2017 Chief of Airforce Symposium - political perspective

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The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO

You don’t realise what you are learning in life when you are learning it.

The most significant thoughts that have challenged, shaped and transformed my own thinking have come in random moments of quiet revelation.

The power is in the story.

I have had two extraordinarily important roles in my life for which there was no formal training – parenthood and politics. It was all ‘on the job’. As is so often the case, you make mistakes.

I have been to Washington many times over the past twenty years.

Without fail, there are two places I always visit so that I might never lose sight of what is most important.

The first is the Jefferson Memorial.

His nation’s first Secretary of the State and third president, Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the American Declaration of Independence.

I look up to those words etched in marble:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,
that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men.

The second place I visit is the Holocaust Museum. I do so to remind me of the consequences of the most obscene corruption of government and the devastating consequences to humanity.

I am a medical graduate – a doctor by training. A general practitioner, I took on leadership of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) at a young age. As its national president in the early nineties, I would bemoan the fact we could not get a health minister who actually knew anything about health. Instead we saw a passing parade of people of varying intellectual and other qualities ‘learning on the job’.

What I learned is that it is not the Minister’s role to be an expert.

When applying for the Directorship of the Australian War Memorial, one person heavily involved in the process and clearly unimpressed with my candidacy asked, “Dr Nelson, do you know much about museums?”

I replied that I did not.

He further asked if I had ever run a museum. “No”, I replied, although I had visited a few.

He then said, “Well by your own admission, why on earth would we appoint you to run the Australian War Memorial?”

I told him that if it was an expert they wanted, I was not the person for the job. However, as I understood it, more than 300 people worked at the Memorial – all experts having forgotten more than I will ever know.

I further said, “If you want an expert, I am not the person for this job. However, I have learned something about experts – they tend to see the world through a straw. I have been in this positon before, being appointed to something about which I know very little. As I understand it, my role will be to not only manage the institution, but more importantly to lead and be an ambassador for it. The key task is to apply intellectual rigour to the process of exercising judgement on behalf of the institution and the nation it serves, drawing on all the expertise both within it and outside it”.

This is precisely how I saw my role as a minister.

Irrespective of their political affiliations, most go into politics to make a difference – to their community and the nation.

Governments firstly have to form through the process of election, constantly trading off what is popular against what is right, knowing the difference between the two and when to pursue the latter.

 Although Australians bemoan the election period, people want to be courted, their vote to be earned.

In my experience what differentiates leadership from management in a civilian context is – vision.

Good governments offer a vison of where as a nation we want to go and why. It needs to be human, economic and social.

In that context, there are five broad priorities. Defence is critically a part of all five:

Economic prosperity and the standard of living enjoyed not only by current but future generations. Juggling revenue and spending pressures, judging fiscal policy settings and embracing a myriad of policy levers from trade to education whilst keeping an eye on the forthcoming election

Whilst creating optimal economic conditions and an environment for the creation of wealth, governments must prioritise the defence of the nation, its interests and values.

The federation in this country increasingly impinges adversely on almost every area of government activity, from health and education to transport. The relationship between the three tiers of government that served us so well through the 20th century is now failing. The long journey of reform has not yet begun in earnest, but it must.

Government faces enormous environmental challenges, especially moving the nation from living on environmental capital to interest.

Social cohesion - we are defined as Australians not by the economic indices with which we are so understandably obsessed, but by our values and beliefs; the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world; our triumphs and failures, heroes and villains, the way as a people we have faced adversity and how we will face the inevitable adversities coming, responding to emerging unseen horizons. The extent to which we care for the weak and vulnerable is a critical measure of a caring society.

Government in all this faces immense pressures in domestic politics, forming a stable government in the lower house, and then managing the Senate. Added to these are media and the pressures of a dynamic international geopolitical landscape.

In January 2006, I was ending two weeks leave when the phone rang. I had served just over four years as minister for Education, Science and Training; it was Prime Minister John Howard. Would I move to defence, he asked.

