Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 38

Chris Coulthard-Clark, Breaking free: transforming Australia’s defence industry, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 1999, xvi + 288 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index, hardback, $25 (copies available from Secretary, Corporate Communications, ADI Limited, Garden Island NSW 2011, or email orders:

Reviewed by: BARRY PRICE, Canberra*

Chris Coulthard-Clark’s book on the Australian defence manufacturing industry can be considered in three parts.

The first part outlines a century of the defence industry from the creation of the Colonial Ammunition Company in 1888, which followed the withdrawal of British troops in 1870, leaving the colonies to provide for their own security. Defence needs were prominent on the agenda of the Federal Council of Australia in 1883, at an early stage in the Federation movement. At first, the industry was “best run at arm's length from government control”. But the First World War brought greater government involvement. The demise of the Colonial Ammunition Company in 1926 closed “this unique example of direct private participation in defence production”.

The interest of governments waxed and waned. One example was the abortive planning for an arsenal at Tuggeranong. Similarly, governments oscillated between importing armaments and developing self-reliance, usually according to perceived threats to Australian security. However, Australia was relatively well-prepared for defence production, under Essington Lewis, during the Second World War. After 1945, the brakes were again alternately applied and released. When Defence budgets contracted, factories such as that at Lithgow either reduced staff or sought civilian contracts – for example, producing handcuffs and shearing hand-pieces. But “by the end of the 1970s, Australia's defence industry had degenerated from the relative high-point attained during the Second World War to a quite parlous state”, with taxpayer subsidies and low productivity.

The second part is a case study of defence production from corporatisation in 1989, as the Australian Defence Industries or ADI, to privatisation in 1999. The movement from a public service model in the early 1990s, with issues such as managing a diverse range of factories and a new relationship with the Department of Defence, is skillfully analysed. Ken Harris as Managing Director was a key figure. A close associate said that he avoided bureaucratic debate: “If we became involved in consultation, and set up committees or whatever, then nothing would ever happen because everybody’s view would be taken into consideration.”

In the early 1990s, work practices were changed, new products and services – both for Defence and private customers – were developed, and the business was restructured. For example, munitions factories at Maribyrnong and Footscray in Melbourne, and St Marys in Sydney, were closed and replaced by a new modern factory near Benalla in rural Victoria. A billion dollar contract for minehunter ships “was the big break which the company needed to establish itself as a major player on the international defence scene”. By 1994, ADI was paying a dividend; employee productivity had tripled, albeit at a heavy cost in job numbers. “The transformation of the moribund defence factories into a vibrant – and profitable – enterprise in such a short period was little short of amazing.” This progress was slowed down by the preparation for privatisation. Ownership passed in August 1999 to Transfield-Thomson. “The risky experiment undertaken little more than a decade ago with ADI's creation must be judged a resounding success.”

Divorced from the narrative in a third part, on unnumbered pages, are three groupings of black-and-white photographs. The extensive captioning under each almost serves as an executive summary for the other two parts. But this third part is poorly integrated, with virtually no attempt to link illustrations with the narrative and analysis of the other two parts.

The first part provides a lucid narrative with some analysis of trends and themes. But Coulthard-Clark’s enthusiasm for his subject is most evident in the second part, in which he provides insights into bureaucratic politics of the 1980s and 1990s. He states in the preface that ADI commissioned the history from him as a consultant, not as an employee, and “what was asked for was a ‘warts and all’ recording of the company’s origins and progress”. His access to recent documents, usually locked in archives, and his interviews with participants, enliven his account. But a query remains about whether he has managed to be detached and whether a later historian will find more warts.

There are extensive end notes, a detailed bibliography, statistical graphs and a useful index (although “Maribyrnong” is missing). Its appeal is likely to be for those interested in bureaucratic and military history rather than to a wider public. In the author’s words, it is “a study of a problem and its solution, rather than of people and establishments”.

* This review was first published in Canberra Historical Journal, September 2000.