Former defence minister David Johnston: weigh carefully the use of lethal force

Former defence minister David Johnston attended the funerals of 26 of the 41 Australians killed on operations in Afghanistan, and he saw at close hand their families’ grief.

‘Then you understand that the application of lethal force and the exposure of men and women to risk has a price,’ he says.

In a video interview as part of ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership series, he tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that those experiences brought home to him the care governments must take in placing men and women in danger—and the responsibility they bear when delivering lethal force in combat to strictly comply with legal rules of engagement.

That targeting process was overseen by highly professional officers, in the Australian Defence Force’s joint HQ in Bungendore and in the Middle East, who would ensure that if an airstrike was to be launched, it would be aborted if a civilian was found to be in the blast radius.

‘As a lawyer, I was very keen that we would apply lethal force lawfully,’ Johnston says.

Johnston was defence minister from September 2013 to December 2014, and Jennings asks him what being a West Australian brings to the role.

‘Well, we’ve got about 2.8 million square kilometres in the west,’ says Johnston. ‘We’ve got a trillion dollars’ worth of investment in oil and gas and minerals off the North West Shelf, and we think that’s well worth defending.’

Also good value, he says, is the investment of the eastern states in a defence force with very effective intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to see what’s happening on Australia’s frontier, particularly the maritime frontier.

While he’d had a long interest in defence matters as opposition spokesman, Johnston was only the minister for a year. ‘I’m a reformer and I acknowledge that ministers, particularly in this portfolio, are ships in the night, and that you need to get things done really fast,’ he says.

He regarded the 2014 first principles review as important to improve the acquisitions side of Defence. ‘Not so much in the uniforms’ command-and-control side; that’s their business and they’re very good at it.’

The need to manage major projects was well understood in WA, he says. ‘We build big—$50–$60 billion—projects all the time, with some hiccups, but usually they roll out reasonably well.’

But when he became minister, many defence projects were causing problems. ‘I was very keen that we would reform the commercial side of the department.’

Years in opposition gave him a good grounding in the issues surrounding defence projects. He found that many reliable people came out of the woodwork to give their views.

‘That’s one of the points of massive difference. When you’re a minister, you don’t see anybody, because, “Minister, this is about probity, and you’re not allowed to see any of these people.” So the minister is actually, to some extent, flying blind. Whereas in opposition, everybody tells you what’s happening.’

Johnston says he found that aspect of being a minister very isolating and extremely frustrating. ‘Your one conduit of information, which is heavily controlled, is the department. Now, rightly or wrongly, I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. So, I was a bit of a renegade out there, talking to people privately when I’d go to a function and I know that they were watching me talking to senior contractors and even senior officers who would very quietly say to me, we need to do this with Plan Beersheba and I’d go, “Well, thank you for that.”’

Johnston favoured a leaner civilian side of Defence. ‘I looked at countries like South Korea and Japan and others. The public service is in the ones, twos, threes of thousands. We had 23,000 public servants running about 55,000 uniforms when I came in and I thought that was a bit too much.’

That was contrary to his view of where Australia should be in the world—‘small, lean, mean’—and over roughly the year he was minister, he saw the number of Defence civilians drop to 17,000 or 18,000.

Johnston says he was a lone voice in the government of prime minister Tony Abbott calling for the privatisation of Australia’s government-owned submarine building company, ASC, which built the navy’s six Collins-class boats. Many large, reliable, trustworthy corporations were keen to buy the company, he says.

Meanwhile, Abbott had asked Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe if his country could provide Soryu submarines, but that caused a strong reaction from the submarine-building state of South Australia.

‘The prime minister was upset that his numbers weren’t as good as they could be. He needed the South Australians. He promised them a competition and it was a competition that the Japanese were never going to win. There was a lot of resistance from inside Japan, may I say.’

Johnston says the Soryu was an excellent submarine, but Australia needed boats that could traverse enormous distances.

The French won the resultant competition to provide Australia’s submarines.

Johnston says Japan remains a very good friend of Australia and that relationship is very strong in WA.

He spends much of his time now telling the Japanese that in terms of military equipment Australia is interoperable and interchangeable with the US, but without the complexities of the US processes over foreign military sales. And that makes Australia a good place for them to buy.

Johnston says that once problems keeping the Collins submarines at sea were overcome, they were very impressive. The US Navy was particularly impressed with how quiet they and other Swedish-designed diesel-electric powered submarines they worked with were compared to their bigger nuclear-powered boats.

Johnston says he understands the deterrent value of submarines. ‘I’ve seen it on frigates. Everyone goes, “There’s a submarine here somewhere”—it’s panic stations. The problem we have is that submariners love to hear bad things about their platform,’ he says. ‘They want potential adversaries to think it’s a lemon. It [the Collins] is very capable and if you lift the lid on what it’s done, it’s a very good submarine. I don’t want to say any more than that.’

Eventually Johnston caused outrage, including in his own party, by telling parliament of ASC: ‘You wonder why I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe?’ Soon after that comment, which he described as a ‘rhetorical flourish’, Johnston was replaced.

Asked by Jennings what advice he’d give a new defence minister, Johnston responds: ‘Well, be a reformist but never be bigger than the game itself. Take advice, digest that advice, and be prepared to cop it sweet when your time is up.’

ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series is produced with the support of Lockheed Martin Australia.