Peter Dutton failed as health minister, was typecast as home affairs minister, but in the defence portfolio he is already making his mark.
Defence is similar to Mr Dutton’s former portfolio of home affairs, in terms of protecting Australia and her international trade from external threats. But it is the macro to the home affairs micro. Defence policy and administration, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, is about geopolitics; military and political strategy; getting the balance of force right to deter and repel threats; and ensuring those who put their lives on the line for Queen and country are treated with respect, and that the vapid Americanism ‘thank you for your service’ actually means something.
To be successful, however, a defence minister needs to be personally tough enough to win the respect of the serving officers and other ranks who make up the Australian Defence Force. He needs to cut through the mountain of red tape that is the Russell Hill defence headquarters in Canberra. He needs to ensure he is not captured or snowed by the defence department leadership and inter-service rivalry, especially the uniformed top brass who tend to treat ministers like errand boys, sent to cabinet to win them the billions to fund their pet procurement projects with minimal public justification. And he needs to retain the confidence of our allies, and be feared by our potential adversaries.
Most defence ministers come away failures. It is not for nothing that Defence is seen as a terminus of ministerial careers.
Yet Mr Dutton is moving rapidly to repair the fractured relationship between ADF members and the government. Two big Morrison government announcements this week would not have happened without his strong personal leadership: the decision to reverse the Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell’s, disgraceful decision to strip unit citations from over 3,000 special forces personnel because the Brereton inquiry found evidence of possible war crimes by a handful of them; and the decision to announce a royal commission into veterans’ suicide.
On the first, Mr Dutton rightly pointed out that it is wrong to tar all special forces soldiers with a brush of shame deserved by only a very few. The stripping of unit citations, even though paused by order of the Prime Minister, was a body blow to the morale of not just special forces soldiers but to the whole ADF community. It harked back to the Vietnam years when, for too long, we as a society deliberately shamed and shunned veterans of that conflict. Thanks to Mr Dutton, the ADF can stand taller again.
The royal commission is outside his direct portfolio, but there is no way it would have happened without Mr Dutton’s strong support. The effects of the Afghanistan deployment on the men and women who served there, as well as Vietnam, Iraq and other previous conflicts, need to be better understood, and those who have suffered can share their stories so the rest of us can better comprehend the horrors of war.
It may be traumatic, and implementing any recommendations costly, but if we send the cream of our youth to die on some foreign field, or to return home physically or mentally damaged, we owe them our support, understanding and respect. Establishing the royal commission recognises this.
So well done Peter Dutton. If he can continue as he has started, Mr Dutton may yet be that rarest of things: a defence minister whose post-defence career continues to prosper.
Terry Barnes edits The Spectator Australia’s daily newsletter, the Morning Double Shot. You can sign up for your Morning Double Shot of news and comment here.
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