Armed and dangerous

Armed and dangerous

The National Department of Defence has now joined Immigration and Trade and Foreign Affairs on the dysfunctional list.

As our politically compromised public service lurches from one public relations disaster to another, those responsible for the most basic national concern of all have been revealed as Canberras answer to the Keystone Cops.

Apart from waste and mismanagement on a breathtaking scale and an endemic disregard for the rights of its employees, the Department of Defence is now apparently incapable of tying its own shoelaces without the help of independent consultants. The farcical saga of Private Jacob Kovco can now be seen as symbolic of the chaos in which the Russell Hill behemoth finds itself.

The defence conglomerate is at least partly a victim of its own size: with hindsight it can be argued that the amalgamation of army, navy, air and supply in 1973 created a monster which was always going to be too big for just one minister to control. It can also be argued that the department has never quite recovered from the humiliation of Vietnam; the years that followed were lean ones, and now that the funds have once again started to flow, they are being squandered in an ill-judged attempt at catch up.

But even John Howard cannot blame all todays problems on decisions taken more than 30 years ago. His own role in the debacle has been considerable.

Young men and women join the Australian Defence Forces for a variety of reasons: sheer patriotism, a desire for excitement and adventure, the hope that they will gain a trade and other credentials for later life, or simply because no other secure career is available to them. But whether their motives are idealistic or pragmatic, they are entitled to believe that their job will have something to do with the purpose spelled out in the name of their employer: that they will be involved in the defence of Australia.

This need not mean that they will be constantly repelling invading armies from our beaches; there are other less direct ways of working for the countrys security. The ADFs peacekeeping roles in East Timor and the Solomon Islands were honourable actions carried out with competence and aplomb. Others, however, have been less justifiable, and have had a lot more to do with party politics than defence.

The troops must by now be wondering just what they are doing in Iraq, as by the end they were wondering what they were doing in Vietnam. They were deeply unhappy about being forced to take up the role of border protection: those in the RAN in particular complained that they had not joined the navy to fight starving families in leaky fishing boats.

The children overboard lie was seen as a blatant example of the ADF being used as a propaganda tool rather than an independent force. It was noted that officers who played the governments game were promoted and even feted while those who sought to stay away from politics missed out. And those who, like Colonel Lance Collins or Mike Scrafton, went public about their misgivings had their reputations ruthlessly trashed by their political masters.

A particularly low point came in 2004 when the Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty made the commonsense observation that Australias participation in the invasion of Iraq increased the likelihood of our becoming a terrorist target; the Prime Minister himself called in the chief of the ADF, General Peter Cosgrove, to trot out the government line contradicting him. Such was is the politicisation of our armed forces and it goes right to the top.

Obviously, the perception that the troops are there primarily to work for the re-election of the Howard Government rather than to protect the country that their most important role is as a backdrop for the Prime Ministers photo opportunities is not exactly good for morale. As with the civilian public service, the prevailing attitude for those resisting the temptation to suck up to the minister becomes one of fear of being seen as a disruptive influence: the regime becomes one of keep your head down, get through your job and above all guard your arse.

With an atmosphere of every man for himself, the system inevitably breaks down and, in a department as huge as defence, by the time the breakages become obvious they are often beyond repair. The new minister, Brendan Nelson, is already finding out why so few of his predecessors have survived the portfolio.

So The Master Media Mogul has spoken, and John Howards future is now determined. Or perhaps not.

As with the great oracles of the past, The Masters pronouncements sometimes require clarification. When Rupert Murdoch told the ABC that while he personally would like to see Howard stay on as Prime Minister but that he thought Howard should really go out while hes on top, this was seen by most as a confirmation of Piers Akermans line last week that Howard was preparing for an elegant departure.

Akerman, after all, is in the loop; his somewhat kinky devotion to Howard is surpassed only by his unstinting love for The Master. The High Priest had spoken; the verdict was in. Peter Costello certainly saw it that way. Pausing only to cream his undies, he launched into a hymn of praise for The Masters omniscience and went home to pack his bags for the Lodge.

But then another Howard hugger and Masters minion, Dennis Shanahan, surfaced to provide clarification of the clarification. The Master had not been in oracular mode; he was merely stating the obvious. How could anyone believe it was some kind of conspiracy?

Well, pretty bloody easily, given the track record of those involved. However, well take Shanahans (or rather The Masters) word for it that this time it was just a stuff up albeit one that demonstrated the awe The Master inspires among politicians and voters alike, not to mention his grovelling employees.


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