Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:17 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:17 | SYDNEY

Joel and the Defenders


Graeme Dobell

30 March 2009 09:40

Time to sort out some ‘facts’ from the tumult enveloping the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, and his Department. 

Fact 1: Some unhappy campers in Defence — call them the Defenders — set out to do some damage to their Minister by leaking alleged dirt to the Fairfax press. Fairfax performed a ‘reverse ferret’ on the Defenders. 'Reverse ferret’ entered the lexicon of Oz hackdom from the News Ltd tabloid stable. Instead of making the actual allegations or the leak the story, the media reverse the focus to make the peg for story the fact that anonymous players are leaking. The ferret is a useful manoeuvre when the media can’t substantiate the allegations but wants to give the yarn a run.

Fact 2: Inquiries have been launched. Defence called in the Defence Security Authority to see if anyone in the Department had spied on the Minister. The quick initial word from the Defence Secretary, Nick Warner, was that no officers have been found (or owned up) spying on Joel Fitzgibbon. The significant development, however, is that the Government wants a second, independent view of this imbroglio. Enter the watchdog: The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Ian Carnell.

Fact 3: Joel is unhappy with parts of his Department. Parts of the Department are unhappy with Joel. A quick glance at history suggests that this unhappy state is the norm, not the exception. Defence Ministers always have problems coming to grips with — much less running — the gigantic set of mechanisms that sit beneath that one word, Defence. Just ask Joel’s predecessor, Brendan Nelson, about his low moments in the job. Some members of the commentariat have started talking about Joel being 'at war’ with Defence. That’s too strong, but it certainly looks like a muscular Oz version of a full and frank exchange of views.

A commentary by the Australia Defence Association argues that tensions between the Minister and Defence are built into the structure:

Our observation is that relationship between the current Minister and the department, and his relationship with the CDF and the Service Chiefs, is pretty much the same as the last two ministers. It is also certainly better, say, than when Peter Reith was the Minister and embroiled the ADF in the 'Children Overboard' scandal…All Ministers for Defence have their ups and downs with the department. Generally the root cause of this is not personalities or personal failings (real or alleged) but the sheer size, complexity and long-term implications of the national responsibilities involved.

Fact 4:  The Rudd Government is about to say what it really thinks about defence and the Defence Department. The Defence White Paper will come with a swag of Companion Reviews (or ‘critical studies’). This is to be the Rudd framework for defence out to 2030. Cabinet is getting ready to adopt a White Paper that will set its policies (and nominally tie its hands) for this term in office and any future terms granted by the voters. At this crucial moment, the Defenders are revealed as having attempted an act of major bastardry on their Minister.

Conclusions: Joel Fitzgibbon will survive for now unless some further ‘facts’ emerge. Failing to declare some Opposition-era trips to China doesn’t amount to a hanging offence. And the Labor Party is in no mood to reward acts of bureaucratic bastardry by offering up a Ministerial scalp. That is the political judgement. The policy equation is more complex. The Rudd Government has so far maintained its embrace of the Howard Government answer to the defence question: 3 per cent real growth in defence spending out to the end of the next decade.

A combination of perceived Defence bastardry and the global recession may merge into a game changing moment inside Cabinet. Why reward Defence with a permanent funding increase when every other part of government is staring into the budget black hole? Contemplating that mix of policy and politics could produce the Cabinet equivalent of a reverse ferret with triple somersault.

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