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Time for Marles to steer HMAS Defence

The announcement by Defence Minister Richard Marles to restructure Navy’s surface fleet — by integrating two dozen or more major surface combatants and investing in a larger and more lethal Australian Navy — barely scratches the surface.

Simply put, these measures will not suffice for our strategic needs by 2030, let alone 2035. We should not be surprised, as this decision echoes a persistent trend within Defence: to provide fragmented remedies to complex and ever-evolving threats, notably from China.

What was needed was for Marles to boldly go where no defence minister before him has gone, charting a new course to confront these challenges head on.

And as he grapples with the formidable task of navigating the shifting and dynamic security landscape, reports of friction with military leadership are adding a further layer of complexity to his tenure.

Despite these formidable obstacles, Marles is on the brink of achieving a significant milestone on April 15: surpassing the average tenure of 683 days in the role.

Since 1901, Australia has had 58 defence ministers, with WA senator Sir George Pearce holding the record for the longest tenure at nearly 14 years — three stints between 1908 and 1921.

The Abbott, Turnbull, and Morrison governments saw six defence ministers, echoing the Howard era, driven by political tumult and the challenges of managing national security and defence budgets.

The current skirmishes between Marles and his department — reportedly over his private comments regarding underperformance directed at his Secretary and Chief of Defence, as well as funding and requests for new ordnance — increasingly highlight the importance of adept political navigation.

Looking back at the legacy of Pearce could offer Marles valuable insights for navigating choppy seas.

Pearce’s biographer, John O’Connor, shed light on the long-standing minister’s pivotal role in founding key defence institutions, including the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Military College, Duntroon. His era was characterised by a governance system that relegated public servants to minor roles, placing the onus on ministers to spearhead policy development and departmental management.

However, his reluctance to delegate or overhaul departmental practices led to significant mismanagement and lost opportunities for creating a system to provide ministers with better policy advice.

He strategically aligned his defence initiatives with broader government policies — a strategy later mirrored by the Howard government with the announcement of the over-the-horizon radar network, touted as beneficial for both national interest and industry growth.

Far from being a mere ministerial rubber stamp, Pearce would often overrule his generals on critical matters. However, his effectiveness as an administrator was hindered, partly due to the daunting size and complexity of the defence organisation. His aversion to criticism did not help him, either.

Reflecting on the historical context provided by his biographer, it becomes evident how the roles and responsibilities of defence ministers have evolved over time. Pearce’s leadership era, with its distinct approach to governance and policy development, contrasts sharply with the modern defence landscape that Marles navigates today.

As the first Labor defence minister after almost a decade in the political wilderness, he inherits a role that has seen dramatic shifts in both global security challenges and governance structures (a new position of Deputy Secretary with responsibility for governance was created last month).

Armed with insights as shadow minister and guided by his mentor, Labor stalwart Kim Beazley, Marles must address the critics of his performance if he wishes to remain in the portfolio.

Beazley’s advice no doubt would steer Marles towards a steely focus of no more than three to five critical policy areas leading up to the next federal election. Moreover, the appointment of a new Chief of Defence Force stands as a critical decision for Marles. Could Defence see its first female chief?

Reflecting on the leadership styles of Peter Reith and Brendan Nelson during the Howard government is also instructive.

Reith broke with tradition by declining the customary ‘blue book’ and instead outlined his own agenda for the service chiefs. This bold move highlighted his political savvy and the critical role of ministerial leadership in influencing defence operations.

Nelson’s introduction to the Defence Ministry was stark. His formidable departmental secretary, Ric Smith, candidly warned, ‘Minister, the only thing I can guarantee you is … we will let you down,’ a prophecy that materialised within his first week.

Marles’ fixation with correcting typos using a red pen must stop. This excessive attention to minor mistakes — raising questions about his staff’s effectiveness — is leading to operational hold-ups, decreased efficiency, delayed decision making and leaks.

While it is one thing to come into office and hit the ground reviewing (surface fleet review, base closures, strategic review, investment plan, AUKUS) it is another to get on with governing.

The sight of ministerial briefs stacked from floor to ceiling in ministers’ bathrooms is a legend within the halls of Parliament House. In January 2007, upon assuming the immigration portfolio, Kevin Andrews set out to clear hundreds of overdue briefs left by his predecessor by Easter — a target he achieved by working nights and weekends with support from his department secretary.

Australia’s defence graveyard is filled with ambitious people endeavouring to navigate the complex intricacies of the Defence portfolio.

Sir John Jensen, a former secretary of the Department of Munitions, quipped almost 60 years ago that Defence has invariably been a challenging department since its inception.

This sentiment is echoed in Nelson’s memoir, where he states: ‘Defence remains the hardest job I have had,’ highlighting the formidable challenges that come with the role.

With Marles all at sea, gleaning lessons from his predecessors charts a route for modern leadership. The regular drumbeat of defence policy failures in the parliament and media: the mishandling of the Taipan helicopters, the departure of ADF personnel (and trouble recruiting young people), and Marles’ inability to secure additional funding for Defence, highlight a broader issue: nothing he has done is producing positive results.

Should he fail to heed the clarion call to ‘steer the ship’, it is likely others might step in to take the helm.

Andrew Blyth is the John Howard Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies