Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:28 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:28 | SYDNEY

A 'Purple Eight'? Defence leadership and policy

4 October 2012 09:30

Dr Peter Dean is a lecture at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU.

Journalist Geoffrey Barker notes in the AFR on 24 September that, given the revolving door of minsters and secretaries, Defence is actually being run by a group of untouchable top military leaders known as the 'Purple Seven'. Since the now departing Secretary Duncan Lewis was also a former senior uniformed ADF officer, it may well be that Minister for Defence Stephen Smith saw him as one more like-minded military officer that really made it a 'Purple Eight'.

While the reason for the move of Duncan Lewis to Europe will remain in-house, his replacement will undoubtedly be welcomed by the minister. The dysfunctional relationship between Stephen Smith, the Department and the Service Chiefs has been widely discussed.

This would not have been helped by having the civilian arm of the defence establishment led by a former Major General and Commander of Special Operations who has been as described by one senior Defence official as a 'soldier through and through'. It may well have looked to Minister Smith that there was one too many 'uniforms' running Defence.

In the face of almost inevitable further fiscal tightening in Defence, Dennis Richardson brings critical skills to the Department. Whereas Lewis was a former soldier, Richardson brings a long pedigree in the public service and two other elements that Smith will value highly.

Firstly, while he has considerable experience in national security issues, he is a civilian and from outside the Defence establishment. Secondly, Smith and Richardson have a long history of working closely together. Richardson was Ambassador to the US while Smith was foreign minister and Richardson later served as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to Smith from January to September 2010.

On paper, Richardson looks a more likely candidate to see through a number of desperately needed reforms to the Department of Defence in areas such as accounting, management, accountability, and transparency, issues Labor Senator Mark Bishop raised in parliament during the Senate debate on Defence funding on Wednesday 19th September.  This may well be one part of Labor's plan for reform in the Department. Richardson's previous position as Secretary of DFAT also provides a unique opportunity to bring foreign and defence policy closer into line.

But this change in leadership is not all positive for Smith and the Government. Richardson has stated publicly that Asian economic and military strength means Australia's defence spending cannot remain at current low levels and a change in Secretary does not remove this major policy problem for the Government.

The question still remains: how can Labor cut the defence budget while remaining committed to major capability acquisitions and the strategic rationale of the 2009 White Paper? One can only hope that Richardson will herald a genuine change in approach to policy, one that sees an end to the failed 2009 White Paper and brings strategy in line with fiscal reality, rather than this just being a case of the minster wanting to see one less 'uniform' in the top executive.

 Photo by US Army Master Sgt. Kap Kim of Duncan Lewis (left) in Afghanistan in April, with International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. John R. Allen and Australian Chief of Defence Lt. Gen. David Hurley, via Flickr user isafmedia.