Going to war: Australia’s traditions and conventions (part II)
5 Apr 2013|

President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard perform a military pass and review at the Washington Navy Yard Sept. 10, 2001.The Australian public service has two modes for offering its famed frank and fearless advice to ministers. One method is ‘stand ready’. The much rarer, high risk approach is ‘cop this’.

In stand ready mode, senior mandarins wait to be asked to offer advice on dangerous or controversial topics. Thus, it is a matter of standing, being ready, but not necessarily doing anything. For public servants, the stand ready position leans heavily towards the servant side of the job title.

When a public servant goes ‘cop this, Minister, ready or not’, he or she is emphasising the public dimension of the role rather than the servant side. The risk in offering an unpalatable and unwelcome message is that the messenger ends in quite a mess. Even so, the Australian public service at its highest levels has a proud tradition of being able to get ministers to cop it at key moments.

In going to war with Iraq, the Canberra system functioned solely in stand ready mode. So much so that there were no substantial submissions to Cabinet about the pros and cons of war; that really is a classic case of waiting to be asked before even clearing the throat. In a previous column I called this the Canberra silence on Iraq. John Howard didn’t ask the bureaucracy to produce a paper on the central issue. Thus, he wasn’t given it. Not asked, the bureaucracy didn’t speak, but continued normal service while standing ready for the big question that never came.

Peter Jennings thought this description was too harsh on the Canberra system, but produced a notable version of a non-denial denial. With the authority you’d expect from a man who in 2002–03 was a Senior Adviser in the Prime Minister’s office responsible for developing a strategic policy framework for Cabinet, Peter wrote a rebuttal with a fair bit of confirmation:

There was no gulf of silence between the bureaucracy and Government, but more a shared acceptance of the dimension of the problem and the likely end point. It might be correct to say that there was no specific cabinet paper arguing the pros and cons of involvement in the Iraq war, but there was a very substantial flow of reporting to government: intelligence judgements on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs; diplomatic reporting about efforts to get Iraq to be more transparent on its weapons plans and on manoeuvres at the UN; military reporting on US and allied preparations and on the likely opposition.

Ministers had made up their mind, thus the bureaucracy didn’t have to trouble its mind about troubling those ministers further. In The March of Patriots, Paul Kelly sets out this history, judging that the dominance of ministers in the Iraq war decision meant they insisted that the public service offer advice only on ‘how’ to wage the war, not ‘whether’ it was right for Australia.

Consider the artificial division between ‘how’ (a thinkable subject) and ‘whether’ (unthinkable taboo): the commitment was made and, therefore, all thought was to be focussed on methods and mechanisms, not on meanings. Remember, though, that the public position of the government all the way to eve of the war in March 2003 was that it was agonising over all the issues involved in going to war and had most definitely not made up its mind on the ‘whether’ question. What the government was ordering of its mandarins on Iraq was not what the government was telling the voters.

No wonder Australia’s then leaders today profess a certain surprise at how things turned out in Iraq (while not disavowing the original decision). The blinkers had gone on the bureaucracy because the Howard Government was happy to let the United States do all the big picture pondering. Blinkers keep horses from being spooked by other horses but they are a strange device to use when considering the most fundamental decision any government can make.

Australia’s public service obeyed orders to think in narrow terms. And it was forced to think so narrowly because this served the government’s vital political needs as much as its policy intentions.

Recall the challenge that confronted the Howard Government as it struggled to commit Australia to a deeply unpopular war. In his memoir, Howard notes that by January 2003, a Fairfax poll found only 6% of Australians favoured joining the invasion without a UN mandate. Opposed by the voters, Howard needed some key constituencies to stay solid: the government party room, the military and the public service, and the media. The media were the least of Howard’s worries. With News Ltd. way out in front, the media were more enthusiastic about the case for war than the party room; if the Canberra system is to be accused of silence at a vital moment, the sin of the media was enthusiastic barracking that drowned out questions.

In the face of what he called ‘widespread public hesitation’, Howard found the unity of the Liberal and National parties ‘remarkable’. He might just as reasonably have pointed to the remarkable willingness of the public service to obey orders and not to think—and certainly not to write down troublesome thoughts and offer them formally to ministers. The fear was that if the public service actually started offering strong contrary opinions this would leak and become a public stab in the back that weakened the resolve of government MPs.

