Articles by " Graeme Dobell"

The Canberra officer (4): taming the service chiefs

"GEN Sir Phillip Bennett, royal governor of Tasmania, prepares to place a wreath at a memorial during a service, part of ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea." (May 1982)

When the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force make a combined visit to the Prime Minister, it can mean coup, revolution or war. So when the three service chiefs met John Howard, in Sydney on Friday 4 April 1997, elements of all three were in the air. The conflict was all inside the Defence Force. The Chief of the Defence Force had staged a coup over the previous two decades as he’d been slowly absorbing the powers of the service chiefs. Within a week, the government was scheduled to release the Defence Efficiency Review, tipped as the most important reorganisation of Defence in nearly a quarter of a century. As a result the war over lines of command and power flared into open revolt.

The review marked another phase in the evolution of jointery, the taming of the service tribes and elevation of the Defence Force chief so his power matched his title. As the military shifted from the Old to the New Testament it created new names and identities—crucially, the Australian Defence Force and CDF (wonderful examples of the invention of tradition).

In this evolution, the Chief of Defence Force Staff in 1976 replaced the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. From chairman to chief was a shift that mattered. Under the changes, the service chiefs were responsible to the Defence Minister, through the CDFS, for command of their services, but service chiefs still had the right of direct access to the Minister. Read more

In 1984, the CDFS became Chief of the Defence Force (CDF)—a recommendation of the Utz report that the top military job had to have clear authority to match its responsibilities. The first CDF, Sir Phillip Bennett (pictured), built substance into the new name and continued the fight to get staff to go with it. Mobilising the symbols, he had the sign ‘Headquarters Australian Defence Force’ placed outside his Russell office and the number plate ‘ADF 1’ placed on his official car.

Horner judged that the expanding role of the CDF and the creation of joint commands meant that, by 1988, the service chiefs had been ‘removed from the chain of command for operations, much as they had been in World War 2.’

The tribal battles still raged. Horner noted that in 1996, the CDF, General John Baker, announced significant changes to the command and control arrangements because he ‘believed that the 1974-76 reorganisation had left the ADF without a command structure above the tactical level, and that the services had been slow to rectify this shortcoming…Baker knew that he did not have the staff to command the ADF adequately.’

All this brings us to the service chiefs who fronted the Prime Minister in 1997 to ask for more time to implement the Review; their argument wasn’t to turn back the tide but to slow its  pace. They got a good hearing but little sympathy.

A week after that meeting, the Defence Minister, Ian McLachlan, made the Review public; at the press conference, the flags of the Army, Navy and Air Force were in the room, but the service chiefs weren’t. McLachlan was flanked by General Baker and the secretary of Defence, Tony Ayers. The service chiefs’ no-show said what had to be said about the revolt. That fortnight ranks as the last major pitched battle at the top of the ADF over the principles of jointery and the CDF’s role in giving advice to the government.

In May 1997, as the dust settled, Baker claimed that the new command arrangements ‘are probably at the forefront of military thinking in the world’ while admitting there was ‘still a degree of rivalry between the services and there always will be.’

Looking at the first century of federation, Horner concluded: ‘By 2000 the ADF had developed a uniquely Australian command structure… The ADF now had a single commander, the CDF, who could both advise the government on military matters and exercise strategic command of the ADF.’

The service chiefs still matter hugely as tribal heads and as elite examples of the skills required to be a Canberra officer. Indeed, part of the mandate of the chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force is to foster a cadre of officers who can step up to operate in the Canberra system. The service chiefs run the system to produce a CDF to reign over them. The taming of the service chiefs over 40 years was necessary not just to establish that hallowed military goal, unity of command. It was vital so the military could produce one man—the passenger in ADF 1—who could drive the ADF’s interests.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Canberra officer (3): the promised land of jointery

The Governor-General’s Banner is escorted by Australian Defence Force Academy midshipmen and officer cadets during the 2014 Chief of Defence Force Parade.

Tribalism isn’t the scourge it once was in the Australian military. Sure, they still have tribes, but they don’t go to war with each other as often. And the tribes have found better ways to intermingle and agree on a common cause.

Australia’s Army, Navy and Air Force had to stop fighting so they could prosper in the Canberra system. The need for less warring tribalism and more cooperation was one of the lasting lessons the services took from the Tange revolution.

The most recent column in this series looked at Defence creation stories, talking about the Old and New Testaments. Andrew Davies helped set that tone with this comment on what Tange did to the tribes:

When the three services were first thrust together by Tange, the effect was for them to war against each other and against the Forces of Darkness and Anarchy Tange set up to annoy them. It took about 20 years, but they eventually discovered if they intoned the word ‘joint’ (even if they didn’t believe it) they looked more like a bloc than three warring tribes. Over time, jointness has become a credo that has helped propel the CDF to the position you identify in the first column. A joint force to rule them all, C4ISR to find them; A joint force to bring them all together and in the darkness bind them.

Read more

Jointness has become a thing of beauty for the tribes, a mantra often intoned and a common totem of the tribes, always honoured in word and occasionally in deed.

Jointery has mattered greatly for the tribes from education to operational concepts; it has been vital in Canberra officer effort and in working the Canberra system; and jointery was the language used in the realignment of power between the Chief of the Defence Force and the service chiefs.

As a driver of operational concepts, jointery was a break with deep habits. One of the CDFs who helped impose and inspire jointery, Peter Gration, argued that the three services had far more history (and understanding) of operating with allies in coalitions than they did working with each other. Afghanistan and Iraq proved that bit of history is still strong.

Alliance and coalition tend to pull the services apart; jointery is now how they’re taught and structured. The three levels of officer education tell the story.

Pre-Tange, all officer training was conducted by single-service institutions. Direct-entry officer training and service-specific training is still provided by the individual services. But there’s now a tri-service institution at each level of officer education. And they’re all in Canberra.

The first is the Australian Defence Force Academy, which sits over the hill just behind Russell HQ, and provides entry level officer training.

The second is the Australian Command and Staff College, a few kilometres south down the valley at Weston, which prepares officers for command and staff jobs. The top layer of officer education, also at Weston, is the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies. To produce the Canberra officer, the military educates officers in Canberra.

As one former service chief said to me recently when talking about the creation of the Canberra officer, the three tribes had agreed, ‘We’ve got to get smarter in how Canberra works’. Educating them in Canberra is a good start.

The most important physical expression of jointery is the headquarters of the joint operational command, HQJOC, which functions to plan, control and conduct military campaigns and operations.

The JOC broke free of the Canberra effect to the extent that it’s just outside the ACT, on the road to Bungendore, a gentle half hour drive from Russell. The HQ is named after General John Baker, which is a proper honour because Baker was a CDF who fought some of the sharpest battles with the service chief in the name of jointery and the power of the CDF. More on that in the next of this series.

