Brendan Nelson recalls tough decisions and finest moments as defence minister

Sometimes, says former defence minister Brendan Nelson, ministers must make decisions that run contrary to the advice they receive from their departments. That’s why his concerns about delays in developing the F-35 joint strike fighter drove his determination to buy 24 Super Hornet fighters to avoid an air combat capability gap.

In a video interview as part of ASPI’s Lessons in leadership’ series, Nelson tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that when he became defence minister, he didn’t know what an F-35 was. He immersed himself in the details of a wide range of defence projects to understand their technical complexity and their capability—but always with an eye on the politics of the US Congress and Australia’s changing geostrategic circumstances.

By May, he’d realised that a number of projects were running well behind schedule or having other problems and he decided that he wouldn’t sign off on the next stage of Australia’s commitment to the F-35 until he knew precisely what the Australian industry involvement in the project was, its dollar value, and what options there were to grow it.

‘One of the things that you learn in leadership is you have to have the imaginative capacity to see the world through the eyes of other people. So, for me as a civilian, I imagined the uniformed military people would see the minister as an obstacle to be overcome, someone who is coming into the portfolio for an indeterminate period of time and they would be very concerned, they wouldn’t want the minister of the day interfering with the plan, which they have developed after a lifetime of commitment to, and deeply immersed in this case, Australia’s air combat power,’ says Nelson.

‘As I went progressively through that year of 2006, I became concerned that we faced the prospect of an [air combat capability] gap emerging. I was told by the chiefs, hand on heart, “The first F-35s, minister, will land in Australia in 2012.”’

He asked the defence force chief, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, what the fallback option was if the F-35 project was delayed.

Houston replied: ‘It’s the Super Hornet.’

Nelson says that his concern deepened as it became clear that the air force’s F-111 long-range bombers were nearing the end of their operational lives and as problems persisted with the joint strike fighter’s development. He and his staff taped sheets of paper to his office walls to chart progress and potential problems, he says.

Eventually he told his chief of staff: ‘It’s a conspiracy of optimism. These people are going to tell me whatever they will tell me to stop me interfering with the plane.’

He raised his concerns with Prime Minister John Howard and his key advisers and was told to work up a proposal to buy Super Hornets. The decision to do so was made in March 2007 and Nelson recalls scathing criticism of him that followed. Some of those critics have since apologised, he says.

As it turns out, he was vindicated: the Royal Australian Air Force’s first F-35 wasn’t accepted into service until 2018.

Nelson, who was defence minister from January 2006 to December 2007, says he almost always acted on the advice that came from his department, but it’s ‘absolutely critically important’ that ministers understand that it’s up to them to make the final decisions.

He says he’s often dealt with experts who know much more than him, but, ‘For all their magnificent expertise and commitment, they see the world through a straw. And with some exceptions, they have an understandably relatively narrow commitment to whatever it is that they are doing.

‘If the minister wasn’t exercising judgement and occasionally, but importantly, saying, “No, we’re not going to do that. We should instead do something else”, well then, of course you would just have the public service that would run the country.’

Dealing with complex technical issues such as proposals to buy particular weapons and platforms, Nelson says he’d read the documentation three times to be sure he understood it well enough to explain clearly to his cabinet colleagues why the equipment was needed and why they should sign off on spending millions of dollars.

Asked what pieces of advice he’d pass on to a future defence minister, Nelson says the first would be that the men and women of the Australian Defence Force are extraordinary people whether they be privates, generals or air chief marshals.

‘My second advice is that the Australian people have such respect for those men and women and what they do that as you go through the portfolio, you find that it is far, far less subjected to the political partisanship that characterises pretty much every other part of ministerial responsibility.’

Nelson says his third piece of advice, based on his own experience, is that information coming to the minister is like a whale carcass dragged through a pool of sharks. When he received a brief from his department, he’d phone the person whose name was on the bottom of it to say how good it was—’which was usually the case’—and ask them questions about it.

There were times, too, he says, when he felt it appropriate to call the commander of a unit such as a ship at sea to talk to them about a brief that he suspected didn’t reconcile with what was going on.

Nelson talks at length about tough decisions, including the choice of air warfare destroyers for the navy and abandoning the Seasprite helicopter project. The hardest issues to deal with, he says, were the casualties, including the death in Iraq of soldier Jake Kovco.

Nelson speaks of his pride in the ADF’s people and recalls landing after midnight in a Gulf state after a long day that included stops in Kabul and Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan and then Baghdad and Al Muthanna province in Iraq. As his RAAF transport flight landed, he noticed the silhouette of another RAAF aircraft several hundred metres away. There were men in overalls working on it in the 40° heat, so he strolled over and said, ‘G’day’. They responded, ‘G’day, mate’, and Nelson asked them what they were doing.

One responded: ‘We’re bloody well fixing the plane.’

Nelson told them he was proud of them and ‘Australians would be proud of you too.’

An airman glanced up and saw Nelson with Houston.

‘Oh, shit!’ he said. Then he and his mate jumped up like they were on an ejector seat spring, says Nelson.

More of the maintenance team tumbled out of the aircraft. They explained that they were repairing damage that occurred when a load shifted on takeoff. ‘Our people are depending on this plane and we are going to do everything we can to get it serviced,’ one said.

‘That’s what makes me proud,’ says Nelson. ‘They were the finest moments.’

ASPI’s ‘Lessons in Leadership’ series is produced with the support of Lockheed Martin Australia.