Inside Story

The best form of defence?

Being an effective defence minister will require much more than Peter Dutton’s impulse to hang tough

Hamish McDonald 9 July 2021 2014 words

Challenging messages: defence minister Peter Dutton. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

After little more than three months, Peter Dutton’s move into the defence portfolio is looking like an astute prime ministerial decision, especially with Scott Morrison’s perceived prowess as a marketeer coming into increasing question.

The odds of defence being a stepping stone to greater things are not high. “For the overwhelming majority of defence ministers over the last fifty years, it’s been a graveyard of political ambitions,” says ANU’s Hugh White, the gadfly of Australian strategists. “We’ve had a very long tradition of defence ministers being ineffective, and looking ineffective. Most defence ministers find it very hard to give the impression, to the public, to their colleagues, that they’re actually in charge of their portfolio. It’s rather that their portfolio is running them.”

On the other hand, Dutton is the most politically powerful figure to take on the portfolio since Labor’s Kim Beazley. “People speak of Dutton as a future prime minister,” acknowledges White, “and certainly he’s the first defence minister since Beazley that people speak of in those terms.”

Dutton’s most visible moves in the portfolio have been culture-war dog whistles. He reprimanded the navy for allowing a female twerking troupe to do a sort of “hello sailor” routine at the commissioning of its new supply ship. He banned anti-homophobia morning teas and rainbow-coloured clothing, saying, “We are not pursuing a woke agenda.” It’s par for the course from the man who voted against marriage equality and boycotted parliament during Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations.

But the new minister has also sent signals to two defence communities. Against the background of army inspector-general justice Paul Brereton’s report on alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, he assured serving soldiers that the government “has got your backs” and pledged to prevent the sociologist Samantha Crompvoets, who helped uncover the alleged crimes, from getting further defence contracts. Ignoring Brereton’s advice and countermanding general Angus Campbell, the defence force chief, he allowed some 3000 present and former special forces personnel not accused of war crimes to retain their Meritorious Unit Citations.

Then he let it be known he was keeping to a minimum any secondments from the Department of Defence to his ministerial staff, instead bringing over trusted aides from Home Affairs. He wanted to keep out “skewed” advice from the department, Dutton told his and Morrison’s favourite interlocutor, 2GB radio host Ray Hadley. “I want to make sure that we’re looking at it objectively, in particular around some of the projects where there is a lot of money involved,” he said. “Decisions have been made in some cases I don’t think should’ve been made, or the contracting is inadequate.”

Thus, from the start, Dutton put himself at war, or at least in heightened hostilities, with both his department and his service chiefs.

White, who served on Kim Beazley’s ministerial staff before moving to a senior role in Defence, says it isn’t unusual for defence ministers to bring in outsiders for advice and employ just one or two departmental staff to navigate the huge defence bureaucracy. But it’s another indicator, he adds, that Dutton is “potentially the most demanding and potentially the most reform-oriented minister they’ve had in a very long time.”

John Blaxland, a former army intelligence officer and now ANU war historian, thinks Dutton’s early statements were carefully thought out. “He has been thinking about national security issues for quite some time, and he is iconoclastic. He’s not accepting the accepted wisdom as being good enough for the future. He’s challenging everything. He’s making a lot of people squirm. He’s making life quite difficult for people inside. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s causing considerable discomfort.”

So what is he challenging? “Querying the basis of decisions, from what I understand are first principles, challenging why we’ve done things the way we have,” says Blaxland. “And the thing is he doesn’t have any skin in the game. They’re not his decisions. And if anything, he’s quite happy to find things that might be a little untidy for some of his potential political competitors.”

Dutton has come to the job “with pretty good preparation,” agrees White, noting that Home Affairs has grown second only to Defence among federal departments in size and complexity. In fact, the two departments have come to overlap, with shared concerns about cyber and military technology security.

“The other thing is that Dutton comes to the job at an interesting time,” says White, “when people are talking up Australia’s strategic challenges in a way they haven’t done in your and my professional lifetimes. There was all the stuff about 9/11 and the war on terror, but nobody ever envisaged that was going to impose really high-order demands on the ADF. Now we’ve had Morrison, announcing the defence strategic update this time last year, saying the situation today resembles the late 1930s.”

This means the job of defence minister feels more serious at the moment, White adds. “I think that’s the way he wants it. He obviously wanted the job. And it is interesting to ask why he wanted it, what he thinks he can do with it. I believe he thinks Defence is in very bad shape, and not just bad shape administratively but bad shape strategically. That is, they don’t really know what they’re on about. They don’t just not know how to get things done, they don’t know what they’re trying to do.”

To a large extent, though, Dutton must work with major decisions already made: the $90 billion construction of French-designed Shortfin Barracuda submarines, the $35 billion build of nine frigates the size of second world war cruisers, the final delivery of the $17 billion worth of F-35 strike fighters.

