Pity Australia’s Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon. He may not have a complicated emissions trading scheme to negotiate through the Senate or a legion of former rock fans to disappoint, but the former auto electrician from the Hunter Valley is finding Defence can still be a very challenging portfolio.
During the last fortnight, Fitzgibbon has been caught in the media spotlight over a long-running pay dispute concerning Australia’s special forces troops operating in Afghanistan — which he has actually been trying to get on top of for months.
The SAS troopers were being overpaid through a Defence Department error. When the error was discovered, some had their pay adjusted while some were asked to pay the money back. Unsurprisingly, soldiers putting their lives on the line for Australia found this kind of incompetence galling.
But just because a Defence issue gets a lot of publicity doesn’t mean it will necessarily be fixed — witness the decade-long Super Seasprite debacle, in which the Navy wasted $1.3 billion trying to develop naval helicopters that in some cases couldn’t fly over water. To his credit, Fitzgibbon cancelled that acquisition – but not before he allowed the RAAF to go ahead with buying 24 F/A-18 Super Hornets, a decision made by Brendan Nelson and criticised by Fitzgibbon when he was in opposition.
After ordering the Defence Force to fix the pay problem in October, Fitzgibbon was astonished to discover the issue still unresolved when the Opposition pursued it in question time last month. In a very public dressing down, Fitzgibbon ordered in civilian auditors to look over the SAS books. It was a decision calculated to express the Minister’s frustration with the top brass under his charge.
"It makes me very angry as Minister," he told the ABC’s Alexandra Kirk last week. "I should have been able to pick up the phone to my department and say ok, how many people? What have we done on this? Has my directive been followed? How many people are affected? How much money is still owing? How much money is involved in total? But they’ve simply not been able to give me those answers."
In fact, there’s been something of a war on between the top echelons of the military and their elected political masters for some time now. This ABC World Today report from the beginning of last year shows the unrest among top brass at Fitzgibbon’s announcement that $23 billion of purchases approved under the former Howard government were at medium or high risk of failure.
That conflict appears to have intensified as the SAS pay dispute has boiled over. Cynthia Banham argued last week that by appointing external auditors, Fitzgibbon "gave up going through the chiefs and decided to go around them". Nicholas Stuart wrote in the Canberra Times that Fitzgibbon was "an ideal target" in a situation of "growing divisions between the top brass on Russell Hill and their political masters". Meanwhile, former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, popped his head over the gunwales to argue that this tension was "nothing new".
"After all, defence is a huge organisation employing around 100,000 people, depending how you count," he told ABC radio.
"It’s got its fingers in almost every aspect of Australian business life and it has a really important job to do. So these frustrations, of course, do erupt from time to time. They occurred in my time. Why would I be surprised they are occurring now?"
There’s no doubt Fitzgibbon has to walk a tough line as Defence Minister. Apart from the obligatory photo opportunities addressing troops in the field or wearing a flak jacket on top of a piece of military hardware, he has a finely calibrated political task that involves ultimate responsibility for the largest organisation in the country. And, of course, Australia is still at war in Afghanistan, where around 1000 troops are serving as part of a NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan Province.
As nearly every independent assessment over the past year has observed, the US and NATO are losing the Afghan war to the Taliban, which is also making huge gains in the tribal areas of an increasingly unstable Pakistan. President Obama has acknowledged as much in a recent interview with the New York Times, and has formally pledged to send more troops to the conflict. Fitzgibbon has welcomed the speech, but so far is holding firm to his oft-stated line that Australia is already pulling its weight in Afghanistan compared to other nations in NATO.
To top it all off, there is now a Defence Force inquiry underway to determine whether SAS forces already in Afghanistan broke their rules of engagement, after the Governor of Uruzgan Province accused the SAS of killing several civilians in a recent operation. Given that we’re meant to be winning hearts and minds in Uruzgan, a complaint from the Governor of the province himself is not a good sign. Defence is investigating, but few observers believe an adverse finding will be made.
So, what should Joel Fitzgibbon do? The policy blue-print for Defence should include at least the following four steps:
Wind down and withdraw from Afghanistan. Australia is on the losing side of a conflict in which we have no clear strategic interest. Instead of hemming and hawing about whether to commit more troops to fight the Taliban in a far-off land, Australia should bite the bullet and withdraw from the conflict.
Deliver the new White Paper. The forthcoming Defence White Paper, which has already been delayed, will shape the Rudd Government’s defence and foreign policy priorities for the next decade and a half. Important decisions need to be made to reform the ADF’s force structure for a changing world. Less emphasis needs to be placed on high-tech hardware and high-intensity fighting, with attention and resources instead devoted to low-intensity conflict, infantry, transport and special forces assets, and natural disaster relief and reconstruction operations in our region. As I wrote on newmatilda.com last week, this is a vision into which submarines and Joint Strike Fighters don’t really fit.
Fix the Defence Department. Australia’s defence force is an unwieldy arrangement of civilians in the Defence Department and uniformed forces in the services proper, with defence acquisition split off into a separate department of its own. Managing this bureaucratic minefield has proved difficult for all defence ministers. Vigorous reform needs to be pursued to ensure soldiers are paid properly, IT and human services systems are brought into the 21st century, and the armed forces themselves are made more attractive to potential recruits.
End the silence. Many of Defence’s problems stem from the culture of silence that has enveloped the ADF and its operations for years. Australian war correspondents have less access to the non-sanitised truth than almost any other western nation. Even in peacetime operations, Defence is often loathe to respond openly to questions from family members or junior officers and enlisted ranks, as the many investigations into scandals such as F-111 fuel tank cancers, Army and Navy helicopter crashes and Australia’s military justice system all demonstrate. A more open culture would actually make the ADF stronger, even if it made things uncomfortable for certain top brass.
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