The final point must be that tribalism still throbs, if at a lower level of intensity. As a measure of this, see the Defence Efficiency Review of 1997 (PDF), more than 20 years after the Tange revolution:

In virtually every area examined, those responsible have highlighted dysfunctional aspects of the higher level arrangements, which prevent them obtaining what to them are obvious improvements. The predominant concern expressed was the “tribalism” of the three Services and the Public Service in protecting their assets and influence. We were reminded of President Truman’s comment at the end of the Second World War. “…I have the feeling that if the Army and the Navy had fought our enemies as hard as they fought each other, the war would have ended much earlier”.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

The politics of submarines and budgets

Blank (2)The Abbott government is hard at work burying the 2013 Defence White Paper as it prepares a new version to be released next year. Because of the way my mind works, I carried a copy of the Labor White Paper with me to the ASPI Submarine Choice conference. Listening to the defence minister (PDF) while writing the post that went up yesterday, I turned to the shortest chapter in that 2013 policy.

Chapter seven, ‘Defence Budget and Finances’, needs only one and a half pages to make the money statements in 17 terse paragraphs. The third and final page of the chapter has only three words—Page Intentionally Blank.

The beauty of the Intentionally Blank page—as joke or Delphic editorial comment—is that it allows the reader to insert almost any punch line. Overhauling the 2013 White Paper to produce a 2015 version, the Abbott government can scribble happily in that blank space. Read more

The truth of such policy documents is that however much they change and rearrange, a lot of the old finds its way into the new. And some of the language and mindset of the 2013 Paper will surge into the 2015 replacement. Nearly half of the 17 paragraphs in Labor’s budget chapter are devoted to how tough the task is: ‘fiscal discipline’ crops up a couple of times, along with phrases like ‘the sustainability of the budget’, ‘complex choices’, and ‘achieving greater efficiency and effectiveness’. This is the language of budget pain and hard choices which is building in volume and intensity towards Canberra’s annual budget crescendo on 13 May.

In discussing the politics of submarines (and, thus, the politics of defence spending) Australia hasn’t yet seen the identity of the Abbott government. We’ve been taking our entertainment and making premature judgements during the phony war.

Next month, the real stuff starts; the bell sounds and the true fight begins. The first budget is when choices are announced, policies set and priorities picked in all their polarising glory.

As Nikki Savva observes, this could be the most important budget in 20 years, revealing the government’s DNA: ‘Does it have the tough gene and the smart gene in equal parts in its make-up, or will the recessive, populist, weak-ticker gene, prove to be dominant?’

In warming up for the heavy lifting, the defence minister’s speech—announcing the decision to ‘re-examine’ the number of subs—was described on The Strategist as the government’s first big defence announcement.

The ‘re-examine’ pledge implies an answer that says six new subs, not 12; halving the number takes 40% out of the budget estimates, freeing up a big chunk of defence cash if 12 subs would have cost $40–50 billion.

Halving the number of subs in the shift from the 2013 to the 2015 white paper helps with a political and budget must—get a shopping list of defence kit which goes close to matching the cash on offer in the budget forward estimates. As Canberra’s annual May moment of fiscal theatre always makes manifest, the forward estimates reign and will always drive and define the politics.

Mentioning a political/budget imperative requires a reference to Mark Thomson’s wonderful post and accompanying essay (PDF) on the three musts of the submarine question: there must be a Collins replacement, it must be built in South Australia and it must have conventional (not nuclear) propulsion.

Other political musts feed into Mark’s model. The Abbott government was at the wheel when Australia gave up local car manufacturing; this isn’t going to be the government that also gives up local ship building.

During the South Australian election, Prime Minister Abbott was brave enough to say that defence wasn’t ‘some kind of job creation programme’. The cheering defenceniks should read the rest of the quote. Abbott’s tough love was trumped by a repeat of the golden promise:

For years now, we’ve been saying that work on the future generation of submarines would centre on the South Australian shipyards. So I want to make that crystal clear, just as we said before the election, so we will do after the election, we will ensure that work on the future submarines centres on the South Australian shipyards.

Defence budgets are torn by myriad forces, not least the tyranny of forward estimates, ever at war with the political musts.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Oz submarines: 12? 9? 6?

The answer is 6

The answer to the headline question is now six. To be clear, that’s my answer. The Defence Minister, David Johnston, says the cost of 12 subs ‘is just not achievable’. So six subs starts to look like the number to replace the existing six.

The promise of 12 new submarines in Labor’s two Defence white papers is submerging. In fact, consider it just about sunk.

The Abbott government is to ‘re-examine’ the number of submarines needed. That’s a line from the Defence Minister in what he described as his ‘carefully-written speech’ and is the first major defence announcement from the new government. Not a thought bubble, but something that edges beyond a signal towards an announcement. Read more

Here’s the key numbers quote from Senator Johnston (PDF):

There has been a lot of speculation about whether we need 12 boats. Let me make clear that my primary focus isn’t on numbers but on the capability and availability of boats required to meet the tasks set by government. As part of the white paper process we’ll re-examine the strategic objectives of the future submarine program, including the number of submarines required at sea and therefore the total number of submarines.

Let ASPI give you the dollars-and-sense context that’s driving the dollars-and-cents submarine calculation. Peter Jennings’ has written about the cost of 12 subs crowding out other defence aspirations, raising the danger of the Australian Defence Force becoming a ‘one trick pony’.

ASPI Chairman Stephen Loosley argues that the scale of the 12-submarine ambition is overshadowing and distorting all other areas of defence planning. His answer is to sink the 12-boat target and opt for six, with the option for perhaps three more, as the best answer to Australia’s need for a deterrent capability:

In fact, 12 boats has locked policy up. Moving to six boats with an option for three more, depending upon the technology that comes on–stream, would afford both more flexibility and more time to distil and refine options over the life of the program, from an evolved Collis design to the purchase of an existing European or Japanese model.

The dollars-and-sense context is laying down some firm rails for the number of subs that’ll surface in the Defence white paper the Abbott government will deliver next year. That was the message Senator Johnston kept coming back to in his doorstop with journalists after his speech: don’t focus on the number 12; focus on issues of capability and cost.

The Defence Minister kept insisting numbers were the wrong measure: ‘to put a number on the subs is a distraction’ and ‘successful players don’t just go on numbers’.

But the number that really sinks 12 subs on the dollars-and-sense measure is the dollars-and-cents cost estimate of $40 billion, heading north towards $50 billion. As Senator Johnston observed to the assembled hacks:

We have got to have something that fits into, and is cost effective, in the overall scheme of our fiscal management. You can’t just go out and say we are going to have this many submarines and then someone pops up and says, “Well, that’s $40 billion.” That’s just not achievable. Now, we need submarines. But we’ve got to do our homework, get it right. It’s got to be cost effective.

