Civil-control-of-the-military by ministers (alone) on behalf of Parliament is a constitutional principle needing consistent and adequate attention. The above-politics national role, size and complexity of the Defence portfolio require a team of three full-time ministers, not the one, two or mix of 2-3 part-timers over recent decades. None of them should have responsibilities in other portfolios (including the quite separate portfolio of Veterans Affairs). Only the team-leader should be in Cabinet. The number of ministers allocated to the Defence portfolio, and their roles and titles, should be based only on national governance and business continuity requirements, not on perceived political expediency at any one time. For continuity, the roles and commensurate titles of the junior ministers should be stable, refer only to their main Defence functions and not be changed by prime-ministerial or other politically expedient whim in each ministerial reshuffle. Given the success of such a team based approach in comparative Westminster-system democracies, and Australian experience with our more successful Ministers for Defence over recent decades, a team-based structure of one senior and two junior ministers should also be instituted permanently in order to groom potential Ministers for Defence.
Letter to The Australian
Tuesday, 18 October 2016
Under governments of both political persuasions, proper ministerial governance of the Defence portfolio has often lost out to perceived electoral gain, factional accommodations and prime-ministerial leadership buttressing.
In 1957 the only real first-principles review of the defence function constitutionally stressed the role, size and complexity of the portfolio required at least three full-time ministers to master the workloads involved.
But, since the 1974 second-principles Tange Review, the nominal number of ministers has fluctuated from 1 to 1 ½ to 2 ½ with the actual number often fewer in practice.
Only the Minister for Defence should be in Cabinet.
To free the portfolio minister up to concentrate on corporate and military strategic matters they should be assisted by a team of two, full-time, junior ministers and at least one parliamentary secretary.
None should have responsibilities in other portfolios.
As the UK does, a Minister for the Defence Force should handle both the day-to-day operational and personnel matters that are the two sides of the same coin functionally.
We should stop making the Minister for Veterans Affairs also a "Minister for Defence Personnel" to pretend enough ministers have been allocated to the Defence portfolio.
A Minister for Defence Science and Materiel should handle key support functions including technology, industry and equipment procurement.
A parliamentary secretary needs to be restored to the portfolio to supervise minor support functions (estate management, cadets, honours and awards, etc)
The continual re-titling of Defence portfolio responsibilities for electoral or other advantage also needs to cease – as it does for other portfolios
It causes confusion and delay domestically and internationally, costs a fortune each time and greatly frustrates continuity of governance and the historical record.
As does confusingly re-titling parliamentary secretaries "assistant ministers", particularly when they have no more staff as such pretend-ministers.
Finally, as with the UK, a consistent team-based approach to ministerial governance best grooms potential portfolio ministers, minimises the effect of personality clashes and enhances continuity of governance over decades.
After all, part of Kim Beazley, Brendan Nelson and John Faulkner all being among our most competent Defence Ministers stemmed from their earlier experiences in junior Defence positions.
Back to Letters: 2016