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Yes, the Minister for Defence is the senior minister.

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 21 October 2016


It takes a fair bit to rouse a long-retired and happily inactive defence analyst from his torpor, but the Minister for Defence, Senator Marise Payne, has succeeded in doing just that.

Perhaps more than in other areas of government responsibility the sound and effective running of national security is paramount. Defence is a key component of national security, and is expected to deploy physical capabilities to secure important interests. Imagine my astonishment, then, when I read that the Defence Minister does not know who is more senior in her portfolio: herself, Christopher Pyne (the Minister for Defence Industry) or Dan Tehan (the Minister for Defence Personnel). She appeared to suggest that she and Pyne were of “equal rank”.

Old-fashioned I may be, but I find it horrifying that a Minister for Defence should be so incredibly ignorant of her own responsibilities. Bear in mind that this person is the person to whom the Chief of Defence and the Secretary of the Defence Department report: from her they expect policy guidance, approval or rejection of proposals and other top level guidance on, e.g., future defence funding.

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But this Minister’s bumbling performance at Estimates even raises the horrible thought that all three political luminaries – Payne, Pyne and Tehan – have somehow morphed into a troika collectively performing the functions of the Minister for Defence. This would a development contrary to every sound organisational principle applicable in national security matters: clear chains of authority and responsibility; one voice articulating policy, others implementing it. If current reports are accurate, the Secretary of Defence, Mr Richardson, has stated there has been “the odd hiccup”. One hopes not too odd.

Whether this actually happened will be unclear until the Prime Minister releases the so-called “Charter Letters” he sent the troika last year. But history does not suggest that such letters have much effect. On 10 December 1958, following an election, no less a PM than the revered (by some) Menzies, addressed a “memorandum” to his Defence Minister attempting to set straight various responsibilities between the then Departments of Defence, Army, Navy and Air. These Service Departments had shown signs of getting out of step, as it were, but Menzies’ Memorandum – having no legal force – failed to have any effect. This is attested by none other than Sir Arthur Tange in his memoir Defence Policy Making, which has a section on “failed reforms” (p.24). This book is online.

I should recommend to Minister Payne that she scrutinise a document known as the Administrative Arrangements Order. This is a legal document issued by the Governor-General (on the PM’s “advice”, of course). It sets out in detail the responsibilities of each Minister and Department, including the legislation each is to administer. There Senator Payne will discover that she is responsible for, inter alia, the administration of the Defence Act. That Act in turns states that the Secretary of the Department and the Chief of the Defence Force must comply with any directions of the Minister.

In fact there is a fundamental confusion in all this debate; it is amazing however that the Minister appears to share in the muddle.  The confusion is between the Minister for Defence’s status in the political pecking order of Cabinet, and on the other hand her status within the Defence portfolio. About her political “status” I am profoundly indifferent; I can, however, reassure her that her legal status as THE Minister for Defence is secure. Pyne and Tehan, whatever their status elsewhere are, inside Defence, junior Ministers to the Minister for Defence. I hope that despite the abysmal political confusion, this is clearly understood, and its implications carried through, in the Defence Force and Department.

In conclusion I can only say that is appalling that a Minister for Defence should be so ignorant. In my view it calls into question the wisdom of her continuing to be burdened with the heavy responsibilities of her office.

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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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