The Defence Minister said he’s still working on the two options bequeathed by Labor: a new submarine design or an evolved design ‘that enhances the capabilities of existing off-the-shelf designs, including the Collins Class’. On both the sense and cents measures, the evolved design is looking good while the new design asks for a huge leap of faith and funds.

This morning Senator Johnston repeated his view that Japan’s conventional sub is ‘extraordinarily impressive’ and is the closest design in the world to what Australia wants.

Where does all this point? This hack’s summation of where Australia seems to be heading in Peter Jennings’ ‘fog of policy’: An evolved Collins Mk II with a Japanese diesel-electric drive chain and an American weapons system. And six of them—at least to start with.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Myxi.

The Canberra military officer (2): the Old and New Testaments

Sir Arthur Tange

Here’s one version of the creation story of Australia’s defence organisation and civil–military relations: God made heaven and earth, and on the sixth day, just before He rested, God made Arthur Tange.

No, wait, that’s not right—it puts all the emphasis on the last third of the 20th century. So let’s try another story that can better encompass the century. In the Old Testament, you find the Book of Civ–Mil and the Moses figure, Sir Frederick Shedden (Defence Secretary for nearly 19 years from 1937 to 1956). In the New Testament, there’s Tange (Secretary of the External Affairs Department 1954–1965 and Defence Secretary 1970–1979).

This series is about the creation of the Canberra military officer. Thus, it must be about the workings of the Defence system and the military interaction with government and bureaucracy, covered by that ungainly term ‘civ–mil’ (a hyphenated effort that seeks to both join and differentiate). In this effort, creation stories matter. Read more

Shedden and Tange are proof that Australia can produce great Defence Secretaries as well as great military officers. In this creation story, though, the New Testament goes to war with the Old. Tange’s purpose was to lay waste to much of what Shedden did.

To get a sense of Shedden’s Old Testament, see David Horner’s account. While Shedden deserves to be on any extended list of the Seven Dwarfs (the great Canberra public service mandarins), one of the key observations Horner reports is Robert Menzies’—that the problem with Defence was ‘the dead hand of Fred Shedden’.

The Menzies view—that changing the Secretary changes Defence—has reverberated through a lot of governments that followed. Beheading Defence Secretaries has become quite the Canberra sport. The personality type of most government ministers (‘I am going to make things happen and I will determine what happens.’) means they are naturally attracted to the idea that changing a key person will make all the difference; in this universe, structural/institutional explanations for the intractable or the inscrutable tend to be seen as obfuscation or avoidance.

The institutional/structural view of Defence always being Defence was given to me on a sunny day many seasons back, in the non-members bar of the Old Parliament. The explanation took less time than a single beer, but decades on some of the taste lingers: if the many parts of Defence prove to be as good at defeating Australia’s enemies as they are at defeating their own leaders, then Australia has little to fear from a cruel world.

When I arrived in Canberra in the late 1970s and started reporting on Defence, Tange was coming to the end of his reign. But you’d have to have been a most insensitive newby not to feel the Tange aura. This was a man who changed Defence using brains, bile, bluster and bullying. (See here, here and here.) To see how elements of the Old Testament recurred in the making of the New Testament, note Horner’s citation of a quote on Shedden describing him as a powerful personality who was ruthless with those who crossed him, and devastating with those who couldn’t rise to his exceptional standards of performance.

Tange shared those and other traits with Shedden (industrious administrator and skilled defender of turf), and perhaps that helped Tange as he dismantled the structure he’d inherited. In relatively short order, Tange killed off four separate institutions, the Departments of Army, Navy, Air Force and Supply (each with a separate minister) and produced a single Defence Department; he brought forth the diarchy and resurrected/fathered the term the Australian Defence Force.

As Tange explained: ‘I took the opportunity to employ symbolism to reflect the concept that a common purpose must govern the activities of the three Services. I restored to usage the compendious title “Australian Defence Force” which the 1915 Defence Act had declared to be composed of ‘three arms’… In due course (after my time) the commander had his title changed to the unambiguous ‘Chief of the Defence Force.’

These New Testament creations have forced the Oz military to reshape and reorientate rather than completely unmake the meaning and effect of Tange’s revolution. For Tange’s own account of his views and methods, download his personal memoir (a great read for Canberra tragics), ‘Defence Policy-Making: A close-up view, 1950–1980’.

Tange’s attack on the Old Testament was that it valued consistency above innovation, process above outcome: ‘In my discussions with Shedden over the years, I heard few opinions on Australia’s strategic interests or priorities. He was more interested, it seemed, in procedures and respect for the Defence Committee.’ In attacking the three services, the word Tange used a couple of times was tribalism. That’ll be the starting point for the next in this series: how the tribes in khaki, white and blue came together and found a new land they called…

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia.

The Canberra military officer (1): the very model of a modern Major-General

Kings Avenue: the battleground of the modern Canberra military officer.

The Australian military spends years and effort to create the modern Canberra officer. Like many Defence building efforts, this one is complex with no real end point. With each generation, the requirements expand (and don’t even think about numbers of officers needed or cost blowouts).

The creation of the Canberra officer responds to much more than the military’s understanding of itself. The project is about creating military leaders who can thrive, not just survive, in the Canberra system. The focus is on the Canberra of metaphor—the bureaucratic jungle and the political swamp—rather than the physical place. The officers produced must fight and prevail in Canberra’s murky forests and win gold from crocodile-infested and swampy fiscal rivers. The senior military officer still has to know about commanding troops or sailing vessels or winning command of the sky, but the Canberra skills being discussed involve combat over memos and money and the grand strategy and the battle tactics are about fighting up and down Kings Avenue— from Russell HQ to Parliament. Don’t underestimate the ferocity involved—the valley of memos and money can be a dangerous place, and casualties on the Avenue don’t get many medals. Read more

The Australian Defence Force now turns out excellent Canberra officers. This series of columns is going to look at the flaws and the gaps in this ADF effort so it’s worth stressing that the creation of the modern Canberra officer is a good and proper project. Judge the effort an overall success (and then start piling on the caveats). The Canberra officer is necessary; both to the Canberra system and the ADF.

The project has served up important benefits for the military’s political masters as well as the ADF. Canberra is a zero sum town, so if government ministers and generals have gained, who has lost? One easy answer: the civilian side of Defence and, in particular, the Secretary of Defence.

