Governance needs, not political expediency, should drive the selection of Ministers for Defence

The public interest is rarely served by the appointment of Defence Ministers in the twilight of their ministerial or parliamentary careers. Serial short-term appointments, generally the result of prioritising temporary political expediency over the needs of long-term portfolio governance, have occurred far too frequently and unthinkingly. This causes recurring problems with effective ministerial supervision of what is necessarily a particularly complex and long-term focused portfolio responsible for an essentially supra-partisan national function.

 

Letter to The Canberra Times
Saturday, 03 January 2015
(published Tuesday, 06 January 2015)

Your January 3 editorial (“Who will be calling the shots”) rightly emphasises the importance and complexity of national defence as a key, collective and indeed holistic responsibility under any government.

But, while correctly lamenting the propensity for both sides of politics to misuse defence acquisition projects for electoral pork-barrelling, essential points about reinforcing ministerial governance were surely missed.

Ensuring proper ministerial supervision of this particularly complex and long-term-focused portfolio should always win out over party-political or factional expediency.

Not compromising the supra-partisan nature of national defence overall — and of a Westminster-system military in daily practice — also means not appointing ministers unable to quit the daily political fray or subdue their personal national leadership ambitions to the public interest, such as occurred with Peter Reith and Stephen Smith.

There is also the problem of high ministerial turnover unduly delaying policy development, adequate and well-steered investment, and project implementation.

And to simplistic claims that “Defence devours its ministers” whereas this instead primarily stems from being allocated ones near the end of their ministerial careers anyway.

Where capable ministers still well on top of their parliamentary game are appointed many years of efficient portfolio service results, such as Labor’s Robert Ray (6 years) and the Coalition’s Robert Hill (5¼ years).

Finally, giving the job to those uninterested in strategic security matters, or in meeting the intellectual and moral demands of the Defence portfolio, always ends badly whereas the alternative does not.

This is especially the case where ministers such as Kim Beazley, Brendan Nelson and John Faulkner had previous served in the portfolio as junior ministers or parliamentary secretaries.

This career-progression governance model — as it does in the UK — is another reason why Defence needs two full-time junior ministers to test and ready future senior ministers, and hopefully limit prime-ministerial tendencies to appoint the unprepared, uninterested or politically expedient to this nationally crucial portfolio.   

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