Speaker biography - Neil James, executive director of the Australia Defence Association

This speaker biography is intended to assist those introducing Neil as a speaker so they can extract portions of it, and tailor any introductory remarks, to the audience involved and to the particular context or subject of the public address concerned. The whole biography is far too long and detailed to be used for such introductions. More detail may be suitable at times if hard-copy notes on the speaker are required for circulation to the audience beforehand.

Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association (ADA), the independent, non-partisan, community-based, national public-interest watchdog organisation for strategic security, defence and wider national security matters.

As the ADA official spokesman he is also responsible for the Association's contributions to day-to-day public debate and for helping maintain the long-term and informed perspectives the ADA has long brought to such discourse.

While these daily efforts are a highly visible aspect of the ADA's public-interest watchdog work, they comprise only a small portion of the Association's overall public-interest advocacy and oversight efforts.

Most of the ADA's responsibilities involve research, consultation and advocacy. The latter includes both public activities and behind-the-scenes liaison and negotiation, especially concerning parliamentary, departmental and other public accountability mechanisms, defence capability development and strategic policy issues generally.

The ADA also undertakes extensive public education and community awareness activities, both online and through addresses to a wide range of community groups, conferences, seminars and educational institutions.

Prior to taking up his current position with the ADA in May 2003 Neil served (full-time) for over 31 years in the Australian army. He continued to serve part-time as an active reservist until April 2018 and celebrated his 45th anniversary serving with the ADF in January that year.

His Army Reserve duties in historical research were carefully structured (by both the ADA and the ADF) to exclude any potential for conflicts of interest with his civil position with the Association.

Neil's military experiences over four and a half decades spanned a wide range of regimental, intelligence, liaison, teaching, operational planning, operations research and historical research positions throughout Australia and overseas.

His more senior appointments as a regular officer included:

  • organisational designer of Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand in Wellington (the NZDF's first permanent joint headquarters) and subsequently head of its joint plans (J5) branch;
  • foundation director of the army's 'think-tank', the Land Warfare Studies Centre at Duntroon;
  • foundation head of the joint intelligence (J2) branch at Headquarters Northern Command in Darwin; and
  • teaching at the army's tertiary-level Command and Staff College (C&SC) at Fort Queenscliff.

Overseas service

Neil's overseas experiences have included:

  • regimental service as an infantry platoon commander in Malaysia and, on exchange, as operations officer of a British Army electronic warfare unit deployed with NATO forces on the border with the then East Germany;
  • operational service in the field in Kashmir and Iraq;
  • senior operational planning duties at UN headquarters in New York;
  • a senior operational planning exchange posting in New Zealand;
  • instructional exchange duties in Canada; and
  • representational or operational planning staff visits to most South-East Asian and South Asian countries.

As part of his duties as executive director of the ADA — and to help the ADA stay up to date and responsive as a public-interest watchdog — Neil has also undertaken extensive low-key visits to defence force contingents deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and several other Middle Eastern countries.


Academic and professional qualifications

Neil is a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon (1976), the Army Command and Staff College, Fort Queenscliff (1988), and the University of New South Wales. He returned to AC&SC on the teaching staff in 1992-93, including responsibility for co-ordinating the College's integrated post-graduate program with Deakin University.

He holds a Bachelor of Arts with Military Studies degree (UNSW, 1976), a Master of Defence Studies degree (UNSW, 1991), and graduate diplomas in management studies and information management and analysis. He won the University Prize for Defence Studies in 1991.

Neil has been a senior member of the teaching staff at the Australian and Canadian defence intelligence schools, and has taught on specialist courses with various Australian and allied intelligence and security agencies.

He is a regular visiting lecturer at several civil and military tertiary institutions and is a well-known speaker, panellist or session chairman at major conferences and seminars in Australia and overseas.



During his defence force service Neil authored four operational or doctrinal manuals for the ADF and the Army and contributed to several others. This included the capstone doctrine publications of both the ADF and the Army.

He has also contributed chapters to several books on foreign policy, defence, peacekeeping and human rights law matters; written numerous articles and book reviews for professional and specialist journals; and authored several entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

In term's of lasting topicality, two of Neil's contribution to tertiary textbooks have remained particularly relevant:

  • he co-authored the chapter on Australia's asylum-seeking debate, and its strategic security, legal and humanitarian consequences, in Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, June 2014. 
  • he contributed a chapter on the illegality and ineffectiveness of torture as a form of intelligence gathering to Law and Liberty in the War on Terror, The Federation Press (and the Gilbert&Tobin Centre of Public Law at UNSW), Sydney, December 2007.


Real Reform of the Defence Management Paradigm: A Fresh View

Although initially published nearly 20 years ago, one of Neil's most down-loaded, widely-read and still commonly cited publication in defence force, departmental and wider public policy circles is his comprehensive study paper, Real reform of the defence management paradigm: A fresh view, published by the Australian Defence Studies Centre (ADSC) at the University of New South Wales in May 2000.

This critical study, on reforming the ministerial oversight, strategic management and accountability mechanisms concerning Australia's defence, was based on analysing Australia's historical and more recent practice concerning the esential constitutional principle of civil-control-of-the-military by ministers and parliament.

His emphasis on reinforcing civil-control-of-the-military constitutionally was not popular among some (now long-retired) public servants in the Department of Defence. Chiefly because they claim — incorrectly and improperly — that Public Servants are somehow required, and empowered morally and bureaucratically, to exercise what they describe (again incorrectly) as "civilian control of the military". Particularly by unwarranted interference in two areas:

  • constitutional oversight of the ADF by Ministers and Parliament; and
  • primarily military professional matters such as defence force capabilities, roles and operations.

Cultural change in the Department of Defence since around 2005 has greatly lessened abuses of the civil-control-of-the-military principle among modern public servants. 

Although not intended, planned or foreseen, the paper subsequently earnt Neil his trans-Tasman exile in 2001-02 and, ultimately, his position as executive director of the Australia Defence Association.


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