The Canberra military officer (1): the very model of a modern Major-General
31 Mar 2014|

Kings Avenue: the battleground of the modern Canberra military officer.

The Australian military spends years and effort to create the modern Canberra officer. Like many Defence building efforts, this one is complex with no real end point. With each generation, the requirements expand (and don’t even think about numbers of officers needed or cost blowouts).

The creation of the Canberra officer responds to much more than the military’s understanding of itself. The project is about creating military leaders who can thrive, not just survive, in the Canberra system. The focus is on the Canberra of metaphor—the bureaucratic jungle and the political swamp—rather than the physical place. The officers produced must fight and prevail in Canberra’s murky forests and win gold from crocodile-infested and swampy fiscal rivers. The senior military officer still has to know about commanding troops or sailing vessels or winning command of the sky, but the Canberra skills being discussed involve combat over memos and money and the grand strategy and the battle tactics are about fighting up and down Kings Avenue— from Russell HQ to Parliament. Don’t underestimate the ferocity involved—the valley of memos and money can be a dangerous place, and casualties on the Avenue don’t get many medals.

The Australian Defence Force now turns out excellent Canberra officers. This series of columns is going to look at the flaws and the gaps in this ADF effort so it’s worth stressing that the creation of the modern Canberra officer is a good and proper project. Judge the effort an overall success (and then start piling on the caveats). The Canberra officer is necessary; both to the Canberra system and the ADF.

The project has served up important benefits for the military’s political masters as well as the ADF. Canberra is a zero sum town, so if government ministers and generals have gained, who has lost? One easy answer: the civilian side of Defence and, in particular, the Secretary of Defence.

To start with the fundamentals, the creation of the Canberra officer is no more than a manifestation of the eternal power dance, a reflection of Clausewitz’s basic truth about war as politics by other means and the interplay of his two trinities: passion, chance and reason as expressed through the people, the military and the government. The dance between the military and politicians is foundational; as Charles Tilly so elegantly put it (PDF) when analysing how states are formed: ‘war made the state and the state made war’. No military, no state. As Tilly sardonically observed, war making and state making are ‘quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legitimacy’.

Here endeth the theory lesson, with the simple proposition that governments and their military hierarchy have always had lots of things they had to do together, and sometimes things they had to do to each other. In the power dance, the issue of who leads is always problematic. The evolution and creation of the Canberra officer is a response to basic forces.

The argument I’ll present isn’t that the ADF is slowly building towards a coup. Nor will I claim that the ADF has become greatly politicised or its military professionalism compromised. The much slighter claim will be that the Canberra officer has become better and smarter at operating in the Canberra system. In part, the senior ADF officer has drawn closer to his or her political masters and adopted some elements of the political trade, especially in the focus on the media cycle and massaging public perceptions.

What are the elements or drivers of the project to create the Canberra military officer? The high-minded goal would be to produce senior officers better able to serve the Defence Minister and the government. A lower rendering would be to produce officers better able to defend the military in serving etc etc….

The project is entering its 5th decade, having been afoot for 40 years since Arthur Tange remade Defence. Much of the work of the project has been in response to the things done by Tange; the effort has been to reshape and reorientate rather than completely unmake the meaning and effect of Tange’s revolution. An important element has been the slow accretion of power to the Chief of the Defence Force at the expense of the three service chiefs (which Tange intended). The CDF has gained real as well as formal command over the three services and their chiefs. Having won a discernible dominance over the service chiefs, successive CDFs have then reshaped the power equation of the diarchy— the relationship with the Secretary of Defence.

At the start of the project, CDF was clearly the junior partner in the diarchy (which Tange intended, for himself at the very least). Today, that power equation has been reversed; CDF has become the senior partner in the diarchy. Now the Canberra officers can talk openly about killing the diarchy and putting CDF in sole charge. If the diarchy were abolished in such a manner, that would be the ultimate vindication of the effort to create the Canberra military officer. More anon….

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