The military venturing into politics is taboo: politicians command, generals obey, constitutional and military demarcations are clear. Well…yes, but…
Senior officers play against top politicians, often close to the hottest politics. The taboo can’t banish the political codes and tones and moves the ADF wields. To illustrate, consider a great Canberra officer who burnished rather than burnt his career by telling Parliament the truth about ‘kids overboard’.
Angus Houston was one of the best recent chiefs of Air Force, stepping up to be a fine chief of the Defence Force. Houston’s decade at the top proved he’s an excellent product of the Canberra officer project. Not least of his skills was political nous. Houston’s political intelligence is one of the project’s defining requirements, even if taboo.
First, a 2010 character sketch from the veteran Ian McPhedran:
Well regarded by politicians from both sides and seen by the public as a warm and gentle man, Houston is a tough operator when it comes to dealing with his subordinates and the six defence ministers and three prime ministers to serve under his watch. ‘In private he can be imperious and he is brutal with his underlings,’ a well-placed source said. His ruthless streak was used to good effect to prevent former Army Chief Peter Leahy from lining up for the top job. Former Howard Government Defence minister, Brendan Nelson, said Houston loved the Defence Force ‘as much as he loves his wife.’ He was intelligent, caring and protective of people in uniform. ‘He has a genuine affection for them,’ Dr Nelson said. He said his biggest shortcoming was that ‘he doesn’t understand that sometimes it is important to admit you don’t know and to promise to find out.’
So—key traits, political or military—push hard, have the facts, no weakness. Come to a period when Defence allegedly leaked against its own Minister (Defence investigated and absolved itself); eventually the Minister resigned. Exiting in 2009, Joel Fitzgibbon lashed out at Judases in his own ministerial office and in Defence. The weekend after the resignation, Glenn Milne in the Sunday Telegraph (June 7, 2009) reported Fitzgibbon telling colleagues that Houston was ‘the best politician in the country’.
The Houston response to the barb-cum-compliment was a concise description of power as seen from the CDF’s chair:
My job is not to say: ‘Yes Minister’. My job is to basically provide frank and fearless advice, and I do that. But at the end of the day, I totally accept that the minister or the Prime Minister in the National Security Committee of Cabinet has to make the decision.
Notice the grouping: minister, PM, and NSC. Ministers come and go. The NSC presides and the PM rules. Houston had a ringside seat at the NSC where he watched policy being made at close range, and, by invitation, took part in debates.
On the day Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was shifting to become Defence Minister in 2010, Houston was briefing journalists on Afghanistan, and praised his new minister:
As the minister for Foreign Affairs, he was intimately involved with everything to do with Afghanistan. I’ve always found him to be a hell of a nice guy and I respect him for his competence and his capability.
Fulsome, indeed, but no departmental secretary would pass such a public judgement on an incoming minister. Former Liberal leader, John Hewson, wrote that Houston’s ‘disturbing’ comments on Smith’s ‘appropriateness’ illustrated the military’s sense that it’s different and special:
It is not an exaggeration to say that Defence now pretty much sets its own ‘rules of engagement’ with government. Indeed, it can be argued they are not blameless in explaining the high turnover of Defence ministers. Defence force chiefs see themselves as ‘all powerful’ and in ultimate control, with the department working for them, and the minister mostly to be tolerated, sometimes where necessary intimidated or just humoured.’
In the strange ways of politics, this attack rates as a tribute to perceived power.
Finish with a funny moment that says something about current perceptions. In 2011, as Houston headed for retirement, the Canberra Times ran a yarn quoting ‘a defence insider’ saying that the Defence Secretary, Ian Watt, would step down at the same time Houston left. That prompted a denial statement from Dr Watt: ‘Notwithstanding media speculation in this morning’s Canberra Times, I advise that I have no intention to resign from my position when Air Chief Marshal Houston retires, whenever that might be.’
Defence secretaries don’t yet have to commit sati on the pyre of departing CDFs.