Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:43 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:43 | SYDNEY

To be Defence Minister


Graeme Dobell

2 April 2009 08:41

Dressed in overalls, the Defence Minister is being shown over the Australian Navy ship, Melbourne. The Minister wanders off and says hello to a crewman. ‘And what do you do?’ the stoker asked.

‘Well, as a matter of fact, I happen to be the Minister.’

The response was immediate and unblinking: ‘Smart bastard!’

As the Minister later recalled: ‘It was one of the kindest things ever said about me, and there were many times I wished the summation was correct.’ The story was told by Jim Killen, who saw service as both Navy Minister and Defence Minister.

In these troubled times, the current Defence Minister might want to wander round to the Parliamentary library and borrow a copy of Killen’s memoirs. Joel Fitzgibbon would find that unceasing pressure and hurtful leaks have long been the lot of his office. You need to imagine Jim Killen’s moustache bristling as he booms out warnings such as: ‘Canberra is not just the capital of the nation, it is the Mediterranean of gossip, most of it being thoroughly sententious, inaccurate, and a lot of it dipped in venom.’

Or the line Killen quotes from Churchill: ‘My, you Australians do conduct your politics with a fine 18th century robustness.’ Another thought that would chime with current problems: ‘Governments have a singular capability to get into trouble. The most surprising things can happen with startling speed and totally unforseen consequences.’

The parallels that would most interest Fitzgibbon are ructions inside Defence and a steady stream of often accurate but damaging leaks. Killen lamented what he saw as permanent service-civilian conflict in the Defence Department, and the ‘widespread view among the services that they are now dominated by civilians.’

Killen complained of regular press speculation — from almost the moment he was sworn in — that he would soon lose his Ministry. Killen pondered the question of ‘who was seeking to destroy me…who had sought to inflict mortal political damage’?

I was a denizen of the press gallery during that period and I have a pretty clear answer to the Killen question. A lot of the best leaking against the Defence Minister was done by his fellow Cabinet Ministers. In fact, the most vocal anti-Killen Minister had his Parliament House office a few doors from the Defence Minister. Sometimes, cross-checking the accuracy of the poison involved a journey of only a few steps.

Perhaps this is the consolation to be offered Joel Fitzgibbon. So far, not too many of the arrows are coming from his own Cabinet. Although as the reshuffle speculation starts to build, that could change.

Fitzgibbon is the 13th Minister to preside over the unified Defence structure (without junior Ministers for Army, Navy and Air Force). The average term of those Defence Ministers has been less than three years, so Joel Fitzgibbon is coming up to the mid-point of the average term of an Australian Defence Minister. 

Photo by Flickr user Kevin H, used under a Creative Commons license.