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Defence Minister’s Address To The Australian College Of Defence And Strategic Studies

Last updated on January 22, 2024

In a speech to the Australian College Of Defence & Strategic Studies, the Defence Minister, Peter Reith, has discussed his approach to politics and a range of issues relevant to the formulation and implementation of Australia’s defence policy.

Peter Reith, Minister for DefenceIn the speech, Reith says that “the greatest challenge future defence leadership will face in the years ahead is operating as an effective and integrated part of government.”

Reith also discusses what he calls the “misunderstanding over the relationship between the political process and the formulation of Defence or strategic policy.”

Reith discusses the roles and responsibilities of four key positions in the Australian Defence structure: the Governor-General, the Minister, the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary for Defence. He refutes the idea that the Governor-General has anything other than a ceremonial role as Commander-In-Chief.

Text of speech by Defence Minister Peter Reith to the Australian College Of Defence And Strategic Studies.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to be here. The last time I was here I was the Shadow Minister for Defence and it’s much better being the real thing. Your introduction takes me back to the early introduction to politics. I was elected in a by-election in December 1982 as it turned out that by-election preceded the 1983 general election. I won my by-election. Yesterday the House had for the first time a Member who has just won a by-election. When I won my by-election I missed the opportunity to be sworn in. The election then was held in March, I still wasn’t sworn in and I lost my seat. And people then very kindly go on and say well that I am unique in Australian politics having won a seat and not being sworn in which is true despite the fact that there were two others who were elected to the Federal Parliament and not sworn in. The difference between them and me is that they died before they had a chance to get back.

So when I say I am really pleased to be here I always, you know, it has a special meaning for me and I wish the new Labor Member good luck. It wouldn’t be much fun winning a Liberal seat a few months before a general election as by-elections tend to not be repeated in the forthcoming general election.

I place considerable importance on accepting the invitation to address you this morning. Some of those who have attended this course or its predecessors before you have moved on to assume important leadership positions in the Australian Defence Force and in Defence. Some of you I am sure in turn will be part of the leadership group.

It’s important that you have some perceptions and understanding of the Government’s approach to Defence and the many issues that make up the relationship between Defence and Government.

I have been asked to outline my vision for Defence as is so often done on these occasions. I could offer up some anodyne repetition of the official version of “an ADF that defend Australia and its interests”. I could then talk about a high tech professional force in the future; implementing the Revolution in Military Affairs and establishing the Knowledge Edge in capability. Or I could repeat other bits of what you have already read in the new White Paper.

Instead, I thought I would outline a harder edged vision about an Australian Defence Force and a Defence Organisation that have a clear and intelligent understanding of their relationship with the elected government of the day, and a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of strategic policy.

Why have I chosen this approach? For the simple reason that the greatest challenge you as the future defence leadership will face in the years ahead is operating as an effective and integrated part of government. Even in the relatively short period in which I have been Minister for Defence it has become apparent to me that two issues are central and they influence all other policy issues. The first is the confusion about the civil-military relationship which has been the subject of some public discussion recently.

The second is the misunderstanding over the relationship between the political process and the formulation of Defence or strategic policy. Apart from being important, these issues are clearly in the public arena at the moment. Not least because of recent public statements made by Dr Hawke and matters raised in the Parliament over the last weeks. When we look closely we will see that the issues of civil-military relations and Defence’s connection to the political processes are deeply and intimately connected.

Firstly, let me deal with the civil-military relationship. At the core to understanding the civil-military relationship are the roles and responsibilities of four key positions: The Governor-General, the Minister, the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary for Defence.

The legal and constitutional basis of the civil-military relationship in our system of government seems quite clear but, ironically, not well understood by the public or sections of the military. However, it is primarily the constitutional position that sets out the framework for the practical working of the civil-military relationship. The origin of most of the confusion about this issue originates in the description in S.68 of the Constitution of the Governor-General having vested in him commanding chief of Australia’s naval and military forces.

This has led some commentators and many retired and serving military officers to speculate that the Governor-General has a reserve power in relation to the Defence Force. This often leads to the misconception that the Governor-General could act independently to call out or deploy the ADF in the interests of the nation and without acting on the advice of the government of the day.

Obviously this is not a trivial matter. It is especially counterproductive in that adherence to this mistaken view leads to the conclusion that the military are some how divorced from the political processes of government. At its worst it fosters the belief that the military are a government within a government, above that grubby politics and loyal to and accountable to a higher national purpose than is somehow manifest in the Governor-General.

