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At war with his own Defence Department

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Australian media have finally laid down their pom-poms and ended the cheerleading routine in reporting how tough the Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was in his war with his own Defence Department.

In January, I first revealed on my blog, TEAM UZUNOV, about the worsening relationship between the Minister and his own Department when an outsider, Mr Tim Holding, a Victorian State Minister, was being floated as go-between or trouble shooter in Afghanistan to gather information not being passed onto the Rudd Government by the Australian Army Chain of Command. Suzanne Carbone, of The Age newspaper, quoted me in her “The Diary” column take down of Holding on February 3.

Paul Daley, in The Sunday Age, on February 1, got the ball rolling in Fitzgibbon’s war against his own department:


But there appear to be some serious Government doubts whether the facilities the young Australians are risking their lives to build are actually being used by the Afghan people.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that through its proven methods of intimidation and murder, the Taliban punishes Afghans who dare to use such facilities. There are also stories that, for fear of Taliban reprisals, Afghans are reluctant to work in them.

During both visits to Afghanistan, the feisty Fitzgibbon had wanted more than just briefings. But despite his best efforts, sources are adamant Fitzgibbon has not been "outside the wire" - a euphemism for leaving the comparative safety of the Australian base - during either visit, much to his frustration.

Later, we had the SASR pay scandal with the Minister now officially at war with his own department over being kept in the dark.

Recently, we had Mr Fitzgibbon apologise for not declaring trips he undertook to China after the story was leaked allegedly by his enemies within the Defence Department.

I am not suggesting anything untoward in Mr Fitzgibbon's behaviour and respect his privacy. However, the sideshow has taken the focus off the real shooting war raging between the Taliban and Australian soldiers in Afghanistan ...

He can vent his “anger” as much as he likes through the media but it will not change the situation. With Australian soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan, the Defence Department cannot afford to be distracted by political squabbles over who controls turf.

The Defence Department is a universe of its own. Outsiders who do not know how to operate in this environment get chewed up pretty quick. Mr Fitzgibbon, through no fault of his own, lacks two things: he has never served in uniform and second, he does not hold the aces when it comes to playing political poker with his own Defence Department.


Only one man is capable of doing so: Colonel Iron Mike Kelly, Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support. “Iron Mike” Kelly is a former Army Colonel and lawyer who has served in Somalia, East Timor and Iraq.

He has the runs on the board: as an Army lawyer with the rank of Major he once wrestled and fought, in true Crocodile Hunter fashion, a warlord during the 1993 mission to African nation Somalia.

To demonstrate his political cunning, he turned the tables on his opponent, the sitting member for the New South Wales Federal seat of Eden-Monaro during the 2007 election.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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