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Joel Fitzgibbon and the Defence Department

By Gary Brown - posted Monday, 30 March 2009

The suggestion that the Defence Department's Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) has "spied" on the Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, is deeply disturbing. The Minister's failure to declare trips to China funded by his friend Helen Liu is certainly a breach of the rules governing all Members of Parliament. If history (certainly that of the Howard years) is any guide, it is not of itself a sackable offence, though it certainly does Mr Fitzgibbon no political good. Its revelation at this time was of course explicitly designed with this in mind.

Certainly there are no national security implications, in the sense of the Minister or national security information being compromised by the Chinese. Fitzgibbon was in Opposition when the trips were taken and in any case ASIO, whose job it is to know, has stated that Ms Liu is not a subject of any interest or concern to it. The only immediate costs in this affair are to Fitzgibbon's political standing.

This begs the question: cui bono? (who benefits from this?) Clearly the answer is, those in Defence who are threatened by his attempts at reform. Whether DSD itself was involved, we may never know, but elements, certainly rogue, of the department may well have been.


Whatever the details turn out to be, this affair is an escalation of battle between a reforming Minister and a department with a long history of underperformance. It is a signal that Defence "rogues" are feeling the ministerial heat and have turned on their political superior. It is very serious, and those responsible must be outed and removed from the system.

Recent SAS pay bungles, though distressing to the affected personnel, are actually at the low end of a Defence record of waste and incompetence going back decades. It is really necessary to recite the litany? Collins submarines, Bushmaster Army vehicles, the JORN over-the-horizon radar, the Seasprite helicopters, and so on. Billions of dollars of public money have vanished down the Defence black hole and national defence capabilities have been compromised.

Entrenched bureaucrats under attack always try to defend themselves. They routinely use spin, relevant technobabble, obfuscation, information denial and the like. Over the decades - yes, decades - of its accumulating failures, Defence has had resort to all of these.

It is no wonder, therefore, that a competent minister might cease to trust the department. Indeed, one might conclude that a minister who did trust a department with a like record was incompetent. One thinks of another reforming minister, the Liberals' John Moore, who quickly learned not to trust his department and saw to it that responsible heads rolled. The tragedy then was that his Liberal successors, including Brendan Nelson, were lazy and complacent, mostly content to parrot the official departmental line.

One of the more astonishing suggestions made in recent times is that the Minister should resign because he has allegedly "lost the confidence" of his department. I have news for those, including Malcolm Turnbull, who peddle this line. In our system of government ministers must resign if they lose the confidence of the House of Representatives. Departments are responsible to ministers, not vice versa, and ministers are responsible to the House.

By clamouring for Fitzgibbon's sacking, the Opposition gives aid and comfort to a department which deserves a major head-kicking and a root-and-branch reform. The Opposition helps preserve and protect Defence's culture of failure and thereby does the country a great disservice. It places a (very) short-term political gain ahead of the national interest. It is a sad commentary on the state of our body politic that this should occur.


I guess the whole affair was a political temptation or opportunity too much for a weak and badly led Opposition to resist, but it has deliberately got the matter precisely backwards. It is not the Minister who should be sacked but anyone within Defence who authorised or carried out the alleged "spying" on Mr Fitzgibbon. They should be followed by those responsible for the current atrocious condition of major project management in Defence.

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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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