Still to come is a decision on armoured fighting vehicles for the army, an order valued at up to $29 billion. As part of that, the government has just ordered a replacement of the army’s current force of seventy-five Abrams tanks with a new model, at a cost of some $1 billion. This suggests Dutton has gone with proponents of a “balanced” force structure, ready to cope with all kinds of conflict — not on its own, it’s hoped — rather than those favouring more “asymmetrical” forces to counter foreseeable threats. Assets like tanks would be kept for the Army Reserve, if at all.

With the first of the new submarines at least twelve years away, Dutton tackled the emerging capability gap with a $10 billion program to refit the navy’s six existing Collins-class submarines. A small Defence team has been assigned to look at “plan B” alternatives from Germany or Sweden in case the French design proves impossible, but so far this seems a bargaining tactic. “He’s holding the French feet to the fire,” says Blaxland. “They’re not at all comfortable with what he’s doing to them. He’s talking up alternative options to apply pressure on the French to deliver, on time and as close to the budget as possible.”

In terms of beefing up military capability in the shorter term, though, the two notable measures were announced by Morrison before Dutton moved into Defence: the plan to equip the navy and air force with longer-range missiles and establish a “sovereign” missile factory, and the expansion of the Northern Territory facilities to host the annual US Marine Corps training contingents.

If he wants to pursue more radical reform, both in force structure and force expansion, Dutton is seen as having the edge on Morrison, who has few developed views on strategic affairs and is wary about taking Dutton on.

But is Dutton up to the intellectual task? Hugh White says the “good news” is Dutton’s inclination to think outside the box. “The bad news is that I think his judgement looks likely to be extremely bad on the really key strategic questions about what exactly Australia should be doing to address the rise of China. He does seem to be beholden to the idea surprisingly common around Canberra that it’s worth going to war with China to prevent China becoming the dominant power in East Asia.”

Blaxland says much “skulduggery” is going on behind the scenes, and the two-week delay in announcing a Foreign Affairs replacement suggests that’s the case. This week we learned that Kathryn Campbell, secretary of Social Services and a major-general in the Army Reserve, will be the new head. The appointment ended one line of speculation: that Defence’s current secretary, Greg Moriarty, could be moved to Foreign Affairs, opening up that position for Dutton’s secretary at Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo. A former Defence employee with a dark view of world affairs, Pezzullo wrote the 2009 defence white paper that urged the doubling of the navy’s submarine force, which has since been adopted.

But Pezzullo might still have an avenue if and when the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, retires. Moriarty might be persuaded to move into that job, or Pezzullo could take it — “In which case he will be a good ally for Dutton,” says Blaxland.

Campbell’s appointment meanwhile extends a security-minded view across Canberra, and might worry those calling for more investment in diplomacy and aid. She has a technical background, and her Army Reserve specialisation was in signals. Apart from a short assignment in the Middle East as deputy commander of Australia’s task force in 2016, her career seems to have included no foreign postings.

If he does eventually get Pezzullo, Dutton will have a departmental head likely to encourage his questioning of the status quo. “He may well feel he’d really prefer to have his trusted old hand Mike Pezzullo by his side,” says Blaxland.

But Moriarty is said to be keen to stay in the job, and Blaxland sees advantages for Dutton in that. “In Greg Moriarty he’s got an extremely capable manager of the defence business,” Blaxland says, noting Moriarty’s experience as ambassador to Iran and Indonesia and as peacemaking envoy in Bougainville and the Solomons. “He has a pretty sophisticated understanding of where Australia fits in the great power equation.”

Moriarty is also “adept at playing the bureaucratic game,” says Blaxland. “My sense is that Greg Moriarty will capitalise on Dutton’s dynamism and drive, and also moderate possible excesses, if Dutton allows him to moderate them. It depends on whether Dutton trusts him enough.”

Hugh White also returns to the question of judgement and balance. “It’s easy to see that Dutton is in some ways a more powerful figure, a more formidable figure than almost any other of his cabinet colleagues,” he says, “but we don’t really have any idea of how bright he is, how effective he is.”

Although Home Affairs is an “administrative behemoth,” White goes on, “it’s hard to point out an actual policy question on which Dutton has done anything other than hang tough. And hanging tough has its place but it’s not the whole of good policy. Dutton has set himself up for a test, and I think it’s perfectly likely — notwithstanding he’s more formidable than any of his predecessors for a very long time — he will stick in the portfolio for a while, and in the end he will leave with the place still in a shambles.”

But perhaps Dutton will be hoping to move onwards and upwards before that becomes a possibility.

“Once upon a time Defence used to be a bit of a political backwater, but it’s becoming more and more a pivotal agency on the national stage,” says Blaxland. “We’ve seen that not just with the Covid vaccine rollout and taskforce, but with the prospects of great power conflict looming, increased investment in the defence industry, additional expansion and muscling up of the defence force. Dutton is seeing this as a strong base for potential future ambitions.” •