The Prime Minister’s announcement that Greg Combet is to take over many of Peter Garrett’s ministerial responsibilities in the environment portfolio has more than a party-political or issue-of-the-day dimension. Once again, the necessary ministerial supervision of the ADF, and government capacity for appropriate attention to its responsibilities to the men and women the defence force comprises (and which it often sends into combat), have been sacrificed in the interests of party-political expediency and the short-term electoral and media cycles.
Greg Combet, as Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science, is already responsible for all the Defence functions previously undertaken by himself when Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement and those previously undertaken by Warren Snowdon as Minister for Defence Science and Personnel – plus all his efforts and responsibilities as the Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change. This latter aspect was described as only temporary when first levied but has now dragged on for nearly a year. Even more to the point, it appears that climate change matters are taking up about 80 per cent of his time.
On top of all this, Greg Combet now has the task of sorting out various Department of the Environment functions in place of Peter Garrett.
Minister Combet is very competent but surely there are limits to even his talents, time and attention?
Surely there are other junior ministers that are considered competent and who can be drafted in to assist or replace Cabinet Ministers when the Rudd Government encounters political, policy delivery or administrative difficulties?
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 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, so why not Defence?