The big beast that is the Defence Department
30 Sep 2019|

All Australian governments come to office with a deep admiration for the Oz military and some apprehension about the Department of Defence.

Politicians embrace the uniform but worry about the organisation. After some time in office, the mystique of the slouch hat is confirmed; the men and women who salute are as impressive as their reputation.

The Defence Department, though, is a big beast that doesn’t become more lovable by close association. Apprehension shifts towards frustration and even anger.

The big beast is tasked with doing many things that are expensive, tough and complex. Big dollars. Big degree of difficulty.

Ministers are in the power game; they’re in it to make things happen, not have things happen to them—or happen extremely slowly, if at all. Ministers push and pull at the beast and coax and cajole, yet not much seems to shift.

Another dimension of this is that Defence’s mission is to see that catastrophic things don’t happen. The beast gets fed huge amounts of cash, and what happens?

No war on our shores. Tick. National security. Tick. Trouble is, Australian voters tick defence as a given—a core mission that’s a minimum competency. Defence is what any government is expected to deliver while voters get on with their lives.

If Defence does its job, nothing happens. And governments know they don’t get much credit from voters for what doesn’t happen. Ministers have to tend and feed the beast, but fret about what they get in return.

The politics of this is delicate. Cabinet can’t be seen to be mean to the Defence Department, for fear of accusations about mistreating the military and risking national security. The slouch hat is a potent symbol that provides much bureaucratic cover.

Mostly, the beastly frustrations are muted. When a minister does roar (usually after leaving office), the steam and smoke can be impressive. A notable vent was by Australia’s longest serving treasurer, Peter Costello, who was in office from 1996 to 2007. All those years feeding dollars to the beast gave Costello an intimate knowledge of its foibles and temperament. He was not impressed.

Costello devoted a page of his memoirs to denouncing Defence as the despair of the cabinet’s expenditure review committee. Costello wrote that Defence planners had such a poor grip on their budget submissions they could not explain the details to their own ministers.

When I first became Treasurer, Defence would not even itemise its Budget submissions or state where the funds were being spent. It used to insist on a global budget which, if the Government agreed to it, would enable the department to allocate funds between projects as it saw fit.

In listing projects for capital acquisition, he says, Defence never allowed for depreciation or, in some cases, for repairs. The problem was compounded by the five defence ministers who served during the Howard era. ‘They did not have time to really get on top of all the ins and outs.’ The shuffles at the top mirrored the military custom of having officers change chairs every couple of years.

There is a high turnover of people in the various Defence hierarchies. All the services protect their own areas. Every step in achieving more efficiency involved a tussle over whether or not the central Government was entitled to a line-by-line disclosure of how Defence spent its budget.

Costello writes that his longevity meant that he had a better recall of the history of some acquisitions than those who turned up to make submissions.

Defence is now making disclosures on a scale it has never done previously. After eleven and a half years I had a handle on all this simply because I had been involved in these decisions for longer than any of the Defence chiefs. I could actually remember the reasons why we had decided on certain acquisitions. They had to rely on the oral traditions passed down the chain of command. I was able to remind the Defence chiefs of previous undertakings they had given about containing costs.

Usually, as Costello notes, it’s governments and ministers that don’t remember past problems and solutions. The big beast is supposed to have the advantage of a long memory.

A few things have shifted, but beasts are slow to change their nature, much less their spots. Consider the simple question of whether Defence has even evolved to be one beast, or is still just a herd of them. This is a Canberra conundrum that’s galloped around the parliamentary triangle for decades.

To be continued …