Sir Ninian Stephen both a High Court justice and a Governor-General has written “it seems clear that no question of any reserve power lurks within the terms of S.68 and practical considerations make it essential even were constitutional ones not also to require it, that the Governor-General should have no independent discretion conferred on him by that section.”

The practical considerations referred to by Sir Ninian include the requirement for Parliament to vote the necessary funds for any activity under S.81 and S.83 of the Constitution.

In the opinion of Sir Victor Windeyer, former High Court Justice and Major General, with respect to S.68 the Governor General “must act on the advice of a responsible minister.”

The Defence Act 1901 sets out the relationship between the Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force, the Service Chiefs and the Secretary. They exercise their powers “subject to and in accordance with any directions of the Minister.”

That is, under the direction of the Minister the CDF commands the ADF and jointly with the Secretary shares responsibility and accountability for administration of the Force.

The CDF by virtue of his command responsibilities is the Minister’s primary military adviser or adviser on military policy and with the Secretary and adviser on strategic policy. This is precisely because strategic policy is more than just preparing for and fighting wars. Strategic policy is the outcome of a complex and sophisticated weighing of a range of factors and I will come back to that subject in a moment.

The Minister is, of course, the adviser to his Cabinet colleagues on matters of Defence policy and strategic policy. The reasons I go to some length to set out the centrality of the Minister in the Constitutional and legal framework is because this is the starting point for understanding why Defence and strategic policy is intimately connected with the political process and why a vigorous and open debate on these issues is both inevitable and healthy.

Although the constitutional and legislative basis of the roles and responsibilities is clear, albeit not widely appreciated, the development of Defence or strategic policy in this framework is not as straightforward or linear as the chain of accountability might suggest. For in the final analysis, Government is accountable to the electorate at the polls for its performance in absolutely every area of policy and certainly including Defence and strategic policy.

In a more immediate sense, the Minister is accountable to the Parliament for the performance of his portfolio. Those military officers and Defence officials who labour under the misunderstanding that they are somehow not part of the normal machinery of government often feel strongly about any “politicisation” of Defence policy.

I understand this. In fact, it’s the sort of thing you hear when you go to Rotary meetings. But that’s not to say that Rotary is not interested in hearing about political matters. I can also understand some reactions to the suggestion that I have undermined the bipartisan approach to Defence policy, which has attracted some media attention. However, I must say those reactions are completely misplaced and reflects real confusion, the sort of confusion to which I have already referred.

There is a difficult but quite critical intellectual distinction to be made between having a political debate over Defence policy, on which views might diverge strongly and legitimately, and secondly, the “politicisation” of the military ie. a military that actually takes sides has political views and would see itself having a role in influencing policy. They are completely separate things but I can tell you people are completely confused about this and seem to have no understanding of what I think is…it may be a sophisticated idea but surely it can’t be all that difficult to grasp. The first, ie. having a political debate over defence policy I think is absolutely essential for the development of good policy. And the second is an anathema to our political system.

They are completely different. And you know my political opponents they say oh, he’s a great rabble-rouser, you know, this bloke he loves to have a political and public debate. And I say people in Defence ought to be absolutely delighted that people are talking about Defence. I think it’s good for Defence.

I think one of the good things in the last few years, particularly obviously with Timor, is that the public have a much greater interest in Defence issues. And why is that important? Well, I think because most people in Defence actually think Defence is terribly important, well I certainly do. And if you think it’s terribly important then we have got to have the resources for the things that we believe are important that need to be done. And in a democracy, well it’s the good old taxpayer who in the end actually has to cough up. And I can tell you the duck doesn’t like being plucked under any circumstances but if you can persuade them that it’s for a good cause then you will find community support behind what we are doing. And in the end you can not have, you can not expect community support for proposals which have not been subject to proper public scrutiny and accountability.

So I make…it’s more that I make no apology for trying to have Defence as a political issue I actually think the Government should be congratulated for trying to make it a political issue. Because it is a mark of the importance with which we treat Defence.

Political parties seek to gain election by persuading voters that their policies are better. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. What did Winston Churchill once say – democracy is the worst form of government ever devised but no-one’s thought of a better one. A rather cynical way of putting it but, of course, to a cynical electorate a quite persuasive quote.

