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.
Iron Mike, who was critical of the then Howard government’s decision to go to Iraq, was holding an election meeting and was heckled by Mr Peter Phelps, the chief of staff of the sitting Liberal member of parliament, Mr Gary Nairn.
Mr Phelps, criticising Iron Mike’s opposition to the Iraq War and the fact that he still served on the mission, said “… And you took part in it willingly because you weren't sent over there, you volunteered, didn't you?”
Mike Kelly: "No, I was a soldier, and I did what I was ordered to do."
Peter Phelps: "Oh, like the guards at Belsen, perhaps? Are you using the Nuremberg Defence? No, no, come on."
The Nazi Germany comparison would have lost a lot of public sympathy for Mr Nairn’s election campaign, which saw Iron Mike take the seat.
Moreover, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is no stranger to using military glory, such as the awarding of the first Victoria Cross medal for bravery in 40 years, to score political brownie points. So why not appoint Iron Mike Kelly as Defence Minister?
If this present government is serious about the Defence portfolio and in breaking with bad habits from the past, then it needs to practice what it preaches.
However, the underlying problem and largely ignored by some in the media with their own agenda is that when you place politicians who have never served in the Defence Forces as Defence Minister, they are too busy trying to make up for it by “acting tough”. We do not need those with emotional baggage to prove their manhood by risking soldiers’ lives.
The delicious irony in all of this is that a new war has emerged, that between the “Desk Warriors”: journalists, strategic analysts and defence experts who have never served in uniform but who hold a vice-like grip on the debate.
Daley, in The Sunday Age article “Unfriendly fire”, on March 29, wrote:
Fitzgibbon has polarised Defence in pursuit of his reform objectives, where a string of ministers before him have effectively surrendered. He has also upset those his allies call the "visiting fellows" - the many strategic studies and defence academics, journalists and think-tank commentators who are close to the generals but whose views Fitzgibbon has largely dismissed.
Up until recently, Daley was a charter member of the Desk Warriors, so why has he turned against his brethren? Maybe there is trouble in paradise?
As a freelance journalist I have, over the years, scrutinised why people without hands-on military experience dominate the defence debate. Daley, together with his Sunday Age colleague Tom Hyland, has dismissed such questioning as irrelevant. Hyland calls it a “curious crusade”.
Oh the delicious irony!