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In defence of Smith

By Gary Brown - posted Thursday, 15 March 2012


There has been some little criticism of Stephen Smith, the Defence Minister, in recent times.

Originally over his attitude to the Commandant of the Defence Force Academy and the latter's handling of the young female cadet caught up in the "Skype" scandal, some have broadened these criticisms to include claims that the Minister is somehow disrespectful of and does not appreciate the service rendered by Defence Force personnel in the field.

I can say this much with some authority, having known personally several Ministers for Defence (and Opposition Defence spokespersons) over the period 1973-2000. Some of these were good, some poor, others simply competent without being outstanding. But without exception they all had in common a profound respect for the Defence Force and its personnel and would acknowledge the value of their service privately as they did in public. In fact I have never met an MP or Senator of any persuasion who would have felt otherwise.

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It's very hard to believe, then, that the present Minister would on this subject differ from any of his predecessors. In science they have a maxim: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to support them. I think this maxim also applies here, as some claims made against the Minister are indeed extraordinary, though the sources of the attacks are not.

In fact, I believe Stephen Smith to be one of the best Defence Ministers Australia has had in recent decades (he had good company in the Liberals' John Moore, early in the Howard period) and regret suggestions that Smith wants to be returned to Foreign Affairs: I can hardly blame him, but he is badly needed where he is.

The Defence Organisation's appalling record of major project management, which has cost Australian taxpayers billions, and a long-term toxic culture in the military of harassment, alcohol abuse and contempt for females, certainly justifies any government taking stern measures to try to correct the malaise.

Like Moore before him, Smith is making it his business to hold the Defence Organisation accountable in a way it is unused to and does not like. That dislike is largely behind the present criticisms.

It is important to note whence the public attacks come. I leave aside the political Opposition – it would be strange if it passed up a chance to attack a Minister – but turn instead to the ultimate sources of criticism. These appear to be mostly ex-military personnel, quite possibly products of the diseased system the Minister is trying to cure; some of them were highly-placed in it, too.

Leading the chorus are the Australia Defence Association (ADA), and some individual retired senior military officers. Note that the ADA has a substantial ex-military component in its ranks: its official spokesman, Neil James, and five out of seven of its Board (including Mr James) are ex-ADF personnel.

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When an organisation suffers from long-term cultural malaise, as does Defence, like a virus the disease propagates from one person to the next, from one employment generation to the next. It actually fights to preserve itself. Of course, some people manage to rise above it, to reject it, and to pursue their careers in more wholesome and productive ways. Many, trapped by circumstance in a system they can neither control nor alter, probably just keep their heads down and hope the nightmare is ending when a Smith or Moore comes on stage.

A key point, important to remember, is that is a clear disconnect between the problems afflicting Defence and the operational performance of the Defence Force. Despite everything, Australia still possesses one of the world's highest-quality military forces. Project management and the handling of personnel outside the operational context are immensely serious problems, but the ADF in the field is without doubt a highly skilled, proficient and effective force. Certainly there have been mistakes on operations or in training, some simply awful, but there is no persistent pattern of failure: quite the contrary, the ADF is very good and the whole world knows it. We owe an awful lot to those who actively reject the system, and to those who try to make the best of a bad lot, because they are the ones who have produced this outcome.

The attacks on Smith come from Defence's ancien regime, the Blimps and Sir Humphreys of this world, people whose attitudes may have been shaped by the dysfunctional culture he is challenging. Smith and the government are sick of the waste, the abuse of personnel, the scandals and adverse security consequences which are the old regime's trademarks. And if anyone doubts that there can be adverse consequences, consider the plight of our submarine arm today, and the upcoming air capability gap the government is now likely to be forced to plug, in both cases because major projects went, or are going, off the rails.

It was interesting to note that former Howard Defence Minister Brendan Nelson – not someone I was expecting to speak on this issue – has recently defended Smith against some of the attacks now being made. And Peter Reith, another who held the post under Howard, considers the attack on Smith's respect for serving ADF members to be "insubstantial" (appearing on the ABC News 24 Program The Drum on 14 March).

I'm sorry, Stephen Smith: your desire for political advancement is perfectly natural and normal for your profession, but Australia cannot afford to have you move from Defence just yet. I do recommend, though, that you impress on the government the need to appoint an eventual successor who will keep up the pressure on Defence. The task before you is well underway: the screams of outrage from the usual suspects are evidence of your success, but the job isn't finished yet.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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