Flawed reshuffle of ministerial responsibilities in the Defence portfolio

The new ministerial supervision arrangements in the Defence portfolio are profoundly disappointing for the cause of long-term reform in the Department of Defence through improved and sustained ministerial supervision. They also appear to have paid grossly insufficient attention to the fact that the ADF is currently fighting a war on the nation's behalf, and that this means national governance and national interest responsibilities must have priority over considerations of party-political or party-factional advantage, or indeed mere prime-ministerial convenience when reshuffling her ministers.


The new ministers in the Defence portfolio, as people and as ministers, are not the problem.

The Australia Defence Association welcomes the appointment of Stephen Smith as the new Minister for Defence, replacing the able John Faulkner (see Defence Brief 141). Coming from the foreign affairs portfolio, and apparently having been an attentive member of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, Minister Smith seems well qualified to fill Senator Faulkner's shoes (and probably the best qualified minister other than, Greg Combet).

We also welcome the return to the portfolio of Warren Snowdon, previously Minister for Defence Science and Personnel (November 2007 ? April 2009), but note that he is now unfortunately also to be the Minister for Veterans Affairs (an arrangement that has had more disadvantages than advantages in recent years). Warren Snowdon has a demonstrated long-term interest in defence issues on parliamentary and caucus committees stretching back over a decade and is no stranger to the ADF and the department. 

The appointment of Jason Clare as Minister for Defence Materiel, and Senator David Feeney as the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, also pose no apparent problems from a personal viewpoint. Senator Feeney is known for his interest in, and commonsense approach to, international relations issues. 

There are, however, six big problems with the ill-thought through reshuffle of responsibilities and consequent administrative arrangements by the prime minister. 

  • First, everyone concerned with the reshuffle seems to have forgotten that we are at war in Afghanistan and that running the Department of Defence properly, and supporting our diggers in combat effectively, are necessarily higher priorities than most other activities or concerns. Such real national governance issues are certainly more important than parliamentary or political party contests, or indeed intra-party tensions.
  • Second, there is the significant, and frankly avoidable at least in part, loss of continuity and momentum involved. This loss of continuity in ministerial supervision means much consequent risk to the momentum of reform in the Department of Defence — and in proper Government attention to its continuous responsibilities (to the nation and to the defence force) for an ADF at war.
  • With John Faulkner and Alan Griffin retiring — and Greg Combet and Mike Kelly being moved to other portfolios — there will obviously be serious losses in the continuity and quality, at least initially, of ministerial supervision as new ministers read in.
    • The loss of Greg Combet will be keenly felt. Throughout the defence force and the department he has been highly respected, and very few doubt he would make a very capable and reformist Minister for Defence.
    • Why Dr Mike Kelly (the only war veteran in federal parliament), and an able parliamentary secretary in the Defence portfolio, is also being moved out of the portfolio makes no apparent sense. Especially if he is not being promoted to a junior ministry but only transferred to be a parliamentary secretary elsewhere. Whatever the perceived partisan advantage this transfer might accrue to the Labor Party, it does not warrant the damage caused to the national responsibilities of any government for effective ministerial supervision and continuing reform of the Department of Defence.
  • Third, there is the needless dilution of ministerial supervision in numbers and structure. After the initial and subsequent reforms in ministerial supervision instituted by this government in the Defence portfolio we have now moved backwards substantially and unnecessarily. That this has apparently occurred as an oversight, or for mere factional convenience within the Labor party, only makes the tragedy worse. That it also appears to have occurred despite Senator Faulkner's considered recommendations as to the required structure of ministerial supervision for Defence, and the need for continuity, makes it inexplicable.
  • Fourth, there is the risk of losing the ministerial team approach successfully forged by Senator Faulkner. For the first time ever, under any government, Faulkner instituted a viable structure, culture and arrangement of responsibilities whereby the senior and junior ministers (and parliamentary secretary) worked properly as a team in their supervising of the defence force and the department. This has been unprecedented under governments of both political persuasions and such an important reform should not be wasted.
  • Fifth, there is the unexplained and frankly illogical splitting of responsibility for defence science and technology matters from procurement and materiel ones. The appointment of Greg Combet as Minister for Defence Materiel and Science in April 2010 was a major reform in ministerial supervision of the portfolio. Particularly as it dedicated a junior minister to the supervision of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) and rightly transferred responsibilities for defence force personnel matters to the portfolio's other junior minister.
  • Sixth, there is the loss of reform momentum towards matching the ministerial responsibility for defence force personnel matters with the responsibility for day-to-day operational ones, rather than with veterans affairs (which is mostly not a defence function). Having a full-time junior minister supervising operational and personnel matters in an integrated manner not only makes sense in itself, but also frees up the senior portfolio minister so he or she can concentrate on higher priority responsibilities.

