Look behind you, Mr Richardson
Dennis Richardson

Dennis Richardson is preparing to leave the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to join Defence as its new Secretary, and he’ll be the twelfth person to hold that job since Sir Arthur Tange created the modern Department of Defence in the mid-1970s. Richardson and Tange have a lot in common: both notorious for being tough and no-nonsense, they share the distinction of having been Secretaries of both Foreign Affairs and of Defence—a remarkable double in any career. Both started as Defence Secretary at a time when Australia was deeply involved in tough overseas wars—Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. Tange dealt with a declining Defence budget post-Vietnam and Richardson faces a similar challenge as the government takes savings from Defence even before an Afghanistan drawdown. Tange was a structural reformer, Richardson more a problem solver. That’s just as well, as he’ll have more than a few problems to solve at Defence.

What does the record tells us about the performance of a dozen Defence Secretaries over the last 42 years? Constructed from disparate sources of information, the table below requires close attention. Our twelve Secretaries have all been male. Unlike New Zealand and the UK, Defence in Australia has yet to see a female civilian head. The average age of the Secretaries on taking office was 57 years, Allan Hawke being the youngest at 51 and Richardson the oldest at 65. Eight of the twelve had previous experience as Secretaries of other departments. Four did not: William Pritchett, Ric Smith, Nick Warner and Duncan Lewis, although the latter was National Security Advisor previously.

Table. Previous and currently serving Defence Secretaries


Age on becoming Secretary

Period as Secretary



Subsequent position

Arthur Tange


Mar 1970 – Aug 1979



William Pritchett


Aug 1979 –  Feb 1984



William Cole


Feb 1984 –  Oct 1986



Alan John Woods


Dec 1986 – July 1988



Tony Ayers


Aug 1988 – Feb 1998



Paul Barratt


Feb 1998 –  Aug 1999


Position terminated by Govt. Barratt took case to Federal Court to prevent dismissal but lost

Allan Hawke


Nov 1999 – Oct 2002


Govt said it would not extend initial contract. Hawke became the High Commissioner to New Zealand

Ric Smith


Oct 2002 – Dec 2006


Retired. His initial 3 year term was extended for a further 2 years

Nick Warner


Dec 2006 –  Aug 2009


Appointed Director General of ASIS

Ian Watt


Aug 2009 –  Sept 2011


Appointed Secretary of PM&C

Duncan Lewis


Sept 2011 – Oct 2012


Resigned to become Ambassador to Brussels

Dennis Richardson


Oct 2012 –

The average length of tenure as Secretary of Defence for Richardson’s eleven predecessors was just under 47 months, but these figures are skewed by the decade-long innings of both Tange (114 months) and the redoubtable Tony Ayers (120 months). If they are left out of the equation, the other nine secretaries served an average of 31 months—something short of a government’s three year term. The closer one gets to the present day, the shorter the length of service as Secretary. One can only wonder at the reserves of mental stamina Tony Ayers drew on to stay in the job for ten years—a combination of toughness and savvy good humour. Was Defence easier then? Hardly, although it was less in the media.

A striking fact about this list is that four of the previous six Secretaries (not counting Richardson) have left the job in publicly unhappy circumstances. Paul Barratt served 18 months and had his position terminated by Government even though he went to the Federal Court seeking to prevent that dismissal. Allan Hawke served three years and did not have his contract extended. Nick Warner was moved to ASIS after an unhappy relationship with Joel Fitzgibbon, who resigned a few months earlier as Minister. Duncan Lewis served 14 months before moving on. In each case relations with Ministers were critical. Whatever the individual circumstances, no-one could say that these four people were not highly capable. So, is something broken at the top end of civil-military relations in Australia?

Public service at this level is an honour but that can’t hide the fact that being Secretary of Defence is one of hardest jobs in town. The volume of work is unbelievable and the stakes in terms of peoples’ lives and money spent are enormously high. Mental exhaustion is a serious risk. For all these reasons Defence doesn’t fit well into the daily Canberra spin cycle. After an already distinguished career Mr Richardson can only be thanked for taking on this demanding job.

Peter Jennings is executive director and Hayley Channer is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.