Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:55 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:55 | SYDNEY

Political generals and a military Cabinet


Graeme Dobell

11 June 2009 11:11

Beyond personal drama and claims of betrayal, the fall of Joel Fitzgibbon points to a deeper structural change in relations between the military and political leadership. Three other factors are worth considering: leaks from Defence, the evolving West Wing culture of Ministerial offices, and the central place of the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC).

The West Wing and the NSC are the structural changes that are altering the nature of the dealings between the leadership of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Ministers. Before considering those changes, though, let's deal with the eternal — the leaks and the betrayal.

Defence is a diverse beast and doesn’t really leak with aplomb. If you want to see how to cultivate journalists and columnists, run campaigns and continually push your core policy interests and beliefs, then watch Treasury. There’s a department that knows how to brief and leave no finger prints.

When Treasury seeks to undermine ministers, it acts with intent. When Defence shoots its Minister, there’s more accident than design. Defence was the involved bystander when John Gorton fired Malcolm Fraser as Defence Minister back in 1971, and some of the same comic dynamic seems to have recurred this time.

So leaks are eternal, fuelled by an amalgam of personal ambition, policy contest and political conflict. Think Jacky Fisher sitting in the Admiralty a century ago running campaigns through his favoured newspapers. Or consider William Russell, The Times correspondent at the Crimean War, using his own eyes and the evidence offered by aggrieved officers to write the stories that brought down a government.

The structural changes in Canberra are the new element in the Fitzgibbon drama. The West Wing effect is now almost a cliché. Rudd follows the Howard script as the presidential Prime Minister. The Ministers in the executive wing of Parliament are served by nearly 400 minders, who are courtiers and carers for their Minister’s careers. Often, the courtiers have never served inside the departments their Ministers command. In this atmosphere, gossip can morph into plot.

The other change is less public but structurally more important. This is the significant place now held by the National Security Committee of Cabinet. The NSC is a Howard-era invention that has quickly become a permanent part of the landscape. And in the Fitzgibbon saga, there are hints of how the NSC has changed the relationship between the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF), the service chiefs, the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister.

The chiefs now sit in the NSC, not just to advise but to debate. The Defence Secretary, CDF and the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force have become personal players in the Cabinet process. No longer do the services have to argue only via the Defence Minister. They sit at the top table.

The effect of the NSC has been to give the service chiefs some ownership of the politics as well as the policy that emerges from the Cabinet room. It’s one thing to give frank and fearless advice to your Minister. It’s a step well beyond advice to go into Cabinet and participate in the decision-making process.

According to Glenn Milne in last Sunday's Telegraph (not online), Fitzgibbon is reported to be telling Labor colleagues that he views the CDF, Air Marshal Angus Houston, as ‘the best politician in the country.’ The Houston response to this barb was interesting because of the way he described the political power structure as seen from Defence:

My job is not to say: ‘Yes Minister’. My job is to basically provide frank and fearless advice, and I do that. But at the end of the day, I totally accept that the minister or the Prime Minister in the National Security Committee of Cabinet has to make the decision.

Notice how the Defence Minister is grouped with the Prime Minister and the NSC in the decision-making process. Angus Houston has the vices of his virtues. He is a highly intelligent man and a polished bureaucratic operator. Having directly served two Prime Ministers and a series of Defence Ministers, Houston is a formidable player. In the Fitzgibbon universe, that makes Houston a politician of note.

The Houston view has been formed by the reality of the way power is now wielded by the Prime Minister and the NSC. The CDF would be a poor politician if he didn’t seek lines of communication, even influence, with the Prime Minister and the other key players in the NSC. And that structure impacts on the prerogatives of any Defence Minister, not just Joel Fitzgibbon.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.