So, some thoughts on the resignation of the Defence minister.

First and foremost, ministers depend on loyal, competent staff. 

Political advisers are needed to protect the minister from the internecine warfare between factions and white-anting by ambitious colleagues. 

Media advisers are needed to protect the minister from gossip and stories that, if they take hold, can create images that are hard to dispel. 

Policy advisers are needed to ensure the minister makes sound decisions and manages his portfolio responsibly, and that the department delivers sound policy advice and implements decisions as directed.  The latter is particularly important in Defence, given the way Defence is run by government in Australia.  Those policy advisers should be civilians who are knowledgeable and credible on Defence matters, with the good policy nous and experience needed to exercise sound judgment. 

With good staffers, a poor minister can manage to get by, while poor staffers can be the undoing of good ministers.  And the minister has to be able to trust his advisers: it’s fairly clear that was not the case here:

“I have at least two or three Judas’ in my midst, and they have the drip [sic] on me,” he said.

“Sadly, I’m not able to rule out my own ministerial office.”

But Defence demands more than simple trust between staff and minister, hard though that may be to achieve.  

Defence is hard.  Ministers have to be capable intellectually of getting across a broad, complex and difficult portfolio.  They have to be able to absorb and process a huge amount of diverse material addressing complex policy problems.  They have to understand and drive the the strategic and yet handle detail.  They have to exercise good judgment in time of crisis, and have the determination and insight to question the advice they receive.

Ministers have to be tough and willing to hang civilian and military officers out to dry, if need be.  And because of that, they must have the complete confidence and support of the Prime Minister.  While I’ve no doubt that Joel Fitzgibbon is an affable chap, the Defence minister must be more than a good bloke.  

Too often ministers are captured by the department, and in particular by the military.  The military are not backwards in ensuring the new minister gets to experience all the good things about capability–the thrills of fighter aircraft, the brute strength of tanks and the romance of ships.

And too often ministers are confounded by the inertia, bureaucracy and indifference of Defence, both civilian and military.

Like finding a good Defence secretary, finding a good minister is hard.  It should not be their first portfolio, and possibly not even their first Cabinet portfolio.  Smart, capable candidates know Defence is complex, intransigent and almost certainly a career-ending poisoned chalice. 

The danger then is that the prospects who want or are available for the job are quite likely wrong for the task at hand—but often desperation means that such choices are accepted.  We need a Robert Gates.  But even then, there is the argument that Defence–and I do not mean simply the organisation, but how we think about and govern Defence–is so broken that it does not matter how brilliant the minister, they will fail.  It should not be so, of course, but that’s a topic for a later post.

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