The New and Old Testaments of Defence
8 Oct 2019|

Is Australia’s Department of Defence one big beast or a herd of beasts? Is the Oz military a single tribe or a bunch of tribes?

The questions matter in many ways, not least because the nature of the instrument says much about the purposes it can be used for. The means you create express the ends you intend.

The Old Testament view of Australian defence dealt in plurality. The New Testament seeks singularity. The New and Old Testament understandings both contend and combine.

The Old Testament prophet of Australian defence presided over a herd. An alliance–expeditionary culture meant different service tribes could be sent off individually to work with allied forces under foreign command.

The New Testament prophet of Australian defence united the tribes and proclaimed them one. The herd would be transformed into a single big beast to defend the land of Oz.

The Old Testament prophet was Sir Frederick Shedden, who headed the Defence Department for 19 years, from 1937 to 1956.

The New Testament prophet was Sir Arthur Tange, secretary of the Department of External Affairs from 1954 to 1965, and secretary of Defence from 1970 to 1979.

Talking the other day to a university class studying national security, I mentioned Tange. Noting a rather glazed look on students’ faces, I asked how many had ever heard of Sir Arthur. Alas, only 10% of the class knew of one of the greatest Australian public servants of the 20th century.

’Twas ever thus, but a useful reminder of the need to retell and refresh origin stories. So, last week’s column on the difficult relationship between ministers and the Defence Department leads to this meditation on the different covenants of Shedden and Tange.

Shedden was a tough, shrewd operator who spent his whole career at Victoria barracks in Melbourne (refusing to move to Canberra). Shedden’s biographer, David Horner, cites a description of Shedden as a powerful personality who was ‘ruthless with those who crossed him, and devastating with those … who could not rise to his exceptional standards of performance’.

Exactly the same description applied to Tange. These prophets both had steel at their core, fine administrators always ready for a turf war.

As a superb bureaucrat, Shedden recorded his life on paper. Horner was able to write Defence supremo based on Shedden’s files (2,400 boxes of material) and the 2,400 typed pages of Shedden’s unpublished history of Australian defence policy from 1901 to 1945.

Away from his desk, Shedden was adrift.

John Edwards describes Shedden’s ill humour when sailing with Prime Minister John Curtin to the US in 1944:

The voyage across the Pacific to San Francisco took two weeks. Separated from his files, from his department, from his independence and authority as the bureaucratic overlord of the national war effort, Shedden was morose. Files were knowledge, and knowledge was power. A habitual note taker, he was suddenly bereft of content.

As a fine example of his times, Shedden was a British Empire man. Dividing the Oz defence tribes wasn’t merely a means for him to rule, but preparation for the dispatch of individual elements to serve under British command. Even after the turn to the US in World War II, Shedden’ s vision was to bring back the Brits—even resurrect a naval strategy based on Singapore.

By the end of Shedden’s reign, as Horner writes, Prime Minister Robert Menzies thought that the problem with defence was ‘the dead hand of Fred Shedden’.

Arthur Tange’s New Testament overthrew much Shedden had made and carefully minuted.

Tange killed off four separate institutions, the departments of Army, Navy, Air Force and Supply (each with a separate minister), and merged them into a single defence department; he created the diarchy and resurrected the term Australian Defence Force.

Shedden’s military world was the AIF (Australian Imperial Force). Tange brought forth the ADF, recalling:

I took the opportunity to employ symbolism to reflect the concept that a common purpose must govern the activities of the three Services. I restored to usage the compendious title ‘Australian Defence Force’ which the 1915 Defence Act had declared to be composed of ‘three arms’ … In due course (after my time) the commander had his title changed to the unambiguous ‘Chief of the Defence Force’.

In criticising the three services, the word Tange used a couple of times was ‘tribalism’. Shedden sought to control the tribes; Tange wanted to make them one.

Tange made a new structure for a new strategy. In seeking to turn the herd into a single beast, Tange aimed to remake policy, as Peter Edwards notes:

He strongly endorsed, and possibly coined, ‘self reliance’ as the concept to replace ‘forward defence’, and he supported the idea of defence focused on the continent and its approaches. But that didn’t mean a wholesale rejection of the US alliance—an issue on which he sparred in his later years with his friend and admirer Malcolm Fraser. Tange’s subtle balance between robust independence and alliance confused many.

Tange remade structure, but elements of the Old Testament still pulse through the system. Heresy still happens.

The only man to have emulated Tange, in heading both Foreign Affairs and Defence, Dennis Richardson, confessed that four decades after Tange, he was still waging the struggle to create a single beast and unite the tribes.

In Defence, Richardson said he had ‘a very strong philosophy to make Defence more of a unitary state rather than a federation, and a loose federation at that’.

Unitary state versus loose federation! The testaments still contend.