Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:23 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:23 | SYDNEY

Stephen Smith has the key job, not Bob Carr

6 March 2012 17:35

Rawdon Dalrymple is a former Australian ambassador to Israel, Indonesia, the US and Japan.

There seems to be a general media agreement that Stephen Smith must be deeply disappointed he was not moved to Foreign Affairs after Rudd's exit. I hope this is not so.

I worked for Australian foreign ministers from Hasluck to Evans but never had any professional relationship with Smith or Bob Carr. As to the latter, I reserve judgment, being quite unimpressed by reports that he will be having telephone conversations with Henry Kissinger and suchlike eminences grises. We shall see how he handles the major issues in our region such as the impending large political changes in Indonesia after the present President departs the scene, as he must at the end of his current term.

But the really big external challenges for the Government in the next few years are likely to be in the defence field.

The political establishment from the Governor-General to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have gone to unprecedented lengths to honour every Australian fatality in Afghanistan as their coffins are transported by special aircraft back to Australia. Our small contingent in Afghanistan no doubt is highly professional and it is certainly in the national interest that we give them honour and respect and seek to maintain their high status in order to encourage young potential recruits.

But far less public attention is given to the big decisions facing our defence establishment.

Our diplomacy has made progress in securing our acceptance in the region, although we have far to go still in acquiring the habits of thought, language skills and cultural awareness that we shall increasingly need. But it is a potentially unstable region, and we have a vast and vulnerable coastline and offshore resources. For their defence, we need a navy which has the reach and strike power to protect us, and an air defence which can provide surveillance and deterrence.

These are very costly and in their management or mismanagement in recent times it seems that large funds have been wasted. Insiders say that, since Arthur Tange left the Secretaryship of the Department of Defence, the uniformed services have increasingly held the whip hand over the civilian oversight which is essential to curb inter-service rivalry for funds and equipment decisions.

Defence is very expensive. That is surely a reason for making sure we make the right choices. Mr Smith has an important opportunity to get on top of this formidable portfolio and ensure that we are investing our funds in the best options. Huge funds have been wasted in recent years on equipment that had to be scrapped after a short time or which never got into service. There is no current challenge in Foreign Affairs as important as this.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.