The Canberra military officer (2): the Old and New Testaments
7 Apr 2014|

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.

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.