One of the fundamental strengths of our democracy is this competition over the fitness of policy and in which the voters are the only arbiters. It is of course true of all democratic systems and of all parties that, on some occasions and at the margins, some policies are formulated or nuanced purely to attract voter support. Of course they are. You know, politicians are human, subject to human failings. But that should not put one off on understanding of the political processes and understanding of the benefits of political process in achieving national goals.

On matters of high policy party positions demonstrate and delineate basic philosophical principles. Sure, in other words, I can pick one a mile off but I can also pick, you know, a decent issue that does need public scrutiny and where there is a national interest in public debate.

And such policy positions, basic policy positions of the political parties, reflect the application of basic values and views that are held within political parties.

In Australia’s case I believe this can be seen historically over big national issues such as free trade versus protection, nationalisation versus privatisation, and in policy areas such as workplace relations, taxation, education and the role of government in the social and economic life of the nation.

Australia’s strategic policy is an area of fundamental importance to Australia’s security, to its ongoing capacity to trade and act freely as a nation, and to the current and future protection of its citizens.

By strategic policy I mean the set of basic assumptions and criteria that inform the Government’s consideration of the employment of its military capabilities in its international relations. These policy settings ultimately decide the strategic posture that a nation adopts and how military priorities are established and resources are allocated.

For example, one element of the strategic policy that has been consistently an issue politically in Australia is the balance between developing forces for the Defence of Australia and the use of Australian Forces offshore.

The politically charged emotion clinging to the pejorative terms that have peppered this debate throughout our history show that this is a genuine political issue for the Australian public. The debate has been characterised variously as Local defence versus Imperial defence;

Continental defence versus forward defence; and Defence of Australia versus regional engagement.

This is generally a subterranean policy difference in Australian politics; however, whenever important strategic issues arise it re-emerges with some force. In times of serious threat Australia has always responded by deploying significant forces to overseas theatres in the company of bigger allies.

The commitment in the first and second World Wars are the prime examples where Australia realised that it could only protect its essential strategic interests by operating off-shore. And in the post-war and Cold War eras Australia continued to protect its interests offshore through involvement in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, Confrontation and the Vietnam War.

Paradoxically, during periods when the external threat recedes and the likelihood of an invasion is low, strategic policy has tended to become obsessed with Defence of Australia and our capacity to deploy forces inevitably drops. The issue of deploying Australian Forces is always a contentious issue and complicated by other factors.

Certainly in the 1960s the stark difference between political parties on the question of deploying Australian forces overseas to resist communist aggression was symptomatic of a much deeper ideological division. But it was important that the difference between political parties on the vital issue of strategic policy be debated and explained to the Australian public; so that in the end they could be the ones to take that into consideration in the ballot box.

However, one does not have to move far beyond the rhetoric on this matter before being confronted with some very hard choices. How much should be invested in future capability and how much in current readiness? What should be the relative investment in future and current Naval, Air and Land capability?

Before arriving at the answer to these questions it is necessary to arrive at a view on current and future strategic risk, developments in military technology and capability in the region and among allies.

No-one is saying that the answers to these questions are easy or immutable. The strategic environment can change quickly as the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites and the regional currency crisis more recently have demonstrated dramatically.

Government must continue to reassess the strategic risk facing the country and the adjustments that need to be made to policy settings regarding military readiness.

The voters can be trusted to make a sound judgement on the appropriateness of the contending strategic policy assessments of the political parties.

The long period in office of the Menzies government from 1949 to1966 saw consistent public support for a strategic policy that “shifted decisively from preparations for conventional war in the Middle East to limited war and counter revolutionary operations in South East Asia.”

Moreover, even in the extreme circumstances of a World War, during conflict the rest of government business continues. Industry and agriculture, health care and education they will all still be defencing, whatever is the circumstance, they will all still be competing with Defence for scarce budget dollars.

Government will need to make difficult political judgements about the level of resources that can be allocated to Defence. And it will require all of the capacity of Cabinet and the other portfolios to marshal and to coordinate the national contribution.

The process involved in putting together the recently published White paper gives some indication of the realities of a government in putting together a strategic policy. It involved a very comprehensive community consultation process. The first of its kind for the preparation of such a document. Going back to the comments I made earlier I think that was a simple but very important part of the process in building community support for what is being done.

