15 June 2009

Combet captured?

Minister for Defence Materiel, Greg Combet, has a reputation with industry for being a good listener. There are disturbing signs that he is too ready to listen to the Head of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO): Ministers need to establish a sound working relationship with the senior officials that advise them, but part of that sound working relationship is the maintenance of a certain reserve and the application of the Minister’s own critical faculties to the advice he/she receives.

The Australian Financial Review for Monday 15 June 2009 carries a story on page 8 by John Kerin (Get shipshape, sub builder told) which begins:

The Minister for Defence Materiel, Greg Combet, says the federal government expects the new boss of submarine builder ASC to reform maintenance processes before carrying out ambitious plans to build 12 new submarines.

The article notes that the government-owned submarine builder has been without a chief executive officer since the beginning of last month, when former managing director Greg Tunny quit after a row with DMO. It goes on to quote Mr Combet as saying:

And whoever heads ASC is going to have to look at how it manages maintenance and sustainment processes; we want to make sure those processes are as efficient and effective as possible.

That all sounds perfectly reasonable – we would all want the maintenance and sustainment processes to be as efficient and effective as possible – except for the very important background that the relationship between DMO and ASC has been sufficiently troubled for DMO to initiate a hostile management consultants’ review of its service provider (see Submarines: The management consultants' review) and for ASC Chairman John Prescott to write to the Prime Minister about the problems between these two Australian Government organisations (see Submarines: Chairman ASC to Prime Minister).

In these circumstances it might have been prudent for the Minister to refrain from rushing to judgement on such an important issue; his words read very much as though he has embraced the DMO position on the matters in dispute, less than a week after being sworn in. It also looks as though DMO has wasted no time in getting his ear on this subject. Given that he is currently wrestling with the problems of the Government’s emissions trading scheme, in his capacity as Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change, he cannot possibly have had time to familiarise himself with the issues at stake and make a considered decision. As the matters in question go to the heart of the safety and military effectiveness of the submarine fleet, that is a worry.

This is not the first time Mr Combet has shown himself a little too ready to endorse Dr Gumley. Mr Combet was sworn in as Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement on 3 December 2007, and on 27 February he gave his first speech in that capacity, an address to the ADM Congress at the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra. Amongst other things he had this to say:

One of the key elements I see in any future reform program is the current CEO of DMO, Dr Stephen Gumley. In my short time as Parliamentary Secretary I have already grown to greatly admire his talent, capacity and the contribution he has made. Therefore I will be keen for him to play a central role in a future program of reforms.

Such endorsements of public servants by Ministers are most unusual, and for good reason – they rather limit the capacity of the Minister in question to keep that particular public servant’s feet to the fire, or at a later stage to conclude that there is some aspect of the person’s performance that warrants attention. Bouquets and brickbats are both best delivered in private.

But just in case anybody missed it, Mr Combet wound up by saying:

I will obviously be working closely with the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO). You’ll be hearing later this morning from the Chief Executive Officer, Dr Gumley and as I have already indicated I have great faith in Dr Gumley’s leadership of the DMO and the team below him.

Given their unusual nature, the two passages quoted caused me to wonder at the time how they had found their way in to Mr Combet’s speech – who put them there? Presumably not Dr Gumley. Was it Mr Combet himself? Did no-one counsel him against?

Whatever the case in that particular case, the Minister would be wise to keep his scepticism intact and to come to more measured judgements about the important matters for which he is responsible than appears to have been the case in relation to ASC’s through-life support of the Navy’s submarine fleet.

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