Dennis Richardson and Arthur Tange: part I
22 Apr 2013|

With his appointment as the Secretary of the Defence Department last year, Dennis Richardson has joined Arthur Tange as the only public servant to have headed both the departments of Foreign Affairs and Defence. Given that Tange remade the Defence Department and had a major impact on the structure and style of Australian diplomacy, this puts Richardson in elite company.

Another former head of Foreign Affairs, Philip Flood, judges Tange as one of the three greatest Australian public servants of the 20th century, while he rates Richardson as one of the three top public servants of recent decades. (More on the rankings for history by Philip Flood and Max Moore-Wilton in the next column.) What’s of direct interest for those in the bureaucratic trenches today are the parallels to be drawn between the Tange experience of Defence and what Dennis Richardson faces.

The eras are profoundly different, of course, and there are plenty of differences between the two men; not least that they stand on opposite sides of the rugby divide, with Tange ardent about rugby union and Richardson passionate for rugby league.

Richardson was whisked over from Foreign Affairs and appointed to Defence with a five-year term in October (after Duncan Lewis was abruptly ejected in the direction of Belgium).

Richardson will probably have only half the time at the Defence helm as Tange. When Tange returned from his ‘exile’ as High Commissioner to India in 1970, he was 55 and he went on to spend a decade as Secretary of Defence. Tange retired from Defence at 65, whereas Richardson took over Defence at the age of 65. Accepting those and many other contrasts, look at some of the rhymes and similar rhythms evident between the two Defence Secretaries.

  1. The War is finishing: Tange took over as Australia was exiting Vietnam; Richardson takes the chair as we withdraw from Afghanistan. In both cases, the Defence budget goes down.
  2. Time for a strategic pivot: Tange helped bury the old Forward Defence doctrine and provided much of the intellectual force for what became Defence of Australia. On Richardson’s watch, Australia is promising to give much greater attention to the ‘immediate neighbourhood,’ while embracing a US pivot that gives a higher priority to Southeast Asia.
  3. The Minister requests: Both Tange and Richardson were appointed by Defence Ministers who were determined to get a strong Secretary. In his biography of Tange, Peter Edwards wrote that Malcolm Fraser wanted Tange as his Secretary as ‘someone who was able to stand up to him and argue with him’. As a former Foreign Minister, Smith knew exactly what he was getting in asking the man who served him as Secretary of Foreign Affairs to come to the other end of Kings Avenue.
  4. To control Defence: The Minister wants a man who can help him control Defence, not be controlled by the Department. Tange went into Defence saying he would ‘sort out the generals’ and shake the Department out of decades of inertia; he was scathing about military tribalism, while charging that Defence valued consistency and process over innovation and outcomes (PDF). Tange never got captured by the natives and Richardson knows far too much about Canberra to disappear into the tribes of Russell Hill. As a veteran Labor apparatchik, Smith has an acute nose for the shifting alignment of factions; he saw Duncan Lewis lining up with the military hierarchy to form a powerful civ-mil faction at the top of the Department. Richardson is arguing with Smith as fiercely as Lewis did about the growing imbalance between Defence alms and aims, but there’s not much danger of Richardson confronting his minister as part of military-driven faction. Where Tange profoundly changed the structure of Defence, Richardson’s role is to stay atop the structure.
  5. Deliver a bipartisan White Paper: Tange developed for the Whitlam Labor Government a ground-breaking Defence White Paper which was adopted and publicly issued by the Fraser Coalition Government within a year of taking office. Richardson faces the same challenge. Defence must deliver a Labor White Paper in June that will be acceptable to the Coalition if Tony Abbot wins the September election.
  6. Classic Oz mandarin pragmatists: Australia has a history of producing tough and driving mandarins who can think at the highest level while retaining the national ability to describe a digging implement as a ‘bloody shovel.’ Tange could do rough or smooth with the chilliest edge. One of the many characterisations I heard was that Tange could lower the temperature by three degrees merely by entering the room. Edwards recounts a senior officer hearing Tange deliver a vehement denunciation by telephone to someone further down the hierarchy. As he put the telephone down, Tange said, by way of explanation and almost apology, ‘I have to strike like lightning.’

Richardson is warmer but he, too, can do vehemence with extra vim. Professor Robert O’Neill described Tange’s ‘uncompromising pragmatism’, while the Verona Burgess characterisation of Richardson (subscription) was ‘wily’ and ‘gritty and fearless’. Those descriptions of Tange and Richardson are interchangeable.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia