Dr Brendan Nelson takes the helm at Defence

Dr Brendan Nelson’s appointment as Minister for Defence has certainly set tongues wagging.

For those who see the Prime-Minister as a Machiavellian figure, the appointment is allegedly to give Nelson’s future leadership prospects some broader credibility, or to give those of Tony Abbott an invigorating scare, or to boost Abbott’s future leadership prospects by handing Nelson a poisoned chalice.

 Others, particularly those who see party-political machinations behind the appointment, advance the argument that the Government is actually trying to boost its re-election prospects by trying to wedge Labor on defence issues.

 According to this school of thought, Senator Hill’s low-key but relentless logic might have won broad community support and encouraged a reasonable level of bipartisan support from Labor, but political opportunities to paint Labor as inconsistent or weak on defence were supposedly squandered by such an approach. This view sees Dr Nelson as a more ruthless political operator and pines for the combative approach adopted by Peter Reith when he was Minister for Defence.

 All this focus on the personalities and politics, however, ignores the longer-term and real-world issues affecting the Ministerial supervision and governance of Australia’s defence efforts.

 Dr Nelson was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence for just under a year (December 2000 to November 2001) and did some good work with school cadets. Unexpectedly returning as the senior portfolio Minister only four years later he faces six types of challenge.

 First, he succeeds a workaholic micromanager who gripped the portfolio better than most – and as much as the large and complex Department of Defence can be gripped by only one Minister. Senator Hill was also respected by the defence force at all levels and will be a hard act to follow.

The department really needs supervision by three full-time Ministers not one and a third.

Even if Dr Nelson proves as good as Senator Hill the underlying problem with one Minister providing most of the ministerial oversight will not go away. The work habits of Senator Hill have actually served to disguise the seriousness of the problem.

Second, the defence force is currently committed to a range of overseas operations not seen since the Vietnam War. This is unlikely to change in the short to medium term.

All Ministries entail administrative and public responsibilities. Defence also entails a significant responsibility to the members of the defence force, not least because the Government makes life and death decisions on their account.

A Minister for Defence has the constitutional and moral responsibility to make sure the defence force is as well-equipped and well-prepared as it can be for the difficult and dangerous tasks the Minister directs them to do on the country’s behalf.

After all, the defence force of a democracy quite properly does what it is told not what the rest of us are free to do.

In such circumstances the Minister and the defence force must enjoy each other’s confidence for the force to be effective.

The perception that Dr Nelson is somewhat of an ambitious opportunist, prepared to swap political parties for personal advancement, may be deserved or undeserved but it is the perception that counts.

Dr Nelson will need to swiftly overcome this perception to win the confidence of a defence force generally suspicious of politicians and deeply imbued with a culture of real two-way loyalty and service above self.

Third, are the administrative challenges in overseeing Australia’s largest landowner, its second largest employer and the department which spends about eight per cent of the federal budget each year.

In his previous portfolio of Education, Science and Training Dr Nelson managed a budget of around the same size, but how it was spent each year was essentially much simpler because the states and territories helped him dispose so much of it.

He must now quickly get on top of a complex defence capital expenditure program which invests just under $5bn annually into a rolling 10-year procurement program, itself part of a 25-year broader plan to secure Australia’s future well beyond the political horizons of the current government.

Dr Nelson will also have to grapple with Defence’s accounts, which will continue to be qualified by the Auditor-General for some years to come as the department completes the changeover to accrual accounting.

Fourth, are the continuing economic and budgetary challenges in reversing decades of serial under-investment in defence.

Increased spending is easy to achieve at the moment with a sympathetic PM and budget surpluses. It will not be easy if either changes.

Fifth, are the intellectual challenges of international public debate, alliance management and continuing the realignment of our strategic policy with the shape and size of the defence force needed to carry it out.

Senator Hill had a long background in international affairs and defence issues even before taking up the job. Dr Nelson is not renowned for such interests.

Even in peacetime it generally takes about six months before Ministers get an adequate understanding of the portfolio. Dr Nelson will need to absorb much detail very quickly

Finally, there will be the interesting challenge of coping with John Howard’s close interest in, and mastery of, defence and strategic policy issues.