It certainly involved long and detailed negotiation and dialogue between officials from the portfolios of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Treasury, Finance, Office of National Assessments and Prime Minister & Cabinet to develop the advice to be put to government on the strategic assessment, the strategic options, the investment priorities and the costs and resource allocation.

I should also say obviously at the centre of this process was the National Security Committee of the Cabinet which has been, I think, a very sensible innovation in Defence in the structures of government to ensure a coordinated approach.

Throughout this process Government was continually consulted and guidance sought or contentious issues resolved. In the end the final draft was reviewed and agreed by full cabinet. By all accounts the Defence officials involved in negotiating the recent White Paper showed highly developed political skills and a strong working knowledge of the processes in which they had to operate.

Next time maybe that task will fall to some of those of you who are here today and I hope that you are able to make the professional contribution that was made by those last year.

I assume you will have not missed the fact that despite an initial appearance of political bi-partisanship over the new White Paper, the lingering subterranean issues surrounding the fortress Australia versus the capacity to deploy beyond our shores has emerged again,

I obviously have strong a view on which is the correct policy position for our current circumstances.

The distinctions between political parties go beyond simply military policy issues – they go to the heart of the different visions for Australia that flow from the political philosophies, the different ways in which they perceive the Australian and international environments and their approaches to securing Australia’s interests.

But this is rightly a subject again for public debate and resolution at the ballot box. Even my opponent Dr Stephen Martin, the Shadow Minister, has said on this general subject of bipartisan policy, “I believe that there may be significant differences arising between both sides of politics with regards to defence as we start preparing for the next election … it is time to have the real debate. I am interested in fostering such a debate and strong and open discussion on the issue of exactly what we want from our Defence Force and what capabilities this requires.”

Obviously I could hardly agree more! And in fact I was delighted that after he thought he had a good Question Time yesterday he spoke to Michelle Grattan last night and confirmed what I have been saying for three weeks which is that the Labor Party has a plan for some additional submarines. By all means let’s have a public debate about it and he will, of course, I am sure, quickly forgive me for saying if that’s his policy position which he has revealed to Michelle Grattan then I think he should tell us how he’s going to pay for it. And I am interested to know how he’s going to pay for it. One, because I intend telling the taxpayer if it means something on them and, two, obviously Defence is pretty interested if it means not proceeding with some capability already announced in the White Paper.

In conclusion, no-one should be disappointed that it’s not the Governor General but the Government of the day that directs the ADF and to which the ADF is accountable.

The fact that governments are elected on the basis of their policy platform and put to the voters is not only the best way to run a country, the elected status of the Minister and his accountability to the people through the parliament and the ballot box is the driver, in my view, of good policy.

The reality of Governments is that dividing up the budget pie in peacetime is of necessity done in a whole-of-government process and the spending patterns of government will influence voters. In that environment it will be up to people like you to develop the skills to explain your professional judgements on strategic issues to politicians.

So you need to understand the political process, and you need to develop the negotiation and liaison skills to argue your priorities with other portfolios. It’s all hard work and you will only do it effectively if you have an intimate understanding about the connection between the civil-military relationship, the political process and the strategic policy development.

As a professional politician you won’t be surprised that my view of politics is that politics ultimately is an important professional following or career which requires people to be professional in their approach. Of course, that is an objective, not always the practical outcome of the process. But it needs to be understood that whilst we politicians are described as devious and we often hear that politics is a grubby business and that those who have higher national objectives don’t wish to see their hands too dirty as a result of its involvement. The fact of the matter is, we do have a process and for all its imperfections it’s in my view, to use those words of Churchill, the best process yet devised. And what we need to do in a civil society like Australia is to understand how that process works and ensure that we get the best policy outcomes in the national interest from it.

It is, of course, as I talk about Australian politics and the civil-military relationship it is of course entirely true to say that this understanding between the military and the civil authority is absolutely essential regardless of one’s political system, regardless of the circumstances. The essential message that I am attempting to put across this morning is to say that it’s an understanding of the context, it’s an understanding of the perspective regardless of the nature of the organisation, the political organisation with which you are dealing which is absolutely essential in achieving reforms, in achieving reforms whether they be of an acquisition sort, changes to fore structure or otherwise.

So, ladies and gentlemen, again thank you for the opportunity to be here. I do value, as I say, the opportunity to be with you and I wish you well for the balance of your course. Thank you very much.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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