Two days later I was driven out of the gates of Government House having been sworn in as Australia’s Minister for Defence.

Had John Howard asked me during that phone call to examine Australia’s air combat capability and the ‘Joint Strike Fighter’, I would have had no idea what he was talking about. Yet the Government of which I was a member and cabinet minister had signed on to it in 2002. These decisions were made in the National Security Committee of which I was not a member.

My introduction to the political military relationship came in week one.

On my first day at the conclusion of an introductory meeting with the Chief of Defence and the Secretary, the Secretary of the department leaned over and said, “Minister, the one thing I can guarantee is that we will let you down”.

When they had left, I turned to my Chief of Staff, neither of us knowing what to say.

On day three of top level briefings in Defence Headquarters we stopped for morning tea. The briefings were all about LHDs, AWDs, M1 Abrams Tanks, F-35s, intelligence and operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan

I raised with the top echelon of defence a story I had noticed in a tabloid newspaper some weeks earlier when I was Education minister. It had suggested concern about the personal equipment provided to soldiers.

The awkward silence was broken by an official who said that at this stage I should focus on the ‘main game’.

Three days later, my media advisor rang at 5 am. He said, “We’re all over the front page of The Australian. We are being blasted for providing dodgy body armour, boots and sleeping bags to the guys in uniform”.

My own instincts, confirmed with the passage of time in the job, were that the public – voters, understood the need to buy big equipment. They also came to expect the ‘big things’ were expensive, usually came with problems and at a higher price than both they and their government were led to believe. To a point they accept this.

However, what they would not tolerate under any circumstances was substandard equipment being provided to the men and women who wear the uniform.

In what was then an annual defence appropriation of $25 billion, I had a major political issue over a $133 million line item. Lesson learned.

The interaction between sound economic management and defence was born out in my first budget.

I argued successfully for a 3 per cent real compounding increase to defence spending over the coming decade. Another ‘win’ was agreement to purchase four Boeing C-17 Globemasters at a cost of $2 billion. When settled, the Treasurer asked if we could pay cash before 30 June.

Where the relationship was severely tested for me was in the death and repatriation of a soldier who died in Baghdad from mishandling his own weapon. The incorrect body was sent to Australia and then the Brigadier hand-picked to investigate the matter lost the report in using a public computer.

As I learned, things happen.

However, too often I felt like the gunner on the howitzer turning around looking for the next round, only to find it either wasn’t there or was of questionable quality. At times I thought information getting to the minister was like a whale carcass dragged through a pool of sharks. By the time it got to me, big chunks were missing.

 In other words, the relationship relies very heavily on accurate, timely delivery of information to the Minister. The Minister in turn must do his/her utmost to be a champion for Defence - especially its members and their families.

This relationship needs to be a compact of mutual commitment and responsibility.

In most cases I took up the cause of the ADF and the department with everything I could muster, accepting their advice and running with it.

The story of New Air Combat Capability (NACC) is instructive.

Within months of my appointment I had been ‘peeling the onion’ of NAAC which was of course much more than simply buying around 100 F- 35s and waiting for them to turn up.

Returning from Darwin in 2006 with the CDF, I told him I was not prepared to go to Washington in December to sign the Production Sustainment Follow through and Development (PSFD) MOU on the F-35 until I was satisfied of two things.

The first was the Australian Industry participation package.

The second was a fully costed ‘fall back’ option, our ‘plan B’

I was reassured that all the work was done – Super Hornet.

The NACC had multiple components at the centre of which was the F-35 JSF. The first squadron was due for delivery in 2012 (!).

However the NACC relied on ‘Wedgetail AECCs’, Vigilare – the ground-based network centric air warfare system, centre barrel upgrades to conventional hornets, KC – 30 Multirole Transport Tankers and high tech weapons. The other big unknown was the life of the F-111s. We were the only nation still flying them, they were aging and significant engineering problems were emerging.

