Defence is our biggest national policy failure: WA Senator Linda Reynolds

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Thursday, 05 October 2017

Defence is our “biggest national policy failure”: WA Senator Linda Reynolds
Senator Reynolds speaks at the departure of HMAS Toowomba from Fleet Base West, Perth, bound for exercises in the Middle East, in August.

By Fred Pawle, MRC's Communications Director:  

Defence, the federal government’s most important responsibility, has also been its “biggest single long-standing national failure”, WA Senator Linda Reynolds told an international maritime exhibition in Sydney this week.

Senator Reynolds, a former brigadier in the army reserves who has also written a masters dissertation on systemic dysfunction in Defence since World War I, said Australians tended to ignore defence policy because it is anathema to their egalitarianism and compassionate nature, and politicians were more focused on its cost than its purpose.

Read the speech in full below

“Not a single defence strategic guidance or capability plan has ever come close to being fully funded and implemented,” she told the exhibition. “Not once, not ever.”

Senator Reynolds’ wide-ranging speech quoted Groucho Marx’s theory of politics, Robert Menzies’ observations of Australian complacency and Kim Beazley’s definition of the “well-versed partisans” within Defence.

“Defence strategic policy making and national higher defence organisational arrangements are still rarely discussed publicly and are little understood outside a small group of practitioners,” she said. “It is too dense, too opaque, seemingly impenetrable and just too hard.”

Speaking afterwards to the Menzies Research Centre, she said Australia had been lucky in the past in matters of national security.

“While we’ve had capability, we’ve also been very lucky that we’ve had allies to rely on. But one day our luck may run out.

“Even now it’s going to take us a generation to deliver the new capability that we are introducing, which we need sooner rather than later. Do we really want to wait another two or three decades to deliver the new frigates and submarines?”

Senator Reynolds said Defence had never needed to focus on its core purpose. “The department has never been singularly structured to deliver capability. In the private sector, your whole organisation has to be structured to do one thing. If your organisation is not evolving and transforming to keep delivering, if there is too much waste, in the corporate world you would go bust.

“But in the military and in bureaucracies, because you don’t have that profit or perish imperative, dysfunction can still continue. They get busier and busier doing the wrong things over and over again.”

Senator Reynolds was working on a bipartisan strategy to ensure defence capability was both contestable, to ensure value for taxpayers, and stable enough to endure changes in government.


Senator Reynolds Sea Power Speech, Sydney, 3 October 2017

Thank you Admiral Goldrick and thank you Chief of Navy, VADM Tim Barrett. It is a privilege for this Army officer and now politician to address this timely and globally significant sea power forum.

As an Army Logistician and having led three large reform programs in Army, today I will address challenges to delivering our new Maritime capabilities.

Chief of Navy said in The Navy and the Nation that “Navy is a national enterprise. It is deeply embedded in the nation. The navy of course has no truly separate existence apart from the community in which it is embedded and which sustains it. The Australian people support us, and the taxpayer funds us.” A profoundly significant statement, but one that history demonstrates has neither been self-evident nor ever put into practice.

This is one of the reasons the Turnbull Government has embarked on an unprecedented $200 billion investment in the renewal and modernisation of our defence capability over the next decade. We have structured the demand for naval vessels to create a sustainable multi-generational industry to end the boom-bust cycle that has been the enemy of a long-term, stable Australian naval shipbuilding and sustainment.

Today I will explore the implications of CN’s statement by looking at the historical power interplays between politics and defence, and how I believe these dysfunctional dynamics have prevented the complete delivery of every single white paper and capability plan since Federation. The challenge for all of us here is to become the first generation to fully deliver a national shipbuilding plan. A fifth-generation navy.

Tough enough on its own, but in our rapidly changing geo-strategic environment we must also deliver it faster and more potently.

So why power, politics and defence? We all live and breathe politics. Politics exists everywhere at all levels of society and organisations. To me, politics is about power – the distribution, management and exercise of power. Who has it, who wants it, how to control it and how to use it. Be it in the family, the local community group, companies, parliaments and bureaucracies.  And in defence.

Democracy itself is a system designed to control political power and redistribute it from the few to the many. An imperfect system as it is based on the frailties of human behaviour.

While politics and power are deeply embedded in human behaviours, outside of venues such as this, Australians are culturally uncomfortable discussing the concept of power and its application, unless it is for good. The harder edges, the lethality, of the application of power are anathema to our egalitarian and compassionate sense of self.

So what is politics in defence? Since Federation, politics in defence has been focused on perpetual internal battles for power and reform, and not about the external politics of how to generate national power.

The most apt description of politics in Defence comes from the renowned political commentator – Groucho Marx. He said “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” In Defence’s case - applying the same wrong remedies over and over again!

Robert Menzies noted in 1942, “One of the many troubles, I was going to say of democracy, but perhaps I should say of Australians as a people, is that we do not think enough and we take too many astonishing things for granted.”

