Des Ball: a personal recollection
27 Oct 2016|

Image courtesy of Darren Boyd.

Des Ball was one of Australia’s greatest strategic thinkers and analysts; an unassuming patriot. His thoughts and analysis pervaded Australian political debate and consideration of our national security interests for decades. His output and his scholarship were prodigious. While Australia has produced a number of outstanding strategic thinkers, none have written more influentially than Des Ball and certainly not in sheer volume.

When I was defence minister I feared we would lose Des to North America or the United Kingdom. At that point I saw his thinking as essential to our national deliberations on Australian security policy. His departure would have diminished our capacity to round out some important directions in planning for the defence of Australia. Accordingly, I wrote to the ANU asking the university to appoint him as ‘special professor’. To do so, I argued, ‘would do the nation a substantial service’.

Others have done justice to the breadth of his work and interests in the obituaries and commentaries here and elsewhere over the last week. I want to focus on one major aspect of his contribution. His writing on the key elements of Australia’s relationship with the US and our national strategy, military strategy and force structure came to public attention precisely when his work was most needed. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and in the wake of the so-called Nixon doctrine and the British withdrawal east of Suez, Australian consideration of our national security needs was in a state of flux. Debate evolved around two core questions: What should we contribute to the US alliance? And what should our national defence posture be? Des’s research—deep, authoritative, detailed, and publicly available—was critical to the way our debate evolved.

Des was particularly important to discussion within the ALP as it positioned for its longest period in government. As I have written elsewhere, he was essentially a ‘man of the left, not only intellectually but in lifestyle and demeanour’. He was particularly influential with sections of the party who were critical of alliance relationships and uncertain about the priority accorded to defence spending. His political leaning made him, more than most others, a voice to be considered—not by just ALP members but broader groups in the community critical of past directions.

But he also transcended the left. His integrity compelled him to seek a deep understanding of the global distribution of power. He was not interested in finding fault with allies and conservatives per se. He wanted to know how the systems worked. How and on what basis decision-makers in the system made their calculations. His was what is these days described as a granular approach. His understanding of political calculations was consolidated in his understanding of the capabilities deployed. It was not sufficient to find fault. It was essential to understand. The sheer detail of his work, both on the infrastructure of the Australian contribution to the global central balance and the latter’s broader structure, meant he enjoyed trust across the political spectrum. That flowed through to the work he was doing alongside others in fleshing out the detail of Australia’s defence planning, strategy and policy under the rubric of the ideal of ‘self-reliance’.

A standout book published in 1980 was A suitable piece of real estate. This went to the heart of what he described rightly as the ‘strategic essence’ of the Australia–America relationship. With its publication, those of us in political life were compelled to incorporate the joint facilities and their role in the balance of terror within our own calculation of the Australian national interests. That included the possibility of Australian involvement in a nuclear exchange.

Having set the hares running, he went before a parliamentary committee arguing that though the joint facilities would be targeted, we could live with them. Their role in deterring war and enhancing transparency in the system essential for arms control agreements and strategic stability amply justified their continuation. However, Australia needed the capacity for full knowledge and concurrence with the capabilities and operations of the stations. This was essential for democratic decision-making. It was a basic requirement of Australian sovereignty. Ironically, by pursuing formulas that Des essentially developed, we now effectively incorporate the facilities directly in Australia’s intelligence order of battle and the functioning of our forces. What was required knowledge for our political system’s integrity is now integral to our defence.

This doesn’t do justice to a life’s work that canvassed justice for minorities in our region, the development of regional institutions for strategic confidence-building and transparency, the broad issues of the global distribution of power, and our own direct defence issues. His reputation, however, could stand on the alliance issues alone. It seems to me his work doesn’t have to be enumerated so much as weighed. Certainly if his retained research documents are thrown in, we are talking in terms of tonnes!

Des Ball was one of the most unselfish academics I have known. As I was transitioning from academic life to politics he rang me up to contribute a chapter for a book on civil defence. ‘Didn’t have the time to do it justice’, I said in those pre-internet days. ‘No worries’, said Des as he dumped on me a stack of his own research. I’m aware I’m not alone in this. He had a talent for friendship and his friends were a broad set. He was largely bereft of bitterness and fault-finding and pleased to be in an environment where rational discussion was possible. You had to be out in the field when you researched. When you get to the field, you aren’t sure what you’ll find. In our region, Des found people who engaged his heart. He found them at home too with his seminal writing on the contribution of indigenous Australians to our national defence.

We will not see his like again.