Aside from the Skype sex scandal, Defence Minister Stephen Smith has been bullet-proof. Or so it seems when you compare him to the past (stop to count) four … five … no, four is back far enough … people that have held the job.

Robert Hill helped to saddle us with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter scheme. Then Dr Brendan Nelson decided to waste $6.6 billion on a non-solution to any future air-power problems, with the super slow Hornet (aka Kingswood Country). Nelson also had us paying for ships we can ill afford (including manpower to crew) — the Hobart-class destroyers and the Canberra-class amphibious ships. You may stop here for a second and Google the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse to see what happens to big fat ships that are not protected by any credible air power.

The next defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, left himself wide open — the risk of conflict of interest also includes the appearance of conflict of interest. As an attempt to show a look of stalwart leadership to the portfolio, John Faulkner came along. A bright guy, but he was so poorly advised that he committed the government to buy the first batch of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. While this is still in contention, it was a poor idea.

The entrenched Defence bureaucracy has been having a field day up to this point “advising” their empty suit ministers. This is the classic tale of the fox telling the farmer the definition of a chicken.

Then Smith came along. He has had the ability to contest the entrenched Defence bureaucracy. For example: seeing off the boss of the failed experiment known as the Defence Material Organisation (DMO) last year. It should be called DOFO, or Defence Office Furniture Organisation. An amazingly large collection of moribund and dysfunctional REMFs if ever there was.

The entrenched Defence bureaucracy has wanted to see Smith gone for a long time because he won’t play their crooked game. The latest great unpleasantness with the PM leadership debacle was a chance to be rid of Smith. That didn’t work out.

Because Smith has made a grave error by firing the boss of the Skype s-x academy there is now an opportunity for lobbyists of the entrenched Defence bureaucracy to have their day. If nothing else to sling dirt.

They want — no, they need — another empty suit in the chair. Not this Smith guy who dares to bring attention to a very critical project of concern list.

It was an error for Smith to fire the academy boss because he didn’t have all the facts at the time. Yes, that is unfair. Not that there is anything wrong with holding military leaders accountable, but by reaching a decision too soon (hint: only the entrenched Defence bureaucracy seems to be allowed this sin) he is now vulnerable.

And if Smith decides to call it a day because he has had enough of the drama? Well, it is our loss. We should allow Smith this mistake. Move on, and let him continue to improve Defence.

He is not perfect. But odds are, the next person to have the job will be even less so.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey