Oz Defence Minister: an impossible job cut in two
1 Aug 2016|

Minister for Defence, Senator the Honourable Marise Payne talks with members of 5th Aviation Regiment on RAAF Base Townsville. *** Local Caption *** Minister for Defence, Senator the Honourable Marise Payne visited RAAF Base Townsville on 22 April 2016. Senator Payne met with RAAF Townsville’s head of resident units and discussed their capabilities and current achievements within the ADF.Canberra cabinet making is an inexact science.

In creating a front bench, the roll call of winners and losers is writ large. Then comes the harder stuff of gauging the power and personal chemistry throbbing through the new hierarchy.

The science is hazy because the political scoreboard is ever in flux. The game never finishes and the score shifts with startling speed.

Viewing the new government cabinet is a moment to take stock and project forward.

Malcolm Turnbull achieves the unusual trick of leaving his Defence Minister in place while upending the Defence ministry. Continuity with change, indeed.

As Defence Minister, Marise Payne has lost a lot of feathers but lives to fly again. She’s had one of those bitter moments unique to politics—the chance to read her draft obituaries.

The commentariat pronounce that Payne’s job has been gutted and that Christopher Pyne, the newly-created Defence Industry Minister, is the ‘real’ Defence Minister.

The consensus channelled by the Press Gallery is that Payne has been overwhelmed by an impossible job.

No one man or woman can be all the things demanded of the Oz Defence Minister. Payne is seen as impaled on the impossibilities. Greg Sheridan denounces her as ‘the most bizarrely and mysteriously silent and publicly ineffective defence minister in Australian history.’

The obituaries are premature. The prize for the worst defence minister in Oz history is hard fought, and Marise Payne is far from it. She can take comfort from the memory that Greg made similar rough calls about Julie Bishop when she was Shadow Foreign Minister, and the Liberal deputy leader is still travelling in style.

In that spirit, this column will kick against the commentariat and argue that even with half a ministry, the Defence Minister’s glass is half full.

Payne is a cerebral, polite and careful politician of long experience. These traits—admirable in other spheres—can be political negatives. In this game, kicking heads can get more points than using your head. And Defence is where a lot of kicking happens.

Payne, only nine months into the job, is set for the next three years as Defence Minister. She has one of Canberra’s most precious commodities—time at the top.

The chance of nearly four years will put her above the recent average term for Oz Defence Ministers; and well ahead of her two Liberal predecessors as Defence Minister, David Johnston (September 2013 to December 2014) and Kevin Andrews (December 2014 to September 2015).

Payne has already delivered a broadly-accepted Defence White Paper. Granted she inherited much of it and then did little to shout its merits, but she has the skills to make it work.

The Defence Minister’s most important relationship—with the Prime Minister—is still in good repair. They are allies within the Liberal Party and in NSW. Whatever the pain caused by the creation of the Defence Industry position, the strength of the Turnbull–Payne alliance is reinforced by necessity and interest.

Unlike the two previous Liberal PMs—John Howard and Tony Abbott—Malcolm Turnbull is not his own Uber Defence Minister. That means his Defence Minister has the room to rule if she has the will.

Part of that power will be in the selection of a new Defence Secretary next year. Dennis Richardson has been Secretary since 2012. He’s one of the great public servants of his generation and casts a shadow, even on ministers. Marise Payne will select the man or woman to follow Richardson in the Russell hot seat.

A lot of defenceniks are scathing about the structural tensions Defence will face because of the division of power between two cabinet-level ministers.

One aside on that: just imagine the atmosphere Defence would be confronting if Tony Abbott had got his druthers and won the Defence job.

Abbott might not have waged full-on war against his PM from Defence the way Kevin Rudd did from Foreign Affairs, but the policy dynamic and the day-to-day stuff would have been fraught (or dire or poisonous or…!)

Those moaning about Marise should glance at that Abbott universe. Which brings us to a glass-half-full view of the new universe: a Defence Minister and a Defence Industry Minister, both in cabinet.

In all the reorganisations and reviews Defence has endured over the decades since the great amalgamation of the 1970s, the Defence Minister role has never been touched. Now the impossible job has been remade in two roughly equal parts. It’s a structural change that just could be made to work given commitment, care and reasonable ministerial chemistry.

Christopher Pyne’s appointment as the Minister for South Australia is a political fix of the highest order. Yet in serving political purposes, Malcolm Turnbull has launched a fascinating experiment in the way Defence operates.

Marise Payne is the sort of cerebral Defence Minister needed to give the experiment a chance.

Sure, she has to kick harder and sometimes bite bigger. But she’s been in the chair long enough to know the layout of the sprawling hydra that is Defence. Now she has three years to run the impossible empire in a new way.

Marise Payne has a chance to re-write her obituaries and Christopher Pyne has a chance to build a legacy. Their shared task is to make Defence a fraction less impossible.