Defence and the diarchy
1 Oct 2014|
The diarchy: butting heads on occasion

If the First Principles Review of Defence goes back to first principles, it’ll have to examine the diarchy wherein Defence is jointly headed by the Secretary and CDF. That’s likely to occur given that one Review panel member—retired Army chief Peter Leahy—is on the record arguing that the Minister should ‘ask himself why Defence is the only department or agency in the country run by a diarchy’.

In a speech in 2000, then departmental secretary Allan Hawke said that the diarchy was ‘about bringing together the responsibilities and complementary abilities of public servants and military officials’. In terms of responsibilities this is undoubtedly true, but only in a circular sense because legislation has been drafted consistent with a diarchy. The fact that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) is headed by a uniformed commissioner shows that there’s no underlying legal impediment to putting the CDF in sole charge.

What about complementary abilities? Is Defence really so large and complex that it requires two leaders with different backgrounds to manage the enterprise effectively? Of course not; the largest of corporations and even entire countries get by with a single head. Where specialist advice is needed, specialists can provide it. Whatever expertise a departmental secretary has could easily be relegated to a subordinate reporting to the CDF—as effectively occurs in the AFP.

So why have a diarchy? Although such an arrangement is almost unheard of in the business world, Australia’s defence diarchy isn’t unique; the United Kingdom for one has a similar arrangement. Other countries, such as Canada and New Zealand, maintain civilian defence departments in parallel with their defence forces. The common and essential element is that the government has dual sources of advice on military affairs. In its own way, the United States achieves the same thing within its system.

The involvement of civilian officials in defence matters is an essential part of the elected government maintaining effective control of the military. The risk is not of insubordination; the ADF’s obedience to the government of the day is beyond reproach—as tends to be the case wherever the rule of law prevails. Rather, civilian involvement is needed to ensure a level of objectivity in defence administration that can’t realistically be expected from the military.

The Army, Navy and Air Force, and the ADF as a whole, are institutions with strongly ingrained identities. That’s as it should be; the fighting coherence of our forces is as dependent on their distinct institutional characteristics as it is on their equipment. But with ingrained identities come ingrained aspirations that can put institutional desires above the needs of Australia’s defence. In a classic RAND study from the 1980s, Carl Builder captured the idiosyncratic ways that the US Army, Navy and Air Force each approach the problem of force planning—all largely divorced from strategy. The three Australian military services are little different today.

Moreover, the senior ADF leadership have dual responsibilities: upward to the minister, and downward to its members and to the institution(s). What service chief doesn’t argue for the best equipment, best facilities and best conditions of service for their members? I don’t expect them to do otherwise, but neither do I want an inefficient and gold-plated defence force. As in any other area of government activity, spending should be disciplined by the cold, dispassionate balancing of costs and benefits.

For exactly the same reasons that the Australian Medical Association wouldn’t be given control of health administration, or teachers control over education administration, neither should the military be the government’s sole source of advice about itself. The diarchy (or something like it) is needed to temper the institutional introspection of the military in favour of the objective interests of Australia’s defence and the taxpayer.

How can that best be done? The pros and cons of having a diarchy, as opposed to having a separate defence department and defence force, have been discussed by Derek Quigley (ex-NZ MINDEF) and Neil James (ADA Executive Director). However, the differences between the two options are ultimately of practicality rather than principle. For what it’s worth, I’m firmly in favour retaining the diarchy. When it comes to civilian involvement in military matters, the closer and more integrated the better.

While civilian bureaucratic involvement in Defence is desirable, its present implementation remains imperfect. Today’s plans for the ADF are little more than the sum total of single-service wish-lists, and defence efficiency remains a distant hope. The diarchy may be necessary but it’s manifestly insufficient. Otherwise why would the government have turned—yet again—to external advisors to tell them how to fix Defence?

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marin.