To start with the fundamentals, the creation of the Canberra officer is no more than a manifestation of the eternal power dance, a reflection of Clausewitz’s basic truth about war as politics by other means and the interplay of his two trinities: passion, chance and reason as expressed through the people, the military and the government. The dance between the military and politicians is foundational; as Charles Tilly so elegantly put it (PDF) when analysing how states are formed: ‘war made the state and the state made war’. No military, no state. As Tilly sardonically observed, war making and state making are ‘quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legitimacy’.

Here endeth the theory lesson, with the simple proposition that governments and their military hierarchy have always had lots of things they had to do together, and sometimes things they had to do to each other. In the power dance, the issue of who leads is always problematic. The evolution and creation of the Canberra officer is a response to basic forces.

The argument I’ll present isn’t that the ADF is slowly building towards a coup. Nor will I claim that the ADF has become greatly politicised or its military professionalism compromised. The much slighter claim will be that the Canberra officer has become better and smarter at operating in the Canberra system. In part, the senior ADF officer has drawn closer to his or her political masters and adopted some elements of the political trade, especially in the focus on the media cycle and massaging public perceptions.

What are the elements or drivers of the project to create the Canberra military officer? The high-minded goal would be to produce senior officers better able to serve the Defence Minister and the government. A lower rendering would be to produce officers better able to defend the military in serving etc etc….

The project is entering its 5th decade, having been afoot for 40 years since Arthur Tange remade Defence. Much of the work of the project has been in response to the things done by Tange; the effort has been to reshape and reorientate rather than completely unmake the meaning and effect of Tange’s revolution. An important element has been the slow accretion of power to the Chief of the Defence Force at the expense of the three service chiefs (which Tange intended). The CDF has gained real as well as formal command over the three services and their chiefs. Having won a discernible dominance over the service chiefs, successive CDFs have then reshaped the power equation of the diarchy— the relationship with the Secretary of Defence.

At the start of the project, CDF was clearly the junior partner in the diarchy (which Tange intended, for himself at the very least). Today, that power equation has been reversed; CDF has become the senior partner in the diarchy. Now the Canberra officers can talk openly about killing the diarchy and putting CDF in sole charge. If the diarchy were abolished in such a manner, that would be the ultimate vindication of the effort to create the Canberra military officer. More anon….

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The changing lessons of Vietnam

Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. June 1970. The Chief of Staff of the Headquarters Australian Force Vietnam, Colonel (Col) J. Whitelaw, passes a group of prisoners of war (POWs) during his inspection of the III Corps POW cage. Col Whitelaw presented a small library to the camp. He was accompanied on his inspection by the Vietnamese commandant, Major Sanh Qui.

Australia is starting a four-year journey to mark and ponder the meaning of the centenary of World War I. During those commemorations, the national effort at remembering should also revisit a series of 50-year anniversaries for Australia’s entry and enmeshment in the Vietnam War.

Vietnam might have more to offer than Gallipoli or the Western front in thinking about Australia’s regional future, the US alliance and the diplomatic and defence choices of the 21st century. The frame of history is always shifting and the lessons drawn are forever changing in shape and taste. And as the historian Peter Edwards dryly notes, to a new generation of Australians, ‘Vietnam is as remote as the Boer war was to young people in the 1960s.’

To get around that problem, Edwards has returned to the ground he worked as the Official Historian and general editor of the nine-volume Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975. The result is a new history for a new century of the one war in the 20th century where Australia was on the losing side: Australia and the Vietnam War. The book was launched by the Governor-General designate, General Peter Cosgrove.

To see why Vietnam still tears at the Australian polity, turn to the 2006 memoir by Cosgrove (who was awarded the Military Cross for actions as a Lieutenant in Vietnam) and the conclusion in his Vietnam chapter that Australia’s involvement in Vietnam was a mistake:

…in retrospect we should not have gone… I remember with sadness that over 500 Australians were killed in that war and many more wounded and maimed; … And we left. And we lost. We mustn’t do that with our men and women. Sending troops to war is without doubt the most difficult and agonising decision for any leader. My advice to leaders is never to take the decision lightly, and having done so, never stop until the outcome is worth the cost.

Cosgrove’s sentiment reflects what Edwards describes as the common view that took hold after 1975—Vietnam was at best a strategic mistake, at worst immoral.

In writing a new version of the history for today’s Australia, Edwards follows much of that familiar narrative but upends some of the old Vietnam conclusions, finding elements of Australian alliance success and regional strategic success in the losing war. While the long view offered is rosier, the Vietnam blunders are still paraded for punishment.

In entering the war, Robert Menzies thought ‘he was simply repeating a winning formula that would achieve military success in Southeast Asia, strengthen the alliance with the US and divide the Labor Party’s right and left wings.’ The Vietnam commitment was ‘imprudent and overconfident’ and put ‘blind faith’ in US military power. Whatever gains could be made in Vietnam had been achieved by 1968–69, when the US and Australia should have made an exit.  Instead, the blood kept flowing and the trauma turned to nightmare because of ‘unrealistic definitions of ‘victory’ as much as the lack of clear political and military strategies’.

Edwards recalibrates the alliance calculus in Australia’s favour and gives a fresh embrace to the domino theory—that if Vietnam had fallen to communism in 1965 instead of 1975, the other dominos of Southeast Asia would have wobbled badly or even toppled: ‘With half a century’s hindsight, the ‘domino theory’ arguments gain at least some element of credibility; but as with the ‘insurance policy’, at a cost that was unnecessarily high’.

The ‘insurance’ revision is to reject the idea that in Vietnam, Australia was fighting ‘other people’s wars’. Instead, Edwards argues the US was fighting for Australia’s regional interests and Australia gained some of its strategic objectives: ‘[I]n the minds of Menzies and his principal advisers, it was a matter of getting the US to fight a war for Australia’s security. Paying a premium for Australia’s strategic insurance with the US was not of itself wrong, but should have been handled with a great deal more care’.

Edwards’ case is that Australia should’ve been the loyal ally that asked hard questions and questioned every promise made by its large ally. And this is no mere confected counterfactual. The history gives much weight to the way Australia handled its major ally Britain, and dealt with Indonesia as temporary enemy but eternal neighbour in the Confrontation crisis from 1963 to 1966. The same Canberra cast that stumbled into Vietnam got much right in handling the diplomatic and military dramas of Sukarno’s Konfrontasi against the proposed federation of Malaysia. In his speech at the launch, Edwards contrasted Australia’s skill in dealing with Britain and Indonesia versus the unquestioning meekness applied to US operations in Vietnam:

We need to look again at a time when we were becoming embroiled in two conflicts, in two different parts of Southeast Asia, with two different allies. In one, [Confrontation] the Australian political, diplomatic and military actions were co-ordinated and nuanced; those policies emerged from robust discussions between ministers and their advisers, both civilian and uniformed; the government engaged in vigorous independent diplomacy, especially in regional capitals, deploying a competent foreign service in which the government had confidence; our political and military leaders discreetly but robustly challenged our major ally’s diplomatic and military approaches; and our servicemen were able to apply their preferred tactics, fighting alongside allies in whose approaches they had confidence.

