Defence needs more ministerial focus
28 Jun 2024|

Against a gloomy strategic backdrop and painfully slow growth in Australian military capability, the government’s critics are urging it to commit more money on a tighter timescale to the nation’s defence.

Money certainly matters, but ministerial bandwidth should be considered as a critical policy resource in its own right. Australia needs a fully dedicated and rationalised defence ministerial line-up to cater to both near-term and longer-term priorities. This should include a new assistant minister for the armed forces.

The political opposition has labelled Richard Marles a ‘part-time’ defence minister, because he splits his portfolio between defence and his senior role as deputy prime minister. Such jibes belong in the political arena, but it is worth objectively considering the defence and security implications of incumbent ministers juggling their defence responsibilities with other policy commitments.

Pat Conroy also divides his ministerial responsibilities—between defence industry and international development and the Pacific. The latter is essentially a foreign affairs brief. Two other ministers have responsibilities within the defence portfolio. Matt Keogh is minister for veterans’ affairs and defence personnel, while Clare O’Neil, the minister for home affairs and cyber security, is cross-sworn to the Defence portfolio to provide oversight of the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Oversight of defence is thus distributed diffusely, with both senior and junior ministers shouldering significant responsibilities beyond their defence duties while also balancing constituency matters and party business in the House of Representatives.

This contrasts with a more concentrated ministerial line-up in foreign affairs. Penny Wong is concurrently leader of the government in the Senate, but her policy brief is exclusively as minister for foreign affairs. Tim Watts’s role is likewise undiluted as the assistant minister for foreign affairs.

How does this situation compare with, say, Australia’s Five Eyes partners? New Zealand Defence Minister Judith Collins may set an international record for multiple portfolios, as:

Attorney-General, Minister of Defence, Minister for Digitising Government, Minister Responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau, Minister Responsible for the New Zealand Secret Intelligence Service, Minister of Science, Innovation and Technology, Minister for Space, and Lead Coordination Minister for the Government’s Response to the Royal Commission’s Report into the Terrorist Attack on the Christchurch Mosques.

But New Zealand is small and commits only a fraction of the resources that Australia devotes to defence. The other Five Eyes partners field full-time dedicated defence ministers, as do regional partners such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

Does it matter that Australia’s politicians in charge of defence have competing demands on their ministerial time? The answer is surely ‘yes’. Even in calm seas, the defence establishment would resemble an under-captained vessel, given the sums of public money directed at it and the importance of ministerial direction and accountability to the policy process within liberal democracies.

Yet we are in turbulent times, and Australia’s departmental defence machinery has been straining to formulate and implement a plethora of high-level policy initiatives—in the past five years a strategic update, a strategic review, AUKUS, a national defence strategy and an integrated investment program—all while tackling more frequent crises and unforeseen operational demands on the Australian Defence Force.

The bureaucracy can do some things on autopilot, but important decisions require hands-on ministerial oversight. A deficit in ministerial attention means that consequential but non-urgent decisions get parked. And policy delays in defence don’t only result in financial loss. Because defence problems are often long in gestation, ultimately they can translate into battlefield casualties and defeats.

This is no slight against Marles, Conroy and Keogh or their professional and personal commitment to the defence brief. The allotment of ministerial portfolios is subject to internal party factors, not just policy considerations.

Australia would benefit not just from a full-time ministerial line-up, but the creation of a new position loosely analogous to the minister for armed forces in Britain.

This new assistant minister would be mainly responsible for day-to-day matters and operational priorities such as recruitment; retention and the welfare of defence personnel; force generation; readiness; official inquiries; and ceremonial duties. The incumbent could assume some of the senior minister’s onerous schedule of international engagement, allowing him or her to shed time-consuming duties away from Canberra and focus on higher strategy and building the future integrated force at speed. The new minister would still rely on the minister for defence to take weighty issues to cabinet but could help to clear the decision-making log jam at an operational level and spread the representational burdens more evenly.

The government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would thereby bolster its commitment to defence as an urgent national priority, not only fiscally but by providing more concentrated and rationalised ministerial oversight and leadership.

The chasm between what the ADF is capable of now and its ambitions for the medium to long term has never been so wide. With the end of strategic warning time, there is a growing prospect that today’s force will be called upon to fight with little or no notice. The structure of ministerial oversight should be better postured to respond to this tension, with a bipartisan commitment by the government and opposition parties to appoint dedicated defence ministers and to establish a minister for the armed forces alongside the minister for defence industry, both serving under the minister for defence. The current arrangements for cyber could remain in place.

However, such changes to the structure of ministerial oversight will only have meaningful effect if the government of the day fundamentally treats defence as an urgent priority.