Letter from the 43: An unhelpful contribution to informed public debate

As the relevant and independent, non-partisan, national public interest watchdog on defence and wider national security issues the Australia Defence Association has long held governments of all political persuasions to account. The Association’s parliamentary submissions, our publications and our public statements have been quite critical of the current government in this regard – as we were of previous administrations. The ADA is, however, troubled by the open letter by 34 ex-diplomats, 3 ex-Defence mandarins and 6 retired ADF senior officers published on Sunday 08 August 2004.

Subsequent debate on this letter has too often degenerated into attempts at partisan point scoring.

Too many of the protagonists in the debate are looking at the issue through polarised party-political prisms, rather than making the effort to take a disinterested or longer-term national interest perspective.

With regard to the open letter itself the ADA's more general concerns cover seven aspects.

  • The letter is not particularly well written and argued.
    • This perhaps reflected the apparent need to bond a large number of contributors with obviously differing understandings or interpretations of the events cited, and with motivations ranging from disquiet to outrage.
    • The uneven quality of its argument undermines its impact and value as an open letter.
    • Several signatories have also advised the ADA that the wording of the letter was changed, without further consultation, after they had agreed to be involved.
  • The timing of the letter, during a virtual election campaign, detracts from the signatory’s claim to a non-partisan intent and therefore the general disinterested credibility of the criticism.
  • A large number of the signatories have not previously contributed to non-partisan public debate on national security issues. Their sudden interest and intervention raises natural suspicions regarding both objectivity, and their long-term commitment to good governance in the national security field.
  • The internal balance of the signatories does not reflect the cross-disciplinary nature of expertise in the field.
    • There is marked preponderance of ex-diplomats (including the so-called “Intelligence Chiefs” who aren't).
    • There is a relative paucity of retired senior ADF officers (five) and civilian Defence mandarins (three) involved.
    • This lack of balance significantly undermines the broad perspective, cross-functional expertise and frankly the intellectual or professional “clout” of an open statement on national security matters.
    • Much of the media comment on the letter has missed this point entirely and has also exaggerated the number and relative prominence among the signatories of the ex-ADF members involved.
  • As with all open letters it is just as worthwhile to note who has not signed.
  • The objectivity of several signatories is open to obvious and legitimate question and this seriously undermines the letter’s purported apolitical stance, intent and desired effect.
    • Several signatories are noted advocates of reasoned positions opposed to the policies of the current government.
    • Others could not be described as other than polemicists in this regard.
    • Some are individuals who, rightly or wrongly, have been sacked or sidelined by this or previous Coalition governments.
    • More troublingly, several of the signatories are also individuals with a known history of career preferment under Labor administrations.
  • General Peter Gration’s subsequent claim that many serving ADF officers hold similar views is probably correct — as is the likelihood that just as many would probably hold the opposite view. This diversity of professional and personal political opinion is to be expected in defence force or intelligence agency personnel in a democracy.

Most importantly of all, the real lesson of the open letter is apparently lost on many Australians.

Genuine, independent, non-partisan community watchdogs are needed in each major field of governmental responsibility. In Australia we see this with issues concerning taxation (Taxpayers Australia), consumer protection (Choice), heritage (National Trust), the environment (Australian Conservation Foundation) and national security (Australia Defence Association).

Such public-interest watchdogs are needed continuously to monitor all governments and offer measured criticism, in the public interest, over the long term.

They work hard to do so and need the consistent support of Australians genuinely interested in informed and objective public debate on the issues concerned.

“Flash-in-the-pan” or grandstanding open letters of dubious gestation and motivation simply do more harm than good.

Such letters cannot replace the hard grind of constant effort and real commitment by truly independent and objective public-interest guardianship organisations.