Defence Reviews: no Gnus is good news
21 Apr 2015|


Previously on the Life cycle of the Australian defence review we explored the life pattern of this robust herd animal from conception to gestation, birth, infant years and the review’s emergence into full maturity. This time we have to contemplate how reviews age and die. Just as for Gnus in Africa, life is brutal and short on the policy veldt. Many reviews get trampled underfoot by newer processes. Only a few reviews—like Sir Arthur Tange’s Australian Defence Reorganisation of 1973 and the Defence Reform Program of 1997—survive long enough to mostly be implemented.

Why do some reviews thrive while others fail? After writing his own review Sir Arthur Tange spent the second half of his almost decade-long time as Secretary implementing his own work. He had intellectual firepower, grit and tenure working for him. Paul Dibb’s Review of Defence Capabilities benefited from Kim Beazley’s tenure as Minister to keep pushing for implementation. The Defence Reform Program (DRP) outlived a number of Liberal ministers but Prime Minister John Howard kept the process on track. In each case these reviews got clear air to be implemented without other reviews chewing their hamstrings. All three reviews intelligently proposed big reform, got powerful political backing and had time to bed down.

But this isn’t the fate of your average review. Stage six in the life cycle is ageing and predation. By the time review implementation enters its second and third year, entropy slows the momentum for change. It may be that there’s entrenched resistance to making difficult changes—the Strategic Reform Program, for example, found it inordinately hard to apply shared services for many back office functions across the Defence tribes. Some review recommendations turn out not to be worth implementing, or in other cases there are political barriers that make implementation near impossible. A number of reviews of the Defence estate, for example, failed because of backbench resistance to selling bases. Reforms of defence procurement have struggled to streamline Cabinet processes for decision-making on equipment. A recommendation needs to be politically achievable as well as look credible on paper.

Reviews falter when Ministers, officials and implementers move on. When the implementation team leaves, their successors will often puzzle over previous decisions. At that point it becomes easier to adopt a different strategy, and review recommendations can fall by the wayside.

In the seventh stage of the life cycle—death on the veldt—nothing brings down a big review quicker than a change of government. Thus the Proust Review of 2007 was cut down in its prime by a change of Government and the new Minister’s implementation of an election commitment to launch what became the Pappas Review. Pappas begat the Strategic Reform Program, which was mortally wounded by the time of the 2013 election. Then, the new Government implemented its own election promise for what became the First Principles Review. While the First Principles Review pleaded for a five-year period free of reviews so that it could have a clear run at implementation, the recommendation is unlikely to work. Like all its predecessors, Mr Peever’s review will have to take its chances with elections, changes of ministers and of key Defence staff.

For many lesser reviews success might be measured by either their implementation or eradication. I was closely involved in managing two reviews done by external experts. The first made sensible recommendations to change aspects of how Defence managed equipment export approvals. It was the political response to a very brief media squall about an export matter. The recommendations were implemented, became the new normal and defence exports are better as a result. The second review was an attempt to handle an unhealthy obsession about the numbers of Defence personnel posted overseas. It made a number of reluctant recommendations that would have reduced Australia’s capacity to manage some important international relationships. At a time when the pressure is for Defence to do more overseas, it seems that the recommendations have been quietly ‘overtaken by events’.

Finally we come to the last stage of the life cycle. This is when the memory of some reviews live on, often unintended, as folk wisdom about what a review ‘did’ to Defence. Think of this as a version of philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s, ‘ghost in the machine’—a term he coined to criticise a view of mind-body dualism that ‘the body and the mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body the mind may continue to exist and function.’

In Defence the ghost in the machine of the Dibb review is the folk wisdom that it structured the ADF for ‘chasing thugs in thongs’ around northern Australia. Actually a fair reading of the review is that it did nothing of the sort. Another ‘ghost in the machine’ myth is that the Defence Reform Program gutted the Services of logistic support and imperilled Australia’s deployment into East Timor. In fact the opposite is true; the DRP jolted Defence further down the path of being a jointly-enabled force, and necessarily broke a few rice bowls in the process.

And so we say farewell to the life cycle of the Australian defence review, a persistent and much abused creature of the policy veldt. What lessons should we learn? First, Oppositions in particular shouldn’t promise too many reviews. Given the volatility of Australian politics there’s always a risk that such promises will have to be implemented. Second, knowing what it takes to actually do a serious review, it’s predictable that implementation stages will only gear up as we get towards the last months of our three-year election cycle—a politically risky time. Third, reviews slow down Defence administration. In the 12–18 months it takes to deliver a product the department is in a fallow period where it’s constrained to make changes because, well, a review is about to be delivered. Pause for a second to think about the implications of this: there’s hardly been a time in the last twenty years when Defence hasn’t been subject to a big external review (yet the criticism is that internal management is poor!) Finally, with all that said, if a review really is needed the Tange, Dibb and DRP precedents say that it’s best to go big. On the veldt it’s the big, bad Gnus that run the herd. It’s exactly the same in the Defence review business.