Prime Minister Howard was going to Washington. I asked that every defence brief in relation to the trip be sent to me as well. It was here I unpacked the real extent of delays to both Wedgetail and Vigilare. Both were at significant schedule risk. As F-111 issues intensified, I was still reassured that all would be okay.

I regarded then, a decade ago, that the greatest risk to the plan not being the F-35 and its immense technical complexity. The real risk lay in the US congress and the capitals of partner countries.

The risks were political, not technical.

Finally, the F-111 ‘drop dead’ retirement date shifted right, even when new problems emerged with them.

I realised I was working with a ‘conspiracy of optimism’.

It is important in life to be imbued with many things. One is the imaginative capacity to see the world through the eyes of others.

Confiding in my chief of staff, I realised that this plan, the NACC – without any doubt was the right plan for Australia. It had been in conception and development for years. From a defence perspective – understandably, I could sense that the Minister was not someone who should be allowed to ‘interfere’. He was possibly even an obstacle to be overcome.

My advisors and I then took the entire plan apart piece by piece in my office. We looked at every year out to 2018. The risk of an air capability gap was not only real – in my non-expert opinion it was highly likely.

I then confidentially briefed the Prime Minister and his key advisors with my Chief of Staff.

John Howard listened, asked many questions and finally, “what do you want to do?”

Having presented several options, I told him we needed to buy a squadron of FA-18 F Super Hornets. He told me to ‘work it up’ for cabinet.

It was lonely at this time. There was no enthusiasm in defence for moving from the ‘plan’. However, I was convinced that the stakes were too high not to do so.

The final decision was made in March 2007 to invest $6.6 billion on 24 Super Hornets and infrastructure. I urged the Prime Minister to release the decision immediately. The Treasurer regarded it as a major announcement for budget night. I had to tell him the Defence was ‘lukewarm’ about the decision and it would leak.

We announced it days later.

Critics of the decision were out of the blocks with rabid anger - the Super Hornet was a ‘dog’, government was wasting billions of dollars and both the Minister and government were by passing both defence advice and the system in place for making such decisions.

It is a matter of record that had the government not purchased the Super Hornet, Australia’s air defence capability would now be seriously compromised.

There was another instructive process in Navy.

In selecting the design for the Air Warfare Destroyers we down selected at first pass to the Spanish Navantia F100 and an evolved Arleigh Burke class destroyer.

It became clear to me on the basis of what Navantia was hearing from our navy that it believed they had no chance and we would choose an American ship.

It was when I travelled to Adelaide in October 2006 to officially open the Air Warfare Destroyer Programme Office that I realised what was at stake.

As a generalisation I have observed over the years that the larger the delegation brought to a meeting the weaker will be the veracity of the argument to be put.

Prior to the official opening I was briefed by the designers of the evolved Arleigh Burke. More than 25 people sat on the opposite side of the table from me, two of my staff and several officials.

When they left, the Navantia team came into the room – three people.

Irritated, I then asked the president of Navantia to travel to Australia to see me, almost a year before the decision would be made.

Whilst in my own mind I thought we would end up with an American ship, I said to him, “Look, of course we will rely very heavily on the advice of the Royal Australian Navy on the design we choose. But you need to know that in the end I will take a recommendation to cabinet on this. I will not under any circumstances recommend something in which I do not have confidence. This is how our system works – the Minister persuades the National Security Committee. You need to know this is a real contest of designs”.

In the end, we went with Navantia.

The highest priority of government is the defence of the nation, its interests and values. Its ability to do so is a direct consequence of two things – a strong, stable economic environment and political will of government to invest in defence capability.

Though the late 19th century over a generation and half, with vigorous, often embittered debate, our forebears finally resolved in 1901 that we would be a nation - the Commonwealth of Australia was born.

That nationhood was finally driven by the island continent nation’s sense of vulnerability and the need to defend itself. This remains the case.

The world was changing then, it is today.

But perhaps human kind is moving beyond change to a new age.

