Time to take the politics out of strategic planning

Former Australian defence minister Ian McLachlan has made a timely plea for genuine bipartisanship in defence planning to provide advice based on experience and to ensure continuity across successive governments.

McLachlan, who was defence minister in the Howard government from 1996 to 1998, is asked in a video interview as part of ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series what advice he’d have for a counterpart now. He tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that he would urge his counterpart to persuade the prime minister to allow the defence minister to assemble a decision-making group of representatives from across the political divide to provide what he calls ‘a continuum of thought processes’ that would survive changes of government.

Having crucial decisions made jointly would increase the chances of strategies, policies and projects being brought to fruition and lessen the likelihood of wasted effort and delays.

‘I’d get the prime minister to go and talk to the leader of the opposition and say, “Look, this is too important.”’

McLachlan describes as ‘madness’ the failures in decision-making that have surrounded Australia’s submarine programs in recent decades marked by long delays, false starts and warnings of looming capability gaps. ‘I mean, one government says this, and that doesn’t happen. Another government does something else. Madness, it’s madness,’ he says.

‘These are such long-term processes that you need a long-term view in the decision-making. And then Defence will have its view, but it can’t be the only view because in the end the politicians exercise those decisions.’

Such a process is needed now more than ever, McLachlan says. ‘Everybody does it in wartime. The Brits did it in the Second World War, First World War, so did Australia. Whatever you call it, there was a group who were in the know about everything, and I think that’s what you need.’

McLachlan talks of the complexity of projects such as the development from scratch of the Collins-class submarine. When the Howard government was elected in 1996, the first boat, HMAS Collins, was close to being commissioned and problems soon emerged with its propellor, combat system, diesel motor and sound-deadening acoustic tiles.

While the Collins submarines were widely seen as ‘dud subs’ and ‘a disaster’, McLachlan took a more realistic view. ‘If you’re trying to build something at leading edge, by definition you’re going to have these problems, and you have to solve them bit by bit. We had to go outside to our friends, in many cases, to solve them.’

Recalling public criticism of the submarine project, McLachlan quoted Shakespeare’The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones’—to explain how the problems outweighed the positives in the public eye.

‘You know all about the things that go wrong with submarines and you’re not allowed to tell anybody about the good things in submarines, and that’s a perennial submarine issue. If the submarines aren’t appearing in the press, they’re going okay. But if you’re trying to build something at the front edge of technology, and I mean, give Kim Beazley credit for trying to do this, I have no criticism of that at all. Those subsequent Liberal coalition ministers did criticise him, but I didn’t. I thought that was puerile myself.’

His job was to get the submarines ‘on the water, under the water and respected’. McLachlan says he’s since thought he should have been more forceful in saying that it must be understood that such problems emerged with every front-end new invention, including the F-111 long range bombers and the F-35 joint strike fighters. ‘It’s a long, drawn-out process and even more so now because the technology is changing minute by minute.’

In the interview, McLachlan talks about his recollections of the 1996 Black Hawk helicopter crash that killed 15 special forces soldiers and three army aviators, the thwarting of the 1997 attempted Sandline mercenary intervention in Bougainville and the decision to deploy Australian forces to Kuwait.

And he talks of the need for those in government to build close personal relationships with key people in the region. ‘Personal relationships at the top, they are extremely important.’

There will always be problems in international dealings, he says, but the ability to make a personal phone call may bring a way around a roadblock when there does not seem to be a solution and when it seems that no one will otherwise change their minds.

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