Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:45 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:45 | SYDNEY

Ex-Defence Minister wars with military


Graeme Dobell

13 July 2012 12:48

A former Defence Minister has taken a giant swipe at the culture and leadership habits of Australia's military.

Joel Fitzgibbon says it is time to put a civilian in charge, sitting above the Chief of the Australian Defence Force 'to establish what Defence sadly lacks today; one final point of accountability.' In four decades writing about the military, I'd rate this as the strongest attack by a minister on the workings of the military half of the so-called diarchy.

Fitzgibbon accuses the officer corps of 'a propensity to cover up, to mislead and to ignore the direction of their political masters, all in the name of the national interest.' No jibes, please, about those political masters having many of the same traits.

You might say that the ADF does have an ultimate civilian chief. It's a job with the title Defence Minister. And Joel Fitzgibbon held that very job from December 2007 to June 2009. The problem Fitzgibbon is grappling with is the inability of most ministers to actually get inside or understand, much less control, the Defence hydra.

The uniform side will return fire against the Fitzgibbon fusillade by attacking the person, not the policy.

The claim will be that this is another manifestation of Fitzgibbon's continuing bitterness at the way Defence leaked against him and, ultimately, cost him the ministerial chair. See here for columns on those leaks, on the unwieldy beast that is the Defence diarchy, and on Fitzgibbon's demise.

One of the golden rules for understanding Canberra power struggles is encapsulated in the bitter line 'It's always personal.' So the Defence rebuttal that this is just Joel venting venom will have some sting. Yet Fitzgibbon's assault is still noteworthy as a high-profile contribution to the long-running Defence argument about the problems of the diarchy.

Even more striking is the way the former Defence Minister blames the military hierarchy, not the civilian public servants. Usually, the sons of ANZAC get the glory while the tea-sipping-drones in sweaters are seen as the problem. Not according to Joel Fitzgibbon:

Those who make up our first line of defence are as good as any in the world, but what they are taught and how they are nurtured and developed is often inconsistent with societal and organisational norms. It produces a culture of entitlement and an environment in which challenge and accountability are not appreciated. It often leaves those who are a part of the organisation with a sense of superiority and priority — that is, the view that everything they do is more important than anything else others do and the idea that they know best how to do it. Of course, in many ways this is true. As defence minister, I saw this attitude manifest itself in many ways including a propensity to cover up, to mislead and to ignore the direction of their political masters, all in the name of the national interest, of course. My consultations with other former ministers confirm similar experiences.

For Fitzgibbon, the root cause of the problem in Defence is the sad lack of accountability: two leaders at the top amounts to one too many.

Australia has been stress-testing the diarchy for four decades. According to this former Defence Minister, the diarchy experiment was an acknowledgment of the political support for those in uniform. Now, he says, it is time to take the experiment to the next stage and place a civilian boss at the top of Australia's military machine. Let battle commence.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.