28 February 2009

Please address all correspondence to the Secretary

In the days of a Commonwealth Public Service that was more formal in its handling of correspondence and government papers generally, Departmental letterhead often carried the annotation “Please address all correspondence to the Secretary”. This was based on the sound principle that the Secretary was, in the words of the Public Service Act, “responsible for the Department and all the business thereof”. Everyone else in the Department is there to assist the Secretary, so action on all matters is undertaken on authority delegated from the Secretary.

It is worth revisiting this principle because the son et lumiere in Parliament this week concerning the pay of SAS troopers suggests that the Opposition and the media are rather confused about who does what in the Department of Defence.

The first thing to be said about the substance of the issue is that the Department of Defence is a large and complex organisation, with almost 100,000 on its payroll when full-time military, civilians and reservists are taken into account. Mistakes will happen; the important thing is that when they happen, action is taken to rectify them.

The Minister came under sustained attack in Parliament, and was the subject of some unflattering commentary in the media, because he was apparently considered to be insufficiently on top of the detail of what happened to the pay of one or more SAS troopers. To suggest that he ought to be is to elevate the notion of Ministerial accountability to a level that we have not seen in a long time if ever. The Minister’s job is to ensure that the Department has in place all the systems it needs to support the Australian Defence Force, and where performance falls short to insist that it return in a timely way to an acceptable level. He cannot ensure that nothing goes wrong, and he cannot be expected to be on top of every detail of what goes on within the machine he administers.

We have also seen the spectacle of the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army being subjected to sustained and hostile questioning on this matter in Senate Estimates. As one would expect, they both showed grace and courage under fire.

The core roles of the CDF and the Service Chiefs are to raise, train and sustain the Australian Defence Force (ADF), to provide military advice to the government, and to command military operations. The role of the Department is to carry out all of the administrative functions required to support the ADF, to be the custodian of all the assets, and to control the cash which has been appropriated by the Parliament. In relation to the matter of SAS pay, while the Army has the role of determining the qualifications on which the pay of individual troopers is based, it is an administrative function of the Department to run the pay system, to ensure that everyone gets all of the pay that they are entitled to, and to rectify any errors in the system.

Please address all correspondence to the Secretary.

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