Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:46 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:46 | SYDNEY

Is the national security bureaucracy ready for Rudd?


Sam Roggeveen


26 November 2007 14:51

To answer this question, we have to examine the bureaucracy we have now.

Its defining characteristic, to my mind, is its ability to conduct operations and manage events. The Department of Defence, for instance, has had to cope with a far higher tempo of operations since the end of the Cold War. And with the election of the Howard Government in 1996 and then the war on terrorism, that tempo increased again. 

But it is not just military operations; outgoing Foreign Minister Downer placed a far higher emphasis on the protection of Australians overseas, to the extent that this now arguably takes up too much of DFAT's energy. And when departments aren't involved in peacekeeping, disaster relief, incident response, conference preparations or consular assistance, they are planning or training for such events.

I have never been convinced of the left-wing critique that the Howard Government forced the bureaucracy to think along particular ideological lines. The culture of bureaucratic independence is strong, and in eight years as a mid-ranking officer in three departments, I never saw any evidence of political manipulation of advice. But there is another charge one can make against the Howard Government; namely that although it didn't force the bureaucracy to think in certain ways, it did succeed in stopping the bureaucracy from thinking at all.

It must be said that this is not solely because of operational busy-ness. On issues like the wisdom of joining the invasion of Iraq, for example, the government simply did not seek bureaucratic advice. And on top of its current commitments, the Defence Department has been preoccupied with capability development.

The effect of all this — high-tempo overseas activity, subtle signals that bureaucratic advice is not welcome, preoccupation with procurement — has been to crowd out the opportunity, inclination and expertise for strategic policy-making. As a consequence, the major international policy departments — Foreign Affairs, Defence, Prime Minister and Cabinet — are biased towards doing rather than thinking. If the Rudd Government has ambitious international plans, it may take some time for the bureaucracy to deliver the kind of long-term strategic policy that will be required.

But will the Rudd Government even make the effort? After all, ministers can recruit highly qualified personal staffs and look to academia for long-range policy. And think tanks like this one have proven pretty good at producing policy ideas too. The entry barriers for providing this kind of advice are not high, so the bureaucracy faces stiff competition.

And there's one more factor acting against a revival of public service strategic policy planning: the high competence of the bureaucracy itself. DFAT in particular is extremely good at organising events, rescuing Australians overseas and managing the media. If you are an inexperienced minister just appointed to the Foreign Affairs portfolio, why would you compromise this invaluable skills base by shifting the department's emphasis to strategic policy planning?

Photo of Parliament House, Canberra by Flickr user Fighting Tiger, used under a Creative Commons licence.