifying Defence’s internal investigation against David Johnston’s attacks in Estimates yesterday morning, but he had no response to the basic point that the inquiry amounted to politely asking Defence bureaucrats to sign a piece of paper saying they had not spied on the Minister. Until a thorough check is done of all the Defence Department’s ICT systems — and that’s a mammoth undertaking — the culprits are likely to remain undetected.

Defence needs a heavy hitter, someone whom departmental renegades will think twice about messing with, someone who can endure the undermining and leaking that will be the return fire. The problem is, such ministers are in more senior portfolios, and wouldn’t welcome the demotion and stress of overseeing one war and several regional operations, where you’re one military bungle away from political chaos.

Rudd may have to opt for the Howard approach, which until Brendan Nelson, was to steer into Defence, ministers heading toward the end of their careers, so that any disasters wouldn’t degrade his ministerial talent bank. In this case, that means Simon Crean or John Faulkner. But both are performing strongly in their current roles. Faulkner as special minister of state is virtually irreplaceable. No one else in the Government has either the interest or the gravitas to put serious momentum behind an agenda that is directly contrary to the Government’s own short-term interests. No one will listen to a junior minister lecturing them about the need to release more FOI documents.

Who else? Martin Ferguson? At least no one would be able to spy on him, since he’s utterly incomprehensible.

But Defence needs to be sorted out. At the moment it is only affecting ministers and governments. But these people have carriage of our defence and the lives of our soldiers.

Peter Fray

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