Friday, September 19, 2014


THIS column isn't interesting, but it is important. Perhaps more surprisingly, it's based on an original thought.

It's about the need to keep the Services vibrant.

It shouldn't be a job for life

Becoming an officer in the military is still one of the few careers to which you're expected to make a life-long commitment.

As I said in this piece in Saturday's Canberra Times, I don't think that works for either the services or the individuals . . .


Duncan Lewis will be bringing a broad range of skills to his job as the new head of ASIO. He’ll need to. The raids on Thursday have conclusively demonstrated some of the most dangerous threats we face are not the old, simple conventional enemies of the past. This means we, as a society, have to keep up.  We have to find people who can combat these new threats and there is a way to do it – but this requires breaking down our old institutional model to become agile and move as fast as our new enemies. Take Lewis’ career.

After joining the infantry when he left Duntroon he served in (and commanded) the SAS before a posting as attaché in Jakarta; a brigadier in East Timor; then, finally, commanding Special Forces. But it was at exactly this point, when he could have continued sitting comfortably on the career ladder at Russell, waiting for promotion, that he took control of his life and sent it shooting off in another direction. He worked in PM&C, became Kevin Rudd’s National Security Advisor, then owned one of the two most coveted car parking spaces in Defence (as Departmental Secretary), before heading off to Brussels as ambassador. Now he’s head of ASIO. A good career; an interesting life; and, more importantly, a wide range of experiences providing the flexibility to think outside the straight-jacket of convention.  

He could, of course, have stayed in the military – in which case he would have ended up competing with his former Duntroon classmate David Hurley for the top job and might instead be contemplating retirement to a Government House somewhere around the country.

Lewis is by no means the only ex-officer who’s gone on to a stellar career outside the services. Look at politics. Federally, there’s Assistant Defence Minister Stuart Robert, former Minister Mal Brough. From Tasmania alone there’s independent Andrew Wilkie, up-and-comer Andrew Nikolic. The Liberal’s latest recruit, WA Senator Linda Reynolds will soon join them. In that state, former SAS officer Peter Tinley proves the conservatives don’t have any mortgage over the military (as did Mike Kelly here in Eden Monaro). These people all excelled in the services before moving on. Perhaps we need to envisage time in uniform as very much just a first career, rather than a job-for-life.

There’s also Queensland’s Premier Campbell Newman . . . well, perhaps best not to go any further down that particular path. At least we can safely ignore Jacquie Lambie – she never received a commission.

The point is that all the services inculcate skills and vibrancy. Yet this is not seen within defence, particularly at the upper echelons of the hierarchy. There are exceptions – but senior officers aren’t normally promoted for being unusual, let alone eccentric. Any institution encourages its people to ‘get with the game plan’, drink the cool-aid, and accept the dominant paradigm.

This is a problem.

Firstly (and most obviously) armed forces are extremely hierarchical. It used to be that we went from loads of lieutenants to a couple of colonels to ‘ardly any admirals. Lately, however, we’ve been creating jobs at the top left, right and centre. The national commission of audit pointed out that since 2000 the number of top, star-ranked officers has grown by 58 percent, from 120 to 190. Since 1996 the number of three stars is up from four to seven. Needless to say, we haven’t doubled our combat strength and this swallows up the dollars. There’s no evidence our defence is twice as good or those we’re promoting today are vastly better than their predecessors. The services are out of control.

Another negative issue is that this expansion entrenches conformity. Because people can have a reasonable expectation of promotion as long as they keep their nose clean, risk-taking behaviour isn’t encouraged. Young officers are encouraged to display initiative. This dies during the long crawl to the top, after commanding a battalion, ship or squadron. That’s the wrong way round.

It’s this role – the unit command position – that should be the ultimate aim of every officer. Instead, and unfortunately, everyone’s encouraged to aspire for higher promotion at the very time their age, skills and attributes are ideally placed to allow them to make a successful transition to civilian life. Dangling the prospect of promotion prevents people making the risky leap to work where their skills can be used effectively.

Defence Minister David Johnston’s come from the real world, but he’s being bamboozled. The services are telling him they expect to remain structurally untouched at a time of dramatic change in the rest of society. Doing this means the services will continue swallowing an increasing amount of money at a time it’s urgently needed for other tasks and to combat new threats. The commission of audit didn’t ask the most critical question in Defence: are we paying for this job to be done by a person in uniform when we don’t need too.

We’d do better to measure the Minister’s ability by how effectively he can change the structure, reduce the top brass and encouraging the best to have second, vibrant careers. Like Lewis.

1 comment:

  1. Bracket creep and gentrification are now infesting the ADF. As rank designation is no longer determined by the numbers of people under command but rather the significance of the position or delegated authority, artificial senior ranks are created on paper. Effectively this means that project directors and senior managers in uniform are being given military titles equivalent to civilian executive positions (ie LT COL, COL, BRIG).