Resetting the dial on Australian defence manufacturing

Christopher Pyne remembers well his dismay at the closure of the car industry in South Australia and his fear that it would have a serious impact on the nation’s skills base.

‘I thought to myself, “This is bad”,’ Pyne recalls. ‘It was said constantly that Australia needed people qualified in science, technology, engineering and maths, but if there were no jobs, they would not study those subjects.’

The motor vehicle manufacturing shutdown was a significant blow to Australia’s economic capability not well understood in parts of the country that were home to financial or agricultural centres, he says. ‘They don’t have engineers, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, et cetera, working on the stock market floor or in Martin Place, but they do in manufacturing.’

In a video interview as part of ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series, Pyne tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that he was determined to act on that concern when he was appointed defence industry minister by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in July 2016.

Turnbull wanted a cabinet-level minister in the portfolio because he believed that overseeing a massive program of defence acquisitions—particularly shipbuilding—was a job of its own. ‘We had to put in place the structures to give defence industry and Defence a very clear guideline of what the government wanted, and it was too much for one defence minister, who also has to manage operations and engagement with counterparts and is often on the road.’

Pyne says reinventing Australia’s strategic industrial base to meet the nation’s national security needs and industrial capability was a highlight of his career. ‘We’ve got $200 billion of the biggest military capability build-up in our nation’s history. A large part of that can be used to remake our strategic industrial base.’

He was proud to have moved the dial on industrial capability, knowing the impact that would have across the economy for decades, he says. Another highlight was serving the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, being their advocate in cabinet and in the National Security Committee and always keeping uppermost in the government’s mind: ‘Are they safe? Can we bring them home?’

His goal was to take the capabilities Defence’s leaders needed, assessing how much could be produced in Australia, and ensuring weapons were available if supply lines were cut in a conflict.

Pyne and longtime friend and then–defence minister Marise Payne were both in cabinet.

‘I think it worked well because it was me and Marise,’ says Pyne. ‘Malcolm used to describe us as being like Phobos and Deimos, the mythical horses that drew the chariot of Mars, where it’s two horses pulling the same chariot.

‘Marise and I were in constant communication. There were obviously tensions between our offices because, unfortunately, in politics people are tribal, but they weren’t between me and Marise, and we worked very well together.’

Pyne says that when he became defence minister in August 2018, that role operated on a different plane. He travelled a lot because he believed it was important to be out in the field as much as possible. Visiting personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at bases in the United Arab Emirates, brought home to him how vital their work was and it was important to ensure that they knew how much their country appreciated that work.

Pyne says ministers who don’t keep firm control of their day can be overwhelmed by the work and he was determined to keep close control over his own agenda. That included using the Parliament House communications system for his emails rather than switching to the Defence system. With each portfolio he held, he avoided using his department’s email.

‘The first thing that everybody does in departments is try to get you onto their network so they can look at all your emails. They also try and have access to your calendar so they can fill it with meetings or visits to far-flung parts of the nation or the globe. And they also try and fill your office with departmental staff.

‘So the first thing I did was tell Defence I was staying with the APH network, which horrified them, of course. Secondly, I wouldn’t allow them to have any access to my calendar, or my diary. And thirdly, I refused their very generous offers of filling my office with people from Russell Hill. Not because the people from Russel Hill aren’t fabulous—and I was often out at Russell Hill as the minister and used my office there more than most ministers had ever done—but because I had 18,000 public servants on Russell Hill and other parts of the nation, I didn’t need to have 16 more in my office.’

Pyne says the minister’s office is the political layer over the bureaucracy. ‘There’s no point in having the bureaucracy in the political layer because they have a different goal in their minds,’ he says. ‘They will return to the department and are unlikely to put the government or the minister’s political career ahead of everything else. They’ll be thinking, “What’s good for the department, and potentially my own career?”’

Asked what advice he’d give to an incoming minister, Pyne says they should ‘get control of the agenda and never let it go. And don’t allow yourself to be so busy that you can’t make decisions, because I think there is a danger in the Westminster system that you can be so busy that you’re not actually getting anything done. You are busy doing a lot of things that are useful, but who’s making the decisions?’

Pyne says ministers must be aware that they make the decisions. ‘If you get a recommendation from the department or a brief from the department that you don’t agree with, you can send it back.’

He says a sense has crept into federal, state and territory governments that if a minister doesn’t agree with their department, the media will say the minister is wrong.

‘It’s the minister’s job to make the decisions, and it’s the department’s job to make the recommendations—but it’s not the minister’s job to be a cipher for the recommendations.’

Advice from the military on operational matters is different, Pyne says. ‘You wouldn’t want a situation where the minister for defence is telling the chief of the defence force that we should put our military capability here rather than there, or I think you should land on that spot not this spot.’

Similarly, the bureaucracy must not believe that it’s the decision-maker. ‘You want Russell Hill to think it’s their job to give the minister the best possible advice and it’s his or her job to make the decision,’ he says.

The minister and the department must be partners. ‘If they want a cipher, they can buy a performing dog.’

Pyne recalls the then departmental secretary, Dennis Richardson, telling him: ‘You will be disappointed in Defence. There will be terrible things that will happen because it’s the nature of our business that you will have to address’. An example, Pyne says, was a later minister, Linda Reynolds, having to deal with the Brereton report on atrocities in Afghanistan.

Pyne has never been reluctant to express his views and when Jennings asks about his relationship with Richardson and the CDF, Mark Binskin, he responds: ‘Well, Dennis was the first secretary that ever swore at me in a meeting—which was very refreshing.

‘It was the first day. I said to Dennis, “Well, if that’s the rule, I’m perfectly happy to be part of that, but we’re going to have to meet sort of late in the afternoon so we can share a drink and you can swear at me.’”

Pyne says Richardson was a very professional public servant and, as a new defence minister, it was great to have him there because he was so experienced and a safe pair of hands.

Greg Moriarty, who followed Richardson, had been chief of staff in the prime minister’s office with a very long career in the public service. ‘So, I was very well served by my secretaries.’

In terms of regrets, Pyne says he would have liked to have done more for veterans who feel that they have been let down by Defence on mental health issues.

He says defence was the best portfolio in the government and he compares that to his time in education. State governments are not involved in defence, says Pyne. ‘You don’t have a ministerial council trying to stop you doing anything all the time. That was the problem in education; sometimes you felt that going to the state and territory and federal ministers’ meeting was like going into the Colosseum because nobody seemed to want to actually have any outcome from it except fighting. The most exciting things seemed to be the press conference after every state ministers’ meeting, where they just bagged the Commonwealth government. You’d think, “This is really a bit asinine.”’

Pyne recalls his time in cabinet. ‘Being the leader of the House, being minister for defence puts you at the centre of everything. You’re on the leadership group, you run the parliament, you’re on the NSC, obviously in the cabinet. And you’re in that small clutch of ministers who, if something really important is happening to the nation, you’re going to be consulted about it. So it’s very exhilarating.’

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