23 October 2010

John Hewson on Defence

In his regular op-ed column in the Australian Financial Review on Friday 22 October former Opposition Leader John Hewson takes a substantial swipe at the Department of Defence.

So much of his commentary is ill-informed, unjustified or attacking the wrong target that it cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

To start with a point on which we are agreed, Hewson criticises Chief of the Defence Force Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston for expressing a view about the appointment of Stephen Smith as Defence Minister. I don’t know exactly what he said, but my position is that no serving military officer should express an opinion about the Minister for Defence. The role of the Australian Defence Force is to conduct military operations as directed by the government of the day, and the only appropriate comment for a CDF, service chief or other military officer should make about the Minister or the Government is that he has no comment.

Mutatis mutandis, the same goes for public servants.

To turn now to the key points of disagreement, the core of Hewson’s attack is his assertion that:

... the Department of Defence, and the defence forces, have been increasingly seen as “different” or “special”, and not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny, transparency and accountability as other departments.

To deal with the second part of this proposition first, it is, not to put too fine a point on it, arrant nonsense. What is the evidence for Hewson's claim? The departmental functions of the Department of Defence (as distinct from military training and operational functions of the armed forces) are the responsibility of the Secretary, Department of Defence in exactly the same way as those of any other department head. The Secretary is employed under, and exercises powers and functions under, the Public Service Act, and is bound by the Financial Management and Accountability Act, in exactly the same way as all other Department Secretaries. The Secretary is the custodian of, and is accountable for, the Department’s funds and all of its assets including the military equipment used by the Defence Force. The Secretary and other senior Departmental officers attend Senate Estimates hearings in exactly the same way as officers of other departments.  Its accounts and performance are audited by the Australian National Audit Office in exactly the same manner as those of other Departments, and because of the amounts of money involved it comes in for a great deal of ANAO, Parliamentary and media attention.

Aside from these standard accountability provisions, I would argue that Defence is subject to more scrutiny than other Departments. To take just one example, Department of Finance and Administration officers work inside the Defence Materiel Organisation, and Defence’s expenditure proposals cannot even get onto the Cabinet agenda unless the Finance Department has been through its costings with a fine tooth comb and agreed with them.

And the Department is always crawling with business improvement consultants imposed upon it by governments of whatever persuasion. It is actually the statutory function of the Secretary to make the place run smoothly, but there are always politicians who want to impose management initiatives on the hapless Secretary – and then make him accountable for the debacles that follow.  If we could actually leave the place alone for long enough to let the Secretary get on with his statutory responsibilities, then we be in a position to hold him to account.

As for regarding Defence as “different” or “special”, it is.  Defence is the only organisation that expects its employees to face death or injury as an intrinsic part of going about their duties. That makes it pretty special. 

There are other organisations (police, fire brigade, emergency services, rescue services) whose employees take risks, and come to harm, in the course of their duties, but if you ask any one of those organisations they will tell you that the safety of their employees is paramount and that their employees are not expected to put their lives at risk.

This unique characteristic of the ADF imposes a high duty upon the government to ensure that those it asks to go into harm’s way have the best possible chance of winning, and it imposes a duty upon both the Department and the military specialists to advise the government on what equipment meets the necessary criteria. This is the context in which to view Mr Hewson’s comment that:

...”more is always preferred to less” when you seek the advice of the defence heavies on expenditure, be they bureaucrats or in the forces.

 As an old supervisor of mine, who had been a bomber pilot in New Guinea, used to say, “I have been to war in the second best aircraft in the sky, and it is not a lot of fun”.

The need to ensure that when we fight we win makes Defence special in other ways. It means that for front line equipment it is always looking to acquire next generation materiel – equipment that has not yet been designed, built and tested, equipment that performs in ways that have never been achieved before. This means that the technical, schedule and cost risks are high, and the lead-times are long. Introduction of complex equipment into service can easily take twenty years from the time the proposal first goes to Cabinet. In order to commit to (i.e. sign contracts for) such projects, Defence needs a certain predictability of funding – predictability which some commentators seem to see as conferring some kind of privileged status on the Department.

As for John Hewson’s allegation that the military leadership would redefine the objectives of our involvement in war in order “to ensure the continuity of our involvement”, that is both unworthy and at variance with the facts of our recent wars.

Our commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq were not occasioned by the urgings of bellicose military chiefs, who as Hewson observes at the start of his article simply work for the government of the day.  We became, and remained, involved in these wars because John Winston Howard wanted us to be fighting shoulder to shoulder with our glorious ally. As far as I am aware the service chiefs were never asked whether these wars were a good idea; as John Howard comments in his memoir which is previewed in The Weekend Australian today, he regarded it as “inconceivable” that Australia would not join the United States in its invasion of Iraq.

None of the CDFs and service chiefs with whom I was privileged to serve would have adopted such a cavalier approach to the nation’s security interests or the lives of their people as to seek to prolong our involvement for the fun of it. Regarding warfare as a game seems to be the specialty of people who have never been near one and are never likely to.

One of the service chiefs in my time was then Chief of Air Force Air Marshall Errol McCormack, who is now Chairman of the Board of the Williams Foundation (www.williamsfoundation.org.au), an independent defence and national security think tank named for Sir Richard Williams, who in 1921 became the first chief of the newly formed Royal Australian Air Force following distinguished combat  service in World War I.

In its paper “A Defence Strategy for the 21st Century” (downloadable from here), the Williams Foundation begins:

For more than one hundred years Australian defence strategy has been based on so-called ‘expeditionary’ operations – that is, on wars of invasion. If we are going to learn anything from the disasters of the last fifty years in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it should be that that model has become untenable. It has failed politically, socially, and militarily; and it has become ethically unacceptable.

Simply put, the era has gone in which predominantly white, predominantly European, predominantly Christian armies could stampede around the world invading countries their governments either don’t like or want to change.

Australia needs a new national defence strategy that recognises those realities, and that reflects the changing nature of international relations in the 21st century.

The Board of the Foundation contains a number of very senior military officers who have been in the ADF during the time of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of whom certainly saw service in Vietnam. They don’t sound like a particularly belligerent lot to judge by the views they express here.

1 comment:

Andrew Elder said...

The "arrant nonsense" you describe could well be Hewson's knowledge of Howard's mind, borne out by his performance in office. I can't think of another department guaranteed funding increases year on year, and my guess is that Prime Ministerial overview was far lighter than it might have been under Fraser (a former minister) or Hawke and Keating (they trusted their ministers and chiefs to get on with it and mix it with competing claims on public coffers). Taking your point about being bound by legislation, is it really not possible that other departments had less guarantees of funding increases and were placed under greater scrutiny than Defence?