In the other conflict [Vietnam], policy debate was suppressed; experienced advisers were sidelined or disregarded; we failed to seek adequate information about, let alone question, our ally’s strategies; our diplomacy was subordinated to alliance considerations; and our servicemen found themselves fighting a war in ways which were often at odds with their own operational concepts. It is no coincidence that, by any cost-benefit analysis, Australia gained a better outcome from the first conflict than from the second.

Edwards describes history as a never-ending conversation between the present and the past about the future. As an example of that conversation, here is the ASPI interview with Peter Edwards.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Military beware: here be media monsters!

microphoneOver a long career in Canberra hackdom I’ve often marvelled at the way the Australian Defence Force thinks about itself. The strangeness in the way the Oz military understands what it is—soul, history, purpose, future—has some parallels in the way the military deals with politicians and the paying customers (aka: fellow citizens). Add in the eternal irritations and heartaches of coping with the civilian bureaucracy in Defence and there’s a lot of oddness and strangeness to go around. And, finally, there’s the way strangeness shades towards paranoia at the appearance of a simple hack with a notebook or microphone.

Thus it’s fascinating to get some reports from inside the belly of the beast to the effect: if you think it looks unusual from the outside, you should feel what it’s like on the inside. James Brown covers a lot of ground in his excellent book ‘ANZAC’s Long Shadow’, and while attacking the Oz culture of remembrance he also has some astute observations about the military culture he served. Brown says important things about how the ANZAC talisman makes it ‘impossible to criticise the Australian Defence Force, even when it makes the same mistakes over and over’. For the great power of the talisman to repel criticism, see the storm that enveloped Labor’s shadow Defence Minister when he dared to accuse a Lieutenant General of a ‘political cover up’. Read more

Consider two of Brown’s themes, on the ADF’s promotion culture and its anti-intellectual ethos. First, the promotion culture:

 In the ADF, few officers are demoted or sacked for poor performance. Promotion courses are set to the lowest common denominator and failures are rare. Until recently, mediocre performance was tolerated even at the Australian Command and Staff College, with very few officers failing either the promotion or academic components of the course.

And then the intellectual ethos. The related, and in some ways more important, theme is how the military is unwilling to discuss its own experiences and that it is ‘woefully oversensitive’ to criticism:

One of the ADF’s defining traits is a lack of a critical professional debate. This is dangerous in a society that already does not take much of a sustained political or academic interest in studying the art and science of war.

Now sitting outside, Brown offers a sharp inside-the-Army perspective. Doing the same for the RAAF, Peter Layton gave a succinct rendering of Brown’s themes in his Strategist piece, posing an excellent question: does Australia need thinking ANZACS? Part of Peter’s answer is that the Defence Force merely mirrors Australia in not holding critical thinking and new ideas in high regard. Brown and Layton both seem to think that Defence has gotten worse at this over the last decade or so. The other way of seeing it, I suggest, is that the rest of Oz has been changing a lot faster than Defence.

One thing that got a rueful smile from this hack was Brown’s bemusement at the way Defence deals with the media, quoting Major General John Cantwell, after his command in the Middle East, on ‘the draconian control of information by the Department of Defence Public Affairs Office and the Defence Ministers office’. In rapidly shifting times, it’s nice to know some things are constant—the Defence difficulty with hacks is a tradition going all the way back to Gallipoli. In fact, it’s an established international custom, with the British Secretary of War saying that the Army should ‘lynch’ William Russell—the father of war correspondents—for his coverage of the Crimea. In the American Civil War, Lincoln had to intervene to prevent General Sherman executing troublesome correspondents or General Grant putting the hacks before a court martial.

Australia’s first official war correspondent, C.E.W. Bean—the man who did so much to enshrine the ANZAC legend—remarked that his two bugbears at Gallipoli were ‘Turkish flies and Australian officers’. Bean’s successor in WWII, Kenneth Slessor, resigned as official correspondent in 1944 to forestall any attempt by the Army to have his accreditation withdrawn. Slessor complained of the ‘hyper-sensitive reaction to correspondents’ work’ by Army officers, who produced their own share of ‘contemptuous or intolerant criticism’.

In Vietnam, the early rapport between the Australian Army and Oz journalists faded, despite the work of exemplary correspondents such as Pat Burgess, Creighton Burns and Denis Warner. One Australian commander of the Task Force in Phuoc Thuy was so hostile to reporters he even monstered press secretaries accompanying official visitors. In September 1968, Australian Force Vietnam gained new powers to restrict reporting in Australian combat zones. Under the rules, reporters were not to meet or quote any Australian soldier ‘without having first been cleared by a PR officer’.

On Afghanistan, Brown argues that a vacuum of information and understanding was created by a defence culture unwilling to engage with the media and a political culture obsessed with controlling the media cycle. The only narrative the Australian public received was the return of the bodies of dead soldiers; no surprise that popular support for the mission evaporated. Again, wonderful journalists like Sally Sara and Chris Masters produced exemplary reporting. And Sara has made a point of praising the hundreds of troops she dealt with as ‘immensely respectful and helpful’. The problems of help and respect come higher up the system and in the official mindset.

Defence spends more than almost any other institution in the country on educating its people. The military is trained to operate near the limits of human endurance and to confront war and death. But these skills are assumed to disappear the moment a microphone appears. Defence’s best people suddenly are innocents; they must be shielded from the temptations and traps used by slick journalists to lure them from the path of the righteous. Or perhaps the image should not be of a Biblical fall from the garden of innocence; perhaps we’re really dealing here with media monsters and TV trolls.

One of my earliest attempts to describe this Defence mindset was a paper I wrote in 2002 for the Australian Defence Studies Centre at ADFA. The flavour is offered by the title ‘Ministers, Media and Military: Tampa to Children Overboard’. The bit that still resonates was a slight editing job I performed on the ‘Defence Instructions (General) on Public Comment and Dissemination of Information by Defence Members’. This is one part of the Defence Instruction, with the word ‘media’ replaced by nouns that give a more vivid expression to the sentiment being expressed:

 When speaking publicly Defence members should not assume that the monster is not present or that information will not be relayed to goblins or trolls outside the forum. This even applies when speaking under Chatham House Rules where information gained may be used but not attributed to the persons making the remarks. Monster access to seminars, conferences and similar events arranged by Defence requires careful consultation with PACC. The risks of inaccurate reporting, misrepresentation, uncoordinated messages and inadvertent disclosure of sensitive or pre-emptive information may be high…Defence members attending events at which monster representatives may be present need to exercise care.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user williamhartz.