The future will be shaped most not by what we know, but that which we do not.

After the Second World War and the Napoleonic wars, it was obvious that the world had changed and would never be the same again. But as Yale’s Richard Dilworth Professor of History, Paul Kennedy has observed, a person living in 1480 would not have recognised the world of 1530 – formation of nation states; the splintering of Christendom; expansion of Europe into the Asias and North America; the Guttenberg communications revolution.

We are now living in such a time.

The scale and pace of economic and political power ebbing from Europe and North America over twenty five years to the Asia-Pacific has been accelerated by the Global Financial crisis. The key instruments created after the Second World War are failing us, let alone the world that is coming. Resurgent nationalism and populist, protectionist movements, the mass movement of people, forging of the relationship between the US and re-emergent China in the Asia-Pacific – these and more are symptoms of tectonic plates shifting.

It is in this context of rapidly evolving and increasingly unpredictable geostrategic circumstances that defence and political leaders most need one another.

In defence especially, with long term planning horizons and investment decisions, the entire political class needs to be engaged and committed to key decisions. In this context I believe the Opposition of the day needs to be brought into the process in a way that gives it both understanding and ownership.

Defence is a key instrument of government in so many ways.

Beyond the clear role of deployment in defence of the nation itself and our regional and global interests, defence is a reflection of our values and defender of them.

Its use in humanitarian and disaster relief, peacekeeping and a myriad of goodwill exercises contributes to our own sense of nationhood and respect in the world.

Defence is also seen by government increasingly as a domestic economic multiplier. Any government increasingly wants to see wherever possible its substantial defence investment supports Australian innovation, industry and the domestic footprint of global prime contractors.

There is also the significant benefit of people to people links.

The ‘soft power’ benefit of military exchanges, courses undertaken and joint exercises all builds resilience in bilateral relations when there is tension at the political level.

Finally, I say to you, an air force audience, that in the end if all economic, scientific and technical problems were ever solved – all important questions would remain unanswered. 

All the advanced technology is transcended by something far more important to the evolution and deployment of our air force.

It is the character of those who wear the uniform.

Standing silent sentinels above the Unknown Australian Soldier interred in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, are fifteen stained glass windows. Each is a depiction of a serviceman and nurse at the base of which is a single word.

Australia’s First World War official historian, Charles Bean – witness to it all from Gallipoli to Mont St Quentin, asked of himself and others, a vital question. What were the qualities they had seen in these men and women regarded as essential not only for victory in battle, but for depth and breadth of character.

Character derives from the Greek word meaning the impression left in wax by a stone seal ring, the stamp of personality.

Transcending all else in life – rank, power, money, influence and intellect, is character. It is informed by worthwhile intrinsic virtues, values.

Beneath the image of the airman is – Chivalry.

Bean and all who had observed these men saw in them the chivalric code of medieval knights. Those qualities are courage, honour, integrity, courtesy, justice and readiness to help those in need.

When Lt. Frank Hubert McNamara landed behind enemy lines in March 1917 to rescue a wounded comrade under heavy fire, wounded and effecting the rescue despite his own significant blood loss, he did more than earn the Victoria Cross.

He and those pioneers gave the emergent, modern Royal Australian Airforce the noble traditions upon which it would be built.

A century later, their legacy is that whatever technological progress it would make, the strength and success of this nation’s air force would be built on the character of those who would lead it and wear its uniform.

In Revelation, the German physicist and philosopher Bernhard Philberth wrote:

Progress leads to chaos if not anchored in tradition.
Tradition becomes rigid, if it does not prepare the way for progress.
But a perverted traditionalism; And a misguided progressivism,
lead each other to a deadly excess,
hardly leaving any ground between them.

Air Marshall Leo Davies and those men and women leading today’s Royal Australian Air Force are building it upon traditions, foundations born of idealism, self-sacrifice and enduring values. In doing so they are equipping our nation and its government with an air capability in which we have both pride and confidence.

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