Peter Jennings argues that in conducting normal business and standing ready the Canberra system did its duty. He asks what more could or should the public service have done? For an  answer, turn to the ‘cop this’ mode. To lessen the vernacular flavour and heighten the intellectual tone, let’s give the concept a more respectable title that has several layers of Canberra meaning. Call it the Frederick Wheeler Duty, defined as a willingness to tell ministers what they must hear, whether they like it or not.

Wheeler was a legendry head of Treasury who was a master of all the dark arts of bureaucracy. The Duty is not about bureaucratic conflict but draws its worth from Wheeler’s willingness to undertake hand-to-hand combat (or to duel word for word) with his political masters, in doing what he saw as the one of the ultimate duties of a public servant. The minister must understand fully the scope and risk of what he or she intends. It’s the mandarin’s duty to see the minister hears and comprehends that advice, no matter how unwelcome it might be.

The legend’s defining moment has Wheeler confronting his Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, over the Khemlani loans affair, when Labor was trying to raise international funds using the services of a small-time Pakistani commodity trader. As Wheeler lectured his Prime Minister on the dangers of the strategy, Whitlam snapped: ‘Shut up. I’ve heard everything’. Sir Frederick replied to Whitlam: ‘Prime Minister, you will listen to me. I am drawing to your attention facts, your ignorance of which, will bring you down.’

The crux of my claim about bureaucratic silence is that the Canberra system didn’t follow Wheeler in forcing the Howard Government to consider some hard arguments about the consequences of invading Iraq. It accepted that Howard wasn’t going to allow the production of any paper on the pros and cons of war. Yet, even obeying that veto, the Canberra system had the power to make its ministers consider the facts that might cause the government and Australia’s interests great harm. This would have been in the form of a submission that discussed in detail the nature and the repercussions of the coming invasion—a submission that never existed. But the argument about what sort of war Iraq would be would have covered much of the whether-to-go-to-war ground.

One of the dangerous thoughts the National Security Committee of Cabinet would have had to confront was the idea that a successful invasion and the fall of Baghdad and the toppling of Iraq’s tyrant would be the start of the war, not the finish. Making such an argument always invites the charge of 20-20 hindsight. Fortunately, the basis of such a submission is available—and it was written in February, 2003, six weeks before the war. The author was Rory Steele, Australia’s ambassador to Iraq from 1986 to 1988. Imagine a submission that had to work through Steele’s prediction that that the coming invasion would be the easy part:

The real problems for the ground forces in Iraq, however, begin once Saddam Hussein is removed. That’s when American hopes for democracy to come to Iraq will be tested. With the Iraqi dictator gone, the lid of repression will be removed. Then Iraq’s abundant internal contradictions will be exposed.

Using history and diplomatic experience as his guide, Steele then applied judgement to a new policy choice (just the mix needed for a cabinet paper) to describe much that came to pass, outlining the future Iraq dilemmas that the Canberra system should have been asking ministers to consider:

Who will oversee this coming mother of all messes? It’s unlikely to be the UN. The international community, after all, has no stomach for invasion, let alone possibly years of subsequent crackdown. The invaders and their allies must do it. Until Hussein goes, his people will defend him, and Iraqis are resourceful as well as tough. The first question as he goes is how to decapitate the leadership—how many to kill, how many to jail. New questions will arise daily, of legitimacy, of policing, in a situation of revenge killings, armed resistance and terrorism. With Iraq risking fracture, the coalition of the willing that entered may find it is in for a much longer and murkier haul than expected. Its hope will be to exit quickly, leaving Iraq in good order. The peacekeepers’ role could be thankless, dangerous and open-ended.

Such a submission would have undercut a lot of the ‘Who knew?’ and ‘Who would have imagined?’ justifications that are now standard.

The Canberra system is paid to think hard thoughts and utter tough truths. But dominated by a strong Prime Minister determined to use his war prerogative, the system adopted the stand ready position and then did normal duty. At that crucial moment, Australia needed less Jeeves-like competence and more Wheeler steel (plus a bit of Rory Steele).

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.