No reason for switch of play in Defence

By Verona Burgess
Canberra Times
Sunday, 15 September 2002

WHEN the Secretary of the Department of Defence, Allan Hawke, got up to speak at a White Pages Business Series lunch in Canberra a little more than a week ago, he was in his usual frank and fearless form.

Exactly what his generally cheerful demeanour meant was the subject of some speculation among some in the audience who were aware that his three-year appointment is up on October 20.

That is little more than a month from now, and at the time of writing there had been no announcement from the Prime Minister about it.

Defence is rife with rumours on the subject, and as usual the lobbyists around town are sniffing the wind to see if there's any carrion about.

It is par for the course with this Government for Secretaries not to be given a clue as to whether they are to keep their jobs or, for that matter, get anyone else's.

One Secretary is said to have discovered he had been reappointed the day after it had happened, while another found out only by press release. Then there were the legendary public-service Christmas drinks at the Lodge last year when the election had been won but the secretaries had not yet been told what, if any, jobs they had.

So no news is not necessarily bad news, although it is a pretty rude way of managing the people you are entrusting with administrative responsibility for the nation's coffers.

Replacing Hawke just as the nation is about to go to war (again) might be considered not only bad form but bordering on carelessness.

In six years of the Howard Government, there have been four Defence ministers and three Secretaries - not exactly the sort of turnover that lends an aura of stability to the whole shebang.

Chiefs of the Australian Defence Force are appointed for three years, but they are often extended and in any case there is always a strong line of succession in the military.

Indeed, the traditional short postings at all levels in the ADF is one of the primary reasons for the serious loss of talent; it is hardly something to be emulated on the civilian side.

In the case of Hawke, there is the added question of why he should be removed from what is arguably the biggest job in the Public Service, and who should be put in his place. That's when the conversation tends to trail off.

There are a few people who might be considered, but none who stand out as an overridingly convincing preference to the hard-nosed boy from Queanbeyan.

The fact that he is also only part the way through the massive "change" program in which he has invested enormously would mean the organisation was left somewhat in the lurch if he were to leave.

No doubt it would quickly and comfortably settle back into its old entrenched patterns of buck-passing behaviour, but that could cost the Government dearly in the long (and even in the short) run.

The minister, Robert Hill, has made his irritation with Defence quite plain, and to be fair, a minister would probably have to be a saint not to be irritated after having been left holding the baby (or rather, the children overboard) by his predecessor, Peter Reith.

But even if he didn't think Hawke was up to the job, and there's no particular evidence of that, it is doubtful he could convince Howard, not to mention the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Max Moore-Wilton (who was also at the Hawke lunch in very cheerful form), that another effective sacking of a Defence Secretary would be a good idea after the Paul Barratt affair. Especially if it were the sacking of one of the smartest of the current crop of Secretaries.

People outside Canberra might be quite mystified as to why Hawke, a man of only 54 years of age with a happy family life, would want to keep on doing such a thankless task. With his contacts and knowledge, he could sit on any board of just about any company and rake in piles of money on top of his substantial public-service pension.

But it is not a serious question in this town, where power is the currency. Canberra people understand exactly why a bloke like that would want to keep the job.

Yet whether his appointment was up in the air or not would not, in Hawke's book, be a reason to hold back, and he certainly did not mince his words in the aforementioned speech. Interestingly, it was free of the management jargon with which he normally peppers his public-service speeches. But then the audience was a collection of the hardest-nosed business types in Canberra. Personal growth might not be top of their list of favourite topics.

Most newsworthy was his opinion that Defence contractors ought to front parliamentary committees to explain what had gone on in Defence contracts (silent cheers from the Senate).

He also took the chance to explain the budgetary issues that had occasioned a few headlines that week. And he had a major blast at the media, which gets up his nose from time to time with inaccurate or unbalanced reporting (none of us being above reproach on that issue).

There was a certain irony, however, because the Department of Defence is hardly in a position to lecture the media about ethics after the stuff-up and cover-up over the photos in the children-overboard affair. It is also a bit disingenuous to isolate the "SIEV X" tragedy, because the children-overboard affair contributed in large part to the suspicions of possible cover-ups in the case of "SIEV X", which is not to say that Defence hasn't copped a lot of unfair blame there.

With the Senate select committee's report due on September 25 there is still some media mileage ahead and, no doubt, a few more clashes.

Life is of course full of surprises, but the odds would not be very strong in favour of a change at the top of Defence just now.

P.S. The ACT Industrial Relations Society is having its annual general meeting and dinner tomorrow at 6pm at the Ainslie Football Club. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, will speak on Paid Maternity Leave: A Challenge for Australia. Inquiries to or phone 6282 0611.

P.P.S. Oops: The CSIRO says the answers to 50 questions on notice from Labor Senator Kim Carr are not, as we had been told, stuck in Science Minister Peter McGauran's office. They're still actually in the CSIRO, but are nearly ready.

We understand the minister is not thrilled to have been blamed. Apologies to him.


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