Who lives down in deepest darkest Canberra?
4 Feb 2013|

Warning: mysterious beast

A small but important creature has clearly established permanent residence in the heart of Canberra’s defence and intelligence jungle. New creatures are extremely rare in this environment so a fresh player is always significant, especially if the bureaucratic animal has the potential to evolve from herbivore to meat eater. The creature that has cemented its existence is the National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister.

A small part of the import of the National Security Strategy is what it says about the two key creatures that live in the PM’s orbit*: the long-established big beast, the Office of National Assessments, which sits at the head of the intelligence community, and its new smaller sibling, the National Security Adviser—created in 2008 to bring greater coordination and cohesion to national security policy.

In looking at the National Security Adviser position, it’s worth stressing the novel point—how unusual it is to welcome a new entity to Canberra’s defence and intelligence fold. In this, the Rudd Government’s establishment of the National Security Adviser stands beside the Howard Government’s formation of the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Both are creations and creatures of the Prime Minister and their enhancement of the leader’s power should ensure their future. Both rate as uncommon additions to a Canberra institutional structure that is little changed over 30 to 40 years.

What Arthur Tange did to Defence in the 1970s and Justice Hope did to the intelligence community in his two Royal Commission reports in 1974–77 and 1984 have long remained the default structure. But, even noting what Tange and Hope did to change the landscape, Carl Ungerer could fairly argue in 2010 that Ben Chifley would still recognise most of Canberra’s bureaucratic beasts: ‘Despite a decade of reform and large funding increases, Australia’s national security architecture remains similar to its original design in the 1940s.’ (This Canberra effect—the remarkable longevity of the existing big beasts—will be the subject of my next column.)

The National Security Adviser job clearly mattered greatly from the very moment that Rudd announced the post. The standing of the position was further enhanced when its first occupant, former Major-General Duncan Lewis, then rocketed over to Russell to become secretary of the Defence Department, a spectacular trajectory that ended abruptly when Lewis ran headlong into his own minister.

You don’t have to have the habits of mind of a Kissinger to suppose that a National Security supremo, safely ensconced in the Prime Minister’s Department, has plenty of scope to grow in power; asserting the right to seek or impose cohesion (the silo-busting mandate) is the sort of role that could easily turn a grazing creature into something with bigger teeth and plenty of bite. That way lies the future. For now, consider the National Security Strategy as an important moment of bureaucratic expansion by ONA and the Adviser.

As my previous column noted, the Strategy sets conceptual parameters for the coming Defence White Paper, using a mindset and language some distance from the optimism of the Asian Century White Paper. The five-year cycle of Strategy statements is to match the cycle of Defence White Papers and, in parallel with the Defence Capability Plan, there’s to be a National Security Capability Plan. This is the sort of stuff that enthrals Canberra and can make even political tragics glaze or gaze at the bar; yet it matters greatly if viewed as part of a slow realignment of power and bureaucratic prerogatives.

Peter Jennings takes issue with the Strategy judgement about ‘the relatively benign global landscape’. He can launch into this argument because, well before the Defence White Paper is into its final draft, the Prime Minister has framed and defined the parameters in a formal fashion. Contrast this process with the wonderful dogfight over China that surrounded the creation of the previous Defence White Paper. The main Defence author, Mike Pezzullo argued that China’s expanding military power was a potential threat to Australia and that the future structure of the ADF must change because of the dangers that a belligerent and unpredictable China could generate.

The Pezzullo position was at odds with the assessments offered by the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments which saw China’s actions as defensive. Pezzullo won the day because Kevin Rudd, the self-described ‘brutal realist’, sided with the dragon slayer perspective. Prime Ministers usually get what they want; the job of competing bureaucracies is to frame those options. And the frame offered by the new Strategy is that China’s military growth is ‘natural’ and ‘legitimate’. The problem with the ‘benign’ view is that China keeps offering evidence in support of the dragon slayer perspective.

It was a strange but sobering moment the other day to turn through to the fifth of The Economist’s six editorials to be confronted by this lead sentence: ‘China and Japan are sliding towards war’. If the shooting starts, maybe it will be worth the lead editorial spot. The sense of helplessness in the commentary was confirmed by its final sentence: ‘Who in China will speak out against this unfolding madness’? Or as Kevin Rudd puts it on Foreign Policy: East Asia is a tinderbox on water.

The series of nerve jangling events emerging out of both the East China Sea and the South China Sea has certainly shifted Canberra’s debate. In 2009, it was characterised as an argument between dragon slayers and panda huggers. Today the panda has departed and everyone sees the dragon in the room. The fight is now between dragon slayers and dragon huggers. And the heft that ONA and the National Security Adviser bring to the table means that the huggers are winning.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user sabeth718.

*A previously posted version of this article incorrectly identified the ONA as reporting to the Prime Minister’s Department; ONA reports directly to the PM.