Appointment of Senator Marise Payne as the new Minister for Defence

The ADA notes Senator Payne's longstanding and genuine interest in defence issues and welcomes her to the Defence portfolio.


Commentary about Senator Marise Payne becoming the first female to be appointed Australia's Minister for Defence has been overly influenced by two rather irrelevant perspectives: gender and polarised intra-party politics.

The first has either celebrated the appointment as yet another fallen male bastion or alternatively criticised it as supposedly more dependent on her gender than her merit. The second has reflected continuing Liberal Party factionalism following Tony Abbott’s replacement as Prime-Minister by Malcolm Turnbull.

Both perspectives are surely too narrow. They particularly ignore the history of the Defence portfolio and mostly discount Senator Payne’s parliamentary career to date.

The long-term and overall issue, however, remains maximising effective governance of the Cabinet portfolio with probably the longest-term focus and the most supra-partisan national responsibilities.


Needing to break a bad habit

Over the last half-century 21 men have been Minister for Defence. Eleven served under two years (with five serving under one) and a further two for just over two years. Only five have served longer than three years (with one of them only four days more).

As a result of this throughput the Defence portfolio has an undeserved reputation for devouring its ministers but four (Malcolm Fraser, Ian Sinclair, Kim Beazley and Brendan Nelson) went on to lead their parties. Another, John Gorton, had already been PM.

The real problem is that many ministers have been kicked sideways into the Defence portfolio, often in the twilight of their ministerial careers, and then serve a short time before retirement. Most have lacked a background or much, if any, interest in strategic security issues.

These short-term sideways shuffles largely occur because the perceived seniority of the position is misused for party-political expediency. Chiefly to warehouse long-serving, or perhaps controversial, ministers who cannot be appointed Foreign Minister or Treasurer (or have been in these portfolios and now must be moved).

Recent years saw this occur with Stephen Smith when former prime-minister Kevin Rudd returned to Cabinet as Foreign Minister.

It was also the first portfolio mooted by many for Joe Hockey if he had stayed in Cabinet following the recent reshuffle. That Hockey rejected the defence portfolio, and chose to retire to an ambassadorship instead, broke the reshuffle habit in this case but still reflects the continuing wider risk to effective governance of the portfolio.

More often than not Defence has had ministers with little or no interest in the portfolio (or worse — Stephen Smith’s open personal and political resentment at being moved to Defence greatly hindered his ability to do the job).


Criteria for success

Any discussion of who should be appointed Minister for Defence in any government therefore needs to begin with studying the most effective of the 21 ministers over the last five decades.

The five have shared at least two or three of the following five key criteria (in rough order of importance).

  • A longstanding genuine interest in strategic security and defence issues (Kim Beazley), and/or instead, a strong sense of public duty and ministerial responsibility as more than just a political office (Robert Ray, Robert Hill, Brendan Nelson, John Faulkner).
  •  Lengthy periods as Minister for Defence (Beazley – 5¼ years, Ray – 6 years, Hill – 5¼ years).
  •  Being a senator (Ray, Hill, Faulkner), not an MHR, because it enables more time to be devoted to what is not only a complex portfolio but one that involves issues primarily beyond day-to-day party politics or indeed politics at all.
  •  Previous service in the portfolio as a junior minister or parliamentary secretary (Beazley, Nelson, Faulkner) provides a better grounding. The British recognise the importance of this by having a career path for potential defence ministers. We should too.
  •  Being government leader or deputy leader in the Senate, or having past experience of such a post, (Hill, Faulkner, Ray) is an advantage. It denotes seniority in parliament and party, and adds gravitas to the role of defence minister. Moreover, if you want a job done well, give it to someone who is already busy. It can even sometimes help if such a senior minister has factional or other differences with their prime-minister, such as Hill with John Howard and Ray with Paul Keating.

Some of these criteria on their own do not lead to outstanding ministerial records. Jim Killen and Stephen Smith, for example, had 6½ years and just over three years in the portfolio respectively but come in at number 7 or 8 (Killen) and 18 or 19 (Smith) in the Australia Defence Association's rating of the 21 ministerial records concerned.

Previous portfolio experience on its own is also not enough. Gorton’s record as Minister for the Navy (1958-63) is commonly regarded by naval historians as the best ever, but his 7-month period as Minister for Defence in 1971 (after stepping down as PM) has earned a rating of 18.


A hopeful change

On the Tuesday of the week the Cabinet reshuffle was being formulated I was rung by a journalist dedicated to defence coverage. He naturally asked who the ADA thought would be the new Minister for Defence. We discussed the most likely options based on the longstanding habit of party-political expediency tending to win out over good governance in the national interest.

When my interlocutor then asked who I thought it should be I replied someone actually interested in the portfolio. I suggested that while “the brave choice would be Marise Payne, I did not think they would be that brave".

Since her subsequent appointment there has been much surprise and some criticism. Both mostly result from ahistoric perspectives and insufficient knowledge of Senator Payne’s interests and parliamentary career to date. Given she comes from the moderate wing of the NSW Liberal Party, the criticism also seems mainly derived from continuing factional tensions or the loyalty to the deposed PM felt by some public commentators.

While there was an obvious desire to appoint more female Cabinet ministers, and Defence offered one of the few opportunities to do so, placing her appointment against the above five criteria provides a better perspective.

First, she is a senator.

Second, she has long been one of the 20 or so (out of 226) parliamentarians genuinely interested in strategic security and defence issues — and one of the only four females in this group. While her implementation of this interest has been questioned by some, her work on relevant Senate and joint committees has long been recognised by those who keep up with such issues no matter how unglamorous the forum. 

One notable and telling example remains her chairing of the Senate committee reviewing the first tranche of reformed counter-terrorism legislation in 2004. The all-party committee was fractious due to competing perceptions of electoral advantage. The Bills also attracted irrational opposition from various single-issue fringe groups. Senator Payne adroitly balanced committee dynamics and differing testimony from such a wide range of views.

Third, longevity: if she performs capably in the portfolio, the Coalition win the 2016 election and she remains willing to do so, Senator Payne should be left there for the next term of government and perhaps longer. The portfolio needs both stability and competence to repair the damage.


The issue of continuity

Due to the extent of Liberal Party factionalism it was always likely that Kevin Andrews would be retired to the backbench if Tony Abbott was no longer prime-minister.

Moreover, even if Abbott had retained the party leadership, a substantial ministerial reshuffle would still have been necessary in the November 2015 to February 2016 period in order to present a refreshed team for the 2016 election. Given the apparent quality of the emerging Coalition leadership generation, it is likely that Howard-era ministers would have soon been required to give way for a younger team anyway (as subsequently occurred in the Turnbull reshuffle).

Andrews’ argument that he should have been retained for continuity in the Defence portfolio was always problematic, particularly once the party-political aspects are excluded.

From the public-interest viewpoint the necessary continuity was instead best achieved in the careful selection of his replacement.

Finally, portfolio continuity should also be enhanced by Payne's junior minister, Mal Brough, being a former ADF officer who previously served effectively as a junior minister in the Defence portfolio (and later a Cabinet minister) during the Howard Government. The nearly complete Defence White Paper and the selection process for new submarines — both being at the stage where the decisions required are effectively the collective responsibility of the National Security Committee of Cabinet — also enhance continuity.

The ADA is optimistic about Senator Payne’s appointment as Minister for Defence. That she is the first female to do so is notable but irrelevant to her promotion and her prospects.


The Interpreter
Monday, 28 September 2015 

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