What a messy reshuffle it is. One of the foundations of good administration is a clear chain of command, yet the Government seems determined to make the arrangements as messy as possible. With senior and junior Ministers operating in multiple portfolios we will have Departments or major organisational units competing for the decision-making attention of Ministers, and Ministers competing for the advisory and follow-up attention of Departments. Some of the arrangements make the Government look indecisive – Ministers are asked to move on, but to bring some baggage with them.
In the case of Defence, where the Government has expressed its determination to fund a major part of its expansion of capability through the design and implementation of major reforms, Mr Combet has been appointed Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science, but will also be expected to sustain his climate change role, as Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change.
Mr Combet will have Ministerial responsibility for three major Defence domains:
- Defence Personnel, in which, for example, he will have to figure out a way to achieve a significantly larger Defence Force without resorting to conscription. To take just one example, we currently have three Collins class submarines, at more than $1 billion apiece, tied up alongside because we cannot crew them, but we plan to introduce twelve new submarines from 2025. We desperately need to increase crew time on the current submarines in order to have sufficient crew with the training and experience to man the new fleet, and setting up a sustainable recruitment, training and retention framework will be a major challenge.
- Defence Materiel, in which there are many issues to be resolved and, in my view, a number of flawed frameworks that require careful and sceptical attention.
- Defence Science, in which we have a new Chief Defence Scientist, and there is work to be done to improve the Defence-wide understanding of the contribution which the Defence Science and Technology Organisation can make not only to defence capability and the sustainment of our equipment, but to the identification and management of the technological risks involved in major acquisitions.
Any one of the above would represent a demanding program for a talented and hard-working Minister. Together they represent a very large portfolio of responsibilities. To expect Mr Combet to manage this workload and at the same time continue to compensate for the lacklustre performance of the Minister for Climate Change is quite extraordinary. There are at least two jobs here; someone needs to decide which one they want Mr Combet to do.