Ranking Fiji in Australia’s South Pacific interests

Fourth place

Canberra is offering Fiji a promotion in the hierarchy of Australian interests in the South Pacific.

Ranking how Australia sees the South Pacific gives some regional context for the bilateral play as Canberra tries to hit the reset button with Suva. This column offers an ordering of the relative importance and status Australia gives its relationships in the South Pacific. It follows the thoughts offered in previous columns (here, here, and here) on the clash of competing visions for the region between Canberra and Suva and on the range of goodies Australia is offering Fiji for normalisation.

Pecking orders are always problematic in foreign affairs because the range of issues and interests are so diverse. Being a hack, not a High Commissioner, I can ignore such concerns. But Australian governments have occasionally been so blunt as to do league ladders: the Howard government’s 1997 Foreign Affairs White Paper and the Gillard government’s Asian Century White Paper, for example. Read more

Taking advantage of that tradition, here’s the hierarchy of Australian interests in the South Pacific and what I’ve called the Australian Arc. Money always talks in such matters, so beside the Island countries you’ll find Australia’s aid spend for 2013-14, using the revised figures issued by the Abbott government in January.

  1. Papua New Guinea and New Zealand
  2. Solomon Islands Vanuatu and Timor Leste
  3. Pacific Islands, Samoa, Tonga
  4. Fiji
  5. France and its Pacific territories
  6. Nauru, Kiribati, Other Small Pacific Islands
  7. The Pacific Community and other regional organisations

1. PNG ($448.5m) and New Zealand. The two at the top are the easiest pick because this is unchanged since the 19th century. PNG was the colony that mattered to Oz. But now Australia sees the Pacific through the lens of PNG; see this ASPI paper describing PNG as more of a success than Australia had any right to expect.

The Kiwis, of course, still have the option of coming to their senses and joining the Australian Commonwealth, under the terms of our constitution. (Clarification: the constitutional option for New Zealand to convert to Oz is correct but the rest of the sentence falls into the category of poor jest—on both sides of the Tasman.)

2. Solomon Islands ($90.4m), Vanuatu ($40.9) and Timor Leste($70m). These three, along with PNG, are members of the Australian Arc or Australia’s Arc of Responsibility (PDF).

By its actions and words, Australia has given Solomons, Vanuatu and Timor security guarantees equal to the treaty assurance we’ve given PNG. The five countries in these top two categories are all recipients of Australian security promises via treaties (PNG and NZ) or declarations in successive defence white papers. The nature of that guarantee has expanded beyond protecting external security to a range of commitments to maintain their internal stability. In an ad hoc manner, Australia has expanded its role as security guarantor to match its position as the region’s largest aid donor.

3. Pacific Islands Forum ($20m approx), Samoa ($23.1m), Tonga ($17.2m). Now it gets interesting. In years gone by, Fiji would have ranked well ahead of the Forum. Hell, the Ratu Mara view was that Fiji created the Forum. By kicking Fiji out, Australia and New Zealand greatly elevated the Forum’s importance and caused huge offence to Fiji; the see-saw in recent years has been importance up, effectiveness down. The stoush with Fiji has had the Forum in a holding pattern that has trended downwards. Helping the Forum is part of what Australia wants from helping Fiji. The Australian view of the Forum as the preeminent regional organisation plays to Australia’s desire to have a major role in regional groupings as an expression of its insider rights as a South Pacific nation. For Australia, the Forum’s, not just a vehicle for regional consensus, but a mechanism to impose and police norms, with Fiji as the greatest example of this power.

The pushback from Fiji has been fierce. Suva has been talking up the Melanesian Spearhead Group and has now created the Pacific Islands Development Forum (unofficial motto: Kick the Kangaroos, Kiss off the Kiwis!). With that motto in mind, here’s Bainimarama speaking at the inaugural PIDF summit:

Why do we need a new body, a new framework of cooperation? Because the existing regional structure for the past four decades—the Pacific Islands Forum—is for Governments only and has also come to be dominated only by a few. In too many instances, it no longer genuinely represents our interests and needs.

Samoa and Tonga are on level three because of their standing in the region and their friendship and connections with Australia and New Zealand, confirmed over decades. On the aid measure and their positions beyond the Australian Arc, they need to be on the third rung, not the second. On the matter merely of how they treat Australian High Commissioners, they rank above Fiji in the Oz hierarchy—for now, anyway.

4. Fiji ($34.2)

5. France and its Pacific territories. Putting Fiji nearly on the same level as France is just as cheeky as putting Fiji below the Forum. Anthony Bergin has these thoughts on what France is contributing to the region and how Australia could lift the relationship, while Peter Jennings delivers this summing up of the remarkable change in the way France is viewed:

In the Pacific, France’s position has gone full circle from the unhappy nuclear-testing, insurgency fighting 1980s to a point where the French territories are now the model of stability and the envy of the region. France is a net contributor to Pacific Island security and one of very few countries prepared to do more to support more regional cooperation.

Australia has plenty of reasons to look beyond the old aches of Francophobia to see a France that can be a power of the Pacific.

Now some thoughts on the country on the fourth level: Long years of diplomatic nastiness and disappointments out of Suva have impacted the way Australia thinks about the region. Once, Fiji would have sat naturally on the second level, certainly ahead of the Forum and any contenders from Polynesia. This league ladder suggests that Australia will do what it needs to get some normalisation with Fiji, but it doesn’t have to accept Suva’s assessment of where it sits in the firmament. As a revisionist state seeking to change the regional system, Fiji deserves plenty of attention, but not undue weight in the regional hierarchy it’s attacking.

The interests of other players should encourage Australia not to fret too much about the Melanesian Spearhead Group or Fiji’s new version of the Forum. PNG and others in the region have plenty of selfish reasons not to accept Fiji’s view of its central importance.

In offering normalisation and seeking a relaxation of the fight over the regional system, Australia wants to see Fiji take a higher spot on the prestige/precedence ladder (as seen from Canberra, of course). The shift doesn’t have to be discussed using the language of hierarchy or relative importance. That’s the beauty of the ‘family’ image Julie Bishop used in Suva, while acknowledging Fiji’s right to broaden its diplomatic options:

Australia, likewise, is always seeking to develop new friendships, new networks, new alliances, new partnerships around the world. And we would expect a strong regional power like Fiji to develop relationships with other countries. But of course, Australia and New Zealand have longstanding relations with Fiji. We have very strong historic ties, military ties, trade and investment ties. Hundreds of thousands of Australians come to Fiji every year as their choice of a tourism destination. So while all countries should be seeking to forge new relationships in the interests of peace and greater prosperity, at the end of the day your friends and your family are what count. And Fiji, and Australia and New Zealand, should consider themselves as family.

