A black day for our defence force

There is much wrong with, and in, the Department of Defence, most of it however usually in the department, not the defence force. This is lost on many Australians, including it now seems Professor Rufus Black and those Ministers running Defence (and many of those advising them) who should know better.

That the flawed analysis and suggestions of the Black Review could be seriously entertained by anyone shows, at the very least, an appallingly short and/or biased corporate memory in the Department of Defence and political circles about what has failed when tried previously - even in recent decades and even before we examine the more distant past before and after the 1974 Tange re-organisation of the then Defence group of departments. 

Because it is not a first-principles, bottom-up and top-down review of structure, responsibilities and accountabilities, the Black Review will fail as its 13 predecessors since 1974 have failed. Tragically again, its flawed, inconsistent and ahistoric recommendations - and the Minister’s intention to implement them - will inevitably inflame and indeed spread the disease of ever-growing departmental bureaucratisation and lack of collective and individual accountability, not cure it. 

Black-inspired anti-reforms will also needlessly resuscitate the associated virulent virus of bitter ADF-APS rivalry that so poisoned the department’s institutional culture and consequently its effectiveness throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. A virus that the last three Secretaries (especially Ric Smith), all from outside the department, have done much to eradicate. This virus thrives whenever there is arrogant, pervasive and unwarranted civilian bureaucratic interference in military professional matters or supplanting of Ministerial control over the ADF by public servants (as occurred for most of the 1974-1998 period). 

In particular, the proposed appointment of an Associate Secretary to oversee defence force capability development and procurement is guaranteed (and perhaps even purpose-designed) to reignite destructive bureaucratic bloodshed. Not least because (the new Secretary Duncan Lewis excepted) there are clearly no adequately qualified candidates for such a position in the department or out of it, nor can there ever be unless that person had both significant ADF and APS professional experience. 

Seven general aspects about the Black review and its implementation stand out to anyone with an objective and long-term knowledge of defence issues:

  • It demonstrates an apparent failure of comprehension that Australia primarily maintains a defence force to deter and win wars and that the Department of Defence primarily exists to support the ADF in achieving that mission.
  • It demonstrates a definite failure of comprehension that “civil control of the military” is a constitutional function properly exercised only by Ministers, not bureaucrats or by “civilians” generally, and certainly not by even more, and ever-more senior, bureaucrats. There is no such thing as “civilian authority” over the military exercised by public servants as some are wont to claim to buttress their bureaucratic empire-building.
  • The Black Review joins the list of 14 (largely failed) reviews of the Department of Defence since 1974, about 2-3 yearly on average, but oddly seems to have learnt nothing from them or even ask the fundamental question why so many reviews have had to be instituted, and so often, and why most have mostly failed.
  • It is yet another “situated appreciation” (rather than an intellectually robust “appreciation of the situation”). It was produced, in secret rather than by open investigation, debate and contestability. It was based on flawed terms of reference that were oddly not made public until the report's release. Moreover, despite the terms of reference specifying that "the review requires an expert with deep knowledge and understanding of Defence", it was instead produced by a team that included no military expertise whatsoever (unlike, for example, the 2007 Proust Review which was more intellectually robust, coherent and honest in all the above aspects even though it was still nobbled by politicised terms of reference).
  • Much of the Black-inspired changes are simply reversions to structures, processes and institutional cultures found severely wanting in the businessmen-led 1997 Defence Efficiency Review, only 14 years ago, yet here we go again.
  • It focuses unduly, again, on trying to manage inputs by yet more process, rather than improve accountability for outputs through a first-principles review of flawed structures and statutory responsibilities.
  • No Minister on top of his job or with a genuine interest in defence issues (and their history) would accept such a flawed report. Surely even fewer ministers would consider implementing such a “back-to-the future” organisational and cultural approach that has clearly failed time and again in the past.

Most dangerously, contestability of policy advice will be severely weakened or lost because military professional advice to Ministers will now be again filtered through senior public servants. This will again sadly include recommendations as to what the Government should decide about the selection of weapons and equipment for our defence force, thus once again separating responsibility for such advice from the command, operational and moral responsibilities of the ADF’s commanders for the men and women whose lives they are literally accountable for. 

It is legitimate for the Department of Defence to contest ADF recommendations, as long as this is undertaken honestly and objectively (which too often did not occur in the pre-DER structure now being revived by Black ) during consideration by the Government. The DER found that the deliberately confrontational structures then entrenched (Force Development and Analysis Division versus the Services) were counter-productive and inefficient in results, process, scheduling of projects and the overall toxic culture they sustained. The DER determined that more collaborative processes and structures were needed. It is therefore not legitimate, as Black recommends and the Minister has accepted, for public servants of any level to manage, filter or otherwise delay or frustrate professional military advice to Ministers. Civilians bureaucrats do not, as many arrogantly claim or imply, somehow automatically “know better” than military professionals how to deter and fight wars. 

True accountability in Defence will only come from downsizing the organisation, simplifying lines of accountability and re-instituting statutory boards accountable to Parliament for defence capabilities (of the type that existed before 1974). At least one for the department and one for the defence force. And with relevant ministers as full and involved members, not just as supposed customers for bureaucratic policy advice. 

The time has clearly come to split the department and the headquarters of the defence force into two much smaller and truly synergistic, rather than bureaucratically competing and self-defeating, entities in perpetuity. Both answering to the Minister for Defence, with clear chains of authority and military command respectively (and where the portfolio minister is assisted in each by at least one full-time junior minister). 

In the department, the junior minister would supervise DSTO and the DMO with the (overall) portfolio minister supervising the rest directly. For the ADF, the junior minister would be known as the Minister for the Defence Force and handle both the integrally related, day-to-day, operational and personnel functions. The Minister for the ADF would not be double-hatted as the Minister for Veterans Affairs. 

It now seems ever more necessary for true reform of the Department of Defence to be imposed by Parliament after a full public inquiry, rather than by internal reviews and partisan posturing. Just as Congress reformed the Pentagon in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defence Re-organisation Act after the Packard Commission. Sadly, the men and women of our defence force still wait for a Minister informed and courageous enough to tackle the Gordian knot of political and bureaucratic vested interests bedeviling the principles and practice of our national defence.