David Johnston main casualty in reshuffle.

There have been worse performers in the first Abbott Ministry than David Johnston and his replacement by Kevin Andrews is likely to see the Defence reform process stall – at least for a while.

22nd Dec 2014


David Johnston main casualty in reshuffle.


There have been worse performers in the first Abbott Ministry than David Johnston and his replacement by Kevin Andrews is likely to see the Defence reform process stall – at least for a while. Defence is an enormous, complex portfolio and has competing priorities that can be dazzling and distracting: current operations, especially in the Middle East; international partners to deal with; a huge budget and acquisition projects that have a tendency to go awry; alliance meetings to attend; a great deal of protocol and formality – and a lot more on top of that.

The likeable David Johnston at least came to the job with a great deal of background knowledge and by virtue of having been a shadow Minister was also familiar with many of the people who subsequently reported to him.

Kevin Andrews is a social conservative – something that might appeal at a personal level to many in uniform – though his knowledge of portfolio matters seems to be scant. It is this lack of familiarity with Defence matters that is unfortunate at this moment: a White Paper is being written; a First Principles review of the structure of the Department is underway; and progress on matters such as fixing the Air Warfare Destroyer program and sorting out SEA 1000 are all high priority issues. A new Minister, particularly one without a relevant background, is going to need time – and a lot of it – to come up to speed.

David Johnston was enormously enthusiastic about his portfolio – a comparative rarity in any Government. Unfortunately he never seemed to receive the unqualified support of the Prime Minister, who had the habit of jumping in whenever it suited him, such as by announcing Australia would acquire 'Triton' uninhabited aerial systems just two days before the South Australian state election.

There is nothing wrong with acquiring Tritons – on the contrary, the commitment should have been made years ago – but it should at the very least been a joint announcement and not done by the PM as a transparent stunt to hold up the sliding Liberal vote in Adelaide. But worse was to come: Scott Morrison being continually lauded for protecting Australia's borders, when since Federation this has been the responsibility of Defence; the bizarre, potentially disastrous and still completely opaque Prime Ministerial push for a Japanese submarine; the counterproductive decision to put Finance Minister Cormann in charge of the AWD "reform" process – and undoubtedly other things that have never seen the light of day. As well as being undermined by the Prime Minister, he had a less than effective deputy in the form of Stuart Robert, who was probably hoping to get the Defence portfolio himself.

Probably his greatest single achievement was securing an increase in Defence spending in the last budget amidst a large number of painful cuts. This started to reverse the enormous damage caused by Labor - particularly in their second term - and permitted the vital decision to procure an additional 58 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to take place, rather than being further delayed or being the subject of another partial buy.

These very important developments seem to be overlooked in an age when it is still the trivia of politics that seems to dominate. If the minister had simply added on two words to his comment about Government–owned ASC and said he would not trust them to build a canoe "on budget" he would have been completely in the clear.

Another positive of David Johnston's time running Defence was that he tried to be open and accessible – an admirable quality and one not displayed by many of his colleagues. He remained committed to the desperately needed structural reform of the Department and was determined to tackle the inefficiency of the Defence Materiel Organisation.

Whether any reforms now do take place are open to doubt, with the possibility that everything will just fizzle out. The great weapon of cynical bureaucrats is time – and if Defence themselves decide to go slow on changes for greater efficiencies it will be a very long time before their new Minister is in a position to revitalise that process.David Johnston main casualty in reshuffle.


There have been worse performers in the first Abbott Ministry than David Johnston and his replacement by Kevin Andrews is likely to see the Defence reform process stall – at least for a while. Defence is an enormous, complex portfolio and has competing priorities that can be dazzling and distracting: current operations, especially in the Middle East; international partners to deal with; a huge budget and acquisition projects that have a tendency to go awry; alliance meetings to attend; a great deal of protocol and formality – and a lot more on top of that.

The likeable David Johnston at least came to the job with a great deal of background knowledge and by virtue of having been a shadow Minister was also familiar with many of the people who subsequently reported to him.

Kevin Andrews is a social conservative – something that might appeal at a personal level to many in uniform – though his knowledge of portfolio matters seems to be scant. It is this lack of familiarity with Defence matters that is unfortunate at this moment: a White Paper is being written; a First Principles review of the structure of the Department is underway; and progress on matters such as fixing the Air Warfare Destroyer program and sorting out SEA 1000 are all high priority matters. A new Minister, particularly one without a relevant background, is going to need time – and a lot of it – to come up to speed.

David Johnston was enormously enthusiastic about his portfolio – a comparative rarity in any Government. Unfortunately he never seemed to receive the unqualified support of the Prime Minister, who had the habit of jumping into the portfolio whenever it suited him, such as by announcing Australia would acquire 'Triton' uninhabited aerial systems just two days before the South Australian state election.

There is nothing wrong with acquiring Tritons – on the contrary, the commitment should have been made years ago – but it should at the very least been a joint announcement and not done by the PM as a transparent stunt to hold up the sliding Liberal vote in Adelaide. But worse was to come: Scott Morrison being continually lauded for protecting Australia's borders, when since Federation this has been the responsibility of Defence; the bizarre, potentially disastrous and still completely opaque Prime Ministerial push for a Japanese submarine; the counterproductive decision to put Finance Minister Cormann in charge of the AWD "reform" process – and undoubtedly other things that have never seen the light of day. As well as being undermined by the Prime Minister, he had a less than effective deputy in the form of Stuart Robert, who was probably hoping to get the Defence portfolio himself.

Probably his greatest single achievement was securing an increase in Defence spending in the last budget amidst a large number of painful cuts. This started to reverse the enormous damage caused by Labor - particularly in their second term - and permitted the vital decision to procure an additional 58 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to take place, rather than being further delayed or being the subject of another partial buy.

These very important developments seem to be overlooked in an age when it is still the trivia of politics that seems to dominate. If the minister had simply added on two words to his comment about Government–owned ASC and said he would not trust them to build a canoe "on budget" he would have been completely in the clear.

Another positive of David Johnston's time running Defence was that he tried to be open and accessible – an admirable quality and one not displayed by many of his colleagues. He remained committed to the desperately needed structural reform of the Department and was determined to tackle the inefficiency of the Defence Materiel Organisation.

Whether any reforms now do take place are open to doubt, with the possibility that everything will just fizzle out. The great weapon of cynical bureaucrats is time – and if Defence themselves decide to go slow on changes for greater efficiencies it will be a very long time before their new Minister is in a position to revitalise that process.

 

 

APDR at a glance