Using that metaphor, it has been a family argument of Freudian fury or Shakespearean temper. And there’s no going back to what was before. Beyond Fiji’s election, though, there’s a chance for some calming of the clash of interests.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Stephanie Keeney.

Sweet and sour goodies for Fiji (part 2)

Sweet and sour?

All change for Fiji. The Supremo is hanging up his uniform and becoming a civilian leader to give his New Order vision democratic credentials. For Canberra and Suva, this is the time to change the script as everyone prepares for elections. This series started by discussing the systemic struggle between Australia as the status quo power in the South Pacific and Fiji as the revisionist power.

My previous column discussed the sweet and the sour of the diplomatic goodies Australia is deploying as it pursues normalisation. Now I’ll turn to the range of mutually beneficial goodies on offer. Read more

First up is a public service ‘twinning’ arrangement so that Fijian officials can work in Canberra and Australians in Suva. This is a major break from a long history of distrust and argy bargy. In her Suva visit, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, was upbeat about how quickly the ‘twinning’ idea could be made to happen:

I believe that we will see more Australian engagement in Fiji. We have offered to send our public servants over here in areas such as the Treasury, Finance, Foreign Affairs—that was well received. Likewise, we’ve invited representatives of the Fijian public service to Australia in various areas and that seemed to be well received. So the steps will hopefully transform into reality over the weeks ahead.

The struggle between Australia and Fiji over the regional system will have to be calmed before Australian public servants are launched into Fiji’s bureaucracy. And it’ll be a strange look if Oz public servants head to Suva to start ‘twinning’ ahead of Australia’s High Commissioner to Fiji, Margaret Twoomey. After all, she has been waiting to be admitted to Fiji since her appointment was announced in 2012.

Also on the agenda is defence cooperation, which was suspended after the 2006 coup. The resumption of defence contacts involves myriad steps, such as the exchange of defence attaches, officer training and the entry of Fiji’s Defence Minister to the annual South Pacific Defence Minister’s Meeting, which started last year. The eventual return to joint training will be helped by the fact that a certain Fijian Commodore will no longer be in uniform. As Anthony Bergin wrote last week, restoring defence cooperation means Australia can support Fiji’s UN peacekeeping efforts and explore wider national security cooperation in maritime affairs, disaster resilience, law enforcement and cyber security. The ‘twinning’ model opens new avenues.

Fiji will also be invited to be part of Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program. Fiji has a standing defence pledge that it will be readmitted to the Pacific Patrol Boat program ‘upon a return to democracy’. Suva got that nod in the Australian Defence White Paper last year, which promised to replace the existing Pacific Patrol Boats as they come to the end of their service from 2018 to 2028. The three boats Australia gave Fiji are due to reach their end of service life in 2024-25, so the replacement counts as a long term promise. (See the paper by Anthony Bergin and Sam Bateman on the Pacific Patrol Boat program here.)

Other avenues of increased cooperation include:

  • Australia’s seasonal workers’ program, bringing Islanders to Australia for seasonal jobs, could be extended to Fijians
  • Fiji could be a target in 2015 for the New Colombo Plan, to send Australia’s ‘best and brightest young people’ to study in the Asia Pacific
  • Re-establishing the Australia-Fiji Government Industry Working Group, which last met before the 2006 coup, to generate more trade and investment. In Suva, Bishop said Australia would look at Fiji’s concerns about the working of their double taxation agreement.

The normalisation involved in Australia’s bilateral goodies feeds through to a set of multilateral gifts/rewards, such as the end to Fiji’s suspension (since 2009, after Bainimarama’s failure to deliver promised elections) from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth.

The Forum Ministerial Contact Group, concluding its visit to Suva on February 15, announced that the door would soon be open for Fiji to participate in PACER Plus negotiations (the free trade talks between Australia, New Zealand and the Islands) and also to attend Forum Trade Ministers’ Meetings at ministerial level.

In laying out the goodies, Australia is seeking normalisation ahead of the election. And Canberra’s effectively offering Fiji a promotion in the hierarchy of Australia’s regional interests—even if Bainimarama’s New Order can cement its hold in the election. My next column will consider how Australia’s past actions demoted Fiji from the second to the fourth level of its regional hierarchy and what changes to that order would mean.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user libraryman.

Sweet and sour goodies for Fiji (part 1)

Australia is setting out an array of goodies as it seeks to restore relations with Fiji, in anticipation of better days to follow September’s election. Canberra wants to achieve a diplomatic ceasefire, and to shift beyond the battle between Australia as the status quo South Pacific superpower and a revisionist Fiji that wants to remake the regional rules.

As my previous column noted, Australia’s interest is in preserving its central role in the South Pacific. Fiji, under Bainimarama, would prefer a region that treated Australia as an outsider, not an insider. Normalisation could damp the flames of that fight, even if the fire is far from extinguished.

The goodies Australia is offering Fiji serve two aims that aren’t necessarily complimentary: immediate goals for the future of Fiji and its politics and longer-term arguments about the shape of the Pacific system. Helping Fiji in the run up to the election will open the way for the broader regional game that will follow. The goal is to slowly turn a diplomatic ceasefire into some form of peaceful relationship, with both bilateral and regional dimensions. Read more

The brawling between Australia and the military regime since the 2006 coup and the nature of the new government that’ll emerge from Fiji’s vote make this a hesitant and conditional project. The shift from isolation and sanction to normalisation and engagement is more than just a matter of changing course and altering language; the shift is from mind games to an attempt to find some meeting of minds.

Bainimarama assumes he’ll win the election handsomely. Canberra is merely resigned to such a win, while hoping that Fiji’s voters and the new electoral system will deliver surprises. The Supremo is used to giving orders, not taking them from the voters nor negotiating, as a civilian, with other civilian politicians. The machinery of Bainimarama’s New Order is about to have a crucial road test. If things turn out as Bainimarama anticipates, his hand at home and in the region will be strengthened and his options widened.

The election result and the government that emerges will decide the tempo and the temper of the Australian goodies. Looking at the inducements Australia is offering prompts the thought that this is an assortment of sweet-and-sour lollies. Each of the goodies has its attractions, but they all carry reminders of much sourness between two countries that have spent years kicking each other. To bed down a diplomatic ceasefire and start the march towards a peaceful relationship is going to mean moving beyond a lot of sour history. Not least of the questions is whether a mercurial Supremo emerges from a bout of electoral politics as a different sort of civilian Prime Minister; or whether a Bainimarama with a democratic mandate is empowered to push even harder for his New Order vision for Fiji and his new order for the South Pacific.