In Australia we are blessed with so much, so why does this lack of attention to democracy and defence policy matter? After all, Australians have the freedom to not concern themselves with such matters. We also have the freedom to be cynical and dismissive about politics and politicians.

So as elected officials we are charged with the responsibility of representing their interests, but we can only do if we understand what they want.

Australians are deeply patriotic and value service. Despite this, few Australians understand what The ADF does on their behalf and what it takes to generate and sustain military power.

If it is any comfort, neither do most of our politicians. Arguably few in Defence have ever lost sleep over this fact.

A lack of understanding and transparency does matter to the health of our democracy and our long- term ability to deliver the Naval Shipbuilding Plan.

There is no greater constitutional responsibility for any Federal Government and elected representatives than the defence and security of our nation. Despite this, as I said, not a single Defence strategic guidance or capability plan has ever come close to being fully funded and implemented. Not once – not ever.

Our most important constitutional responsibility has been the biggest single long-standing national policy failure.

How can this be, and can we afford for the naval shipbuilding plan to suffer the same fate? The answers lie in the nature of two historical legacies that have been bequeathed to us.

The first historical legacy bequeathed to us is over a century of perpetual political battles for power and control – battles between Ministers, Prime Ministers, senior public servants and service chiefs. Not on how to deliver the most effective capability but who exercises it.

These schisms arose as a result of two, arguably still unresolved, constitutional issues of power. The first was the grand strategic question of how much Australia should be controlled by and integrated into imperial defence. The second: who held the authority to exercise that power; the Crown, the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the Secretary or Australian senior military officers.

In 1901, the second Defence Minister, Sir John Forrest, was already being criticised by the military and media as having little interest in defence matters and unable to grasp the complex portfolio. By 1902 the first General Officer Commanding, Major-General Hutton was expressing exasperation at “the ever-recurring tendency on the part of individual members of the Legislature to interfere”.

In 1904, as a result of these tensions, the first departmental inquiry was held to investigate allegations that the GOC had leaked material to the press. This resulted in the first higher headquarter restructure to tighten parliamentary control of the military. Reviews and higher headquarter restructuring has continued unabated since then.

The second historical legacy bequeathed to us is a perpetual cycle of departmental reviews and reforms to address departmental dysfunction and under-delivery. I believe these are a direct consequence of the first legacy where the focus has remained on power rebalancing and not on capability delivery.

After Australia had committed its “last man and last shilling” to World War One in 1914, the first major under-performance review was done in 1915 in response to serious political concerns about Defence’s inability to logistically sustain Australia’s war effort.

The resulting Anderson report found that Defence was in a “disorganised, dissatisfied and unhealthy condition” and Defence was “a series of fragments working in disunion” and the Ordinance Department was a “synonym for ineptitude”. The Anderson review was followed by a century of reviews and reforms. Sheddon, Moresehead, Tange, Utz, Dibb, Wrigley, DER, DRP and SRP. All making the same findings over and over again.

The most recent organisation review, the 2015 First Principles Review, found that there are still systemic and longstanding cultural and structural dysfunctions within Defence – almost identical to those identified in the 1915 Anderson Review.

Despite a department that has been dysfunctional for over a century, Defence strategic policy making and national higher defence organisational arrangements are still rarely discussed publicly and are little understood outside a small group of practitioners.

It is too dense, too opaque, seemingly impenetrable and just too hard. Kim Beazley beautifully captured the historical opaqueness of Defence politics in this way.

“The complex structure of decision-making in Defence, producing as it does a clash of views among extraordinarily well-versed partisans of particular Service and institutional interests, patriotic philosophers, optimists and pessimists, scientists and technological fixers, nationalists and internationalists, is more akin to ancient church councils in its product, than to the town meeting approach democracy contemplates.”

Today we are all those “well-versed partisans” discussing Sea Power, and this venue is the “ancient church council hall”. The question for us now is how to turn our discussions on the delivery of sea power into the “town meeting approach democracy contemplates”. With our citizens, their elected representatives and the media. To gain buy-in and support. To stop the churn.

Turning the delivery of defence capability from our greatest longstanding national policy failure to its greatest success is not just the responsibility of the government of the day. Together as well-versed partisans we must also tackle the historical legacies that remain with us today – hidden in plain sight.

My role as Chair of the Defence Sub Committee is to assist parliamentary colleagues become more engaged and informed over the longer term, to find ways of engaging citizens on the generation and use of military power and lethality. How we can obtain long-term bipartisan policy stability and create the political conditions for long-term delivery and to harness innovation.

My challenge to you all is this: Identify your own role in taking this week’s discussions out of this “ancient church hall” and into a democratic public town hall to break free of our historical shackles and deliver.

This government has made a great start, as has Navy, but it is a generational challenge for us all to embrace and sustain. This is the only way to fully deliver the naval shipbuilding plan and realise CN’s vision of Navy as a truly nation endeavour.

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