As the ADA noted earlier this year when discussing the diversion of ministerial effort caused by of Greg Combet having to also take over many of Peter Garrett’s ministerial responsibilities in the environment portfolio: 

  • The diversion of Minister Combet highlights the need for the Minister for Defence to be assisted on a permanent basis by two junior ministers with no other responsibilities. The Department of Defence is, after all, the biggest employer and landowner in the country, we are fighting a war, and there is a need to pay close attention to the necessarily long-term plan to rebuild the ADF’s force structure after decades of comparative neglect by both major political parties in the 1980s and 1990s. The Minister for Defence may one day also not be someone with the capacity of Senator Faulkner. 
  • As the ADA has maintained for several years, and as the British do, Defence needs a full-time junior Minister for the Defence Force — not just its personnel aspects — who can cohesively address in an integrated way both the operational and personnel sides of the ADF coin.
  • This would also help free up the Minister for Defence as the portfolio minister so he can concentrate even more on challenging high-level strategic and corporate responsibilities — often with a very long-term focus when compared to other portfolios. 
  • Defence also needs a full-time junior Minister for Science, Technology and Procurement to supervise the DMO and DSTO. Combet has done wonders with sorting out many procurement and defence industry policy matters. Just think how much more he could do if not also having to address personnel matters, often in isolation from their operational employment aspects, (and having to fix climate change and now environmental matters outside the Defence portfolio). 
  • As happens in the UK, a structure of one senior and two junior ministers in Defence would also allow career progression whereby suitable junior ministers can actually be groomed for eventual responsibilities (often after time in other portfolios) as the senior portfolio minister in Defence. 
  • A three-minister governance structure would also help avoid Defence getting stuck with less competent junior ministers or parliamentary secretaries who are placed there as a political reward or to give them profile in marginal seats without supposed political risk — as occurred far too often during the early years of the Howard Government and at times under Hawke and Keating.
  •  Other portfolios with smaller spans of responsibility and less responsibilities have more than two Ministers, why not Defence?

The changes to the structure of ministerial responsibilities in the Defence portfolio, and the flawed administrative arrangements now introduced, strongly suggest no considered thought was given to them during the reshuffle. They also strongly suggest that intra-party political considerations were the only criteria used. This is very short-sighted and irresponsible. 

Finally, these new weakened arrangements for ministerial supervision of the Department of Defence, and the significant downgrading of the position of Cabinet Secretary from a senior minister to a parliamentary secretary, also appear to be a slap in the face for the dedicated and well-thought through reformist efforts of Senator John Faulkner over recent years — and for the loyalty he has shown the Labor Party in helping manage the aftermath of the Rudd-Gillard leadership transfer and the re-election of the Gillard Labor Government. 

We urge the prime minister to, at the very least, refine the flawed administrative arrangements of her ministerial reshuffle to give Jason Clare the same ministerial responsibilities that Greg Combet has had since April this year — properly integrated responsibility for Defence science, technology and procurement matters.

Leaving Dr Mike Kelly in the Defence portfolio would also be a good idea.