With all that in mind, consider, initially, these diplomatic goodies, and see the sour that goes with the sweet. Australia is offering to:

  • Support Fiji’s return to democracy and rebuild ‘the bilateral relationship into a dynamic and productive partnership’. This language is always accompanied by a gentle pull on the money lever with a reference to economic ties, tourism, and Australia’s continuing role, throughout the troubles, as Fiji’s largest bilateral aid donor.
  • To end what are now partial and discretionary travel sanctions on Suva’s elite. The continuing anger of the regime at the restrictions shows that they’ve had a symbolic value that nearly equates to their irritant quality. Fiji’s Attorney-General called the travel sanctions an ‘abomination’. This from a regime that overthrew an elected government at gun point, abrogated the constitution, subdued the judiciary, churches and civil society and has held its society in political limbo for eight years. Part of the sour in any deal is that Australia will have to swallow Suva’s view that it’s Canberra that has been guilty of abominable behaviour and it’s now for Australia to atone for its sins. Australia is going to cop it sweet. The new script is all about the future. During her Suva visit, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said since taking office in September the Abbott government has abandoned the black list and had ‘granted visas to virtually every person from Fiji who has applied. I think 56 visas have been granted in recent months and so, as Fiji progresses to an election, then we will progressively ease these sanctions and I think quite a breakthrough was reached in that regard’.
  • To fully restore normal diplomatic relations. Bishop said that normalisation isn’t conditional on Fiji admitting Australia’s nominated High Commissioner, Margaret Twomey. This comment points to a strange Suva saga. At a meeting in July, 2012, the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Fiji, New Zealand agreed that the three countries would end the bout of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and reinstate their High Commissioners (Ambassadors).

Acting after receiving the normal and formal agreement from Suva, Australia announced in December, 2012, that Margaret Twomey would become the new High Commissioner in Fiji. She’s still sitting in Canberra waiting for Fiji to grant an entry visa. The farce has thus stretched from 2012 to 2014, a reminder that what the Supremo promises is not always what he delivers. The symbolism and substance of diplomatic exchanges is subject to Bainimarama’s temper. He says keeping the High Commissioner in the waiting lounge is a way of punishing Australia for its lack of respect and its campaign against Fiji.

Refer to that previous reference to the appropriate arcane diplomatic term (cop it sweet). The new script has an array of other goodies beyond diplomatic normalisation, which will be considered in my next column.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. 

Status quo Australia versus revisionist Fiji

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with Fijian PM Frank Bainimarama during an official visit to Suva in February 2014

Australia likes the existing South Pacific system, while Fiji wants to change it. Even if Fiji returns to democracy, the prospect is for continuing competition between Suva and Canberra over competing visions of the regional future: who’s in, who’s out, and who decides.

As the South Pacific superpower, Australia is committed to playing the central role in the maintenance of the regional status quo. Not the least element in the Australian vision of the established order is its assumed entitlement to the full membership rights of a South Pacific insider. Australia always wants to be a power perceived as being in the South Pacific as well as being the South Pacific power. The gap in that distinction has been probed, teased and tested by Fiji’s Supremo.

Under Frank Bainimarama, Fiji has shifted a long way from its role as the conservative centre of the region and champion of the gradualist, consensual ‘Pacific Way’. Fiji has become the revisionist power that wants changes to the regional system to realign power, fix injustices and better serve its interests. Not the least of that revision would be to strip Australia of its status as an insider. A big bit of Fiji’s revisionist agenda would be to redefine regionalism so that Australia isn’t part of the South Pacific. In this revision, New Zealand would also be expelled—Canberra and Wellington would become powerful outsiders, not natural insiders. Read more

Much is to be played for as Canberra and Suva try to hit the reset button in their fractious and fractured relationship. The focal issue is Fiji’s democracy; but over long years of battle, the contest has broadened to become a fight about the South Pacific system.

The bonhomie of the meeting between Fiji’s Supremo and Australia’s Foreign Minister was based on the elections Bainimarama has promised by September and Julie Bishop’s determination to normalise relations. The Suva meeting was the first time a senior Australian government minister has met Bainimarama since 2008.

The picture from the talks had a football flavour, with Bishop presenting Bainimarama with a West Coast Eagles AFL jersey signed by Nic Naitanui, a towering Fijian who plays Australian rules footy. No jokes please about Bainimarama being asked to play by Aussie rules again, although that reflects how Canberra would like to see normalisation work. On the other side of the elections, Australia wants Fiji to come back into the Forum and to come to some fresh acceptance of the old regional status quo.

Fiji’s clear interest is to win back what it has lost—international status as a democracy, membership of the Forum, full recognition of the prerogatives of the Suva elite that serve the Supremo and a comfortable economic relationship with Australia— while pushing on with revisions to the way the Pacific operates. This is the long game in the new dance between Suva and Canberra. The aim of the reset expressed in Bishop’s meeting with Bainimarama is to see what levels of accommodation can be achieved.

The effort will be to shift beyond anger and argy bargy. Lots of baggage from recent history has to be rearranged, stored for later or politely forgotten. Since Bainimarama imposed his second successful coup in 2006, Australia and Fiji have been bristling at each other. The differences go beyond the principle of democracy versus military dictatorship; the struggle has turned into this contest— status quo power versus revisionist state— over how the South Pacific should work. Fiji’s elections won’t see an end to that contest.

Richard Herr went to those systemic issues in his musings on the guns-and-roses symbolism of the Valentine’s Day meeting between Bishop and the Supremo:

Fiji’s relationship with the Pacific Islands Forum won’t necessarily be repaired by the bilateral re-engagement, nor will Australia’s role in the regional body return to pre-sanction levels. Prime Minister Bainimarama is currently building a headquarters for a new regional body that excludes Australia and is intended to parallel the PIF. The regional roles for Fiji and Australia have been forced apart by Fiji’s suspension from the PIF orchestrated by Canberra. Reconvergence is not impossible but it’s unlikely to be fully achieved any time soon. Regional affairs will remain a separate and significant issue for Australia.

Significant, indeed. There’s a lot to play for. On a stylistic point, I’ll have to stop calling Bainimarama the Supremo when he renounces his job as head of the military and settles for merely being Prime Minister. Following the New Order script, the civilian leader can then announce the creation of his Golkar-style political party—a new form of movement not tainted by old party politics.

It’s in Australia’s interest to embrace whatever level of democracy Fiji is allowed to have. And to achieve a normalisation of relations that restores as much of the regional status quo as is achievable. My next columns will consider the sweet and sour aspects of the goodies Australia is offering Fiji in trying to reset the relationship.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of the Fijian Government.