At a time when Australia’s defence forces are being stretched to breaking point by savage budget cuts, the increased problems of border security, delays to vital defence acquisitions and the growth of military forces in other parts of our region, the Defence Minister Stephen Smith has again taken the axe to his own department.
Mr Smith has foreshadowed that the cost of a tribunal into sexual, physical and mental abuse in the defence forces, and a compensation scheme for victims going back decades, would be met out of the existing defence budget.
For loyal, hard-working defence personnel who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country, to be told that these costs would be met from the existing defence budget is both unfair and utterly demoralising.
To be told, “If any organisation sees on its watch inappropriate or bad conduct, in the end there is a price to pay”, was positively insulting.
This is just the latest episode in Mr Smith’s counter-productive attempt to change defence culture by penalising the innocent.
It was only a few months ago that the secretary of the Defence Department, Duncan Lewis, a former senior army officer, resigned from his post after just a year in the job, without any plausible explanation.
But the deputy leader of the Opposition, Julie Bishop, said the departure of Mr Lewis was another blow to defence force morale and described suggestions he resigned over budget cuts as “deeply concerning”. “This … minister is at war with the defence department,” she said.
Earlier, Mr Smith had fumbled the misconduct by junior cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy by effectively sacking its head, Commandant Bruce Kafer. When an independent inquiry found that Kafer had behaved properly, Smith could not bring himself to admit to his mistake, nor to apologise to Kafer on his reinstatement.
Earlier still, Mr Smith, in a petty display of petulance towards the leadership of the defence forces, delayed inordinately the appointments of new Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley and the service chiefs.
What really exercises the minister’s imagination is his determination to “reform” defence culture, by which he means opening up combat roles to women and accelerating the promotion of women to senior positions in the defence forces.
An inevitable consequence of these policies, particularly on naval vessels where women are now deployed, has been the growth of a vile culture of sexual exploitation of women.
There is a need for a continued effort by both civilians and the military to counter a culture of brutality in the defence forces, where people are being trained to kill.
But it requires a constant effort to cultivate a culture of courage and respect for one’s mates, with the co-operation of the defence chiefs, not the imposition of the feminist agenda on the defence forces — as Mr Smith has done.
It is no secret that, after the fall of Kevin Rudd as prime minister, Stephen Smith would have much preferred to continue as foreign minister, or even serve as attorney-general, rather than become defence minister. His appointment as defence minister in 2010 followed the coup against Mr Rudd, and Julia Gillard’s need to appoint Mr Rudd as foreign minister.
The position of attorney-general went to a colleague of Gillard’s, Nicola Roxon.
Defence inevitably suffered. The 2009 Defence White Paper called for 12 long-range submarines, 100 Joint Strike Fighters, three air warfare destroyers, two big amphibious ships and a slightly bigger, better-equipped army.
It envisaged that Australia needed to protect its own sea-lanes and deploy its forces in conditions similar to those in Afghanistan and East Timor, or in local conflict situations where the great powers might not become involved.
All this has now been effectively mothballed if not abandoned as a result of the government’s budget cuts and its determination to produce a budget surplus in May next year.
Having previously shown little if any interest in defence issues, Smith set about implementing the ALP’s agenda of cutting defence spending and imposing the ALP’s social agenda on the defence forces, to the applause of the left — particularly in the media — and with the approval of the Prime Minister.
It may well be that Stephen Smith’s actions as defence minister have served well his ambitions; but their effects have been extremely damaging to the armed forces. He has spread demoralisation among people who are seriously committed to the defence of Australia, and caused a collapse in support for the civilian leadership of the defence force.
While Julia Gillard remains Prime Minister and Mr Smith is defence minister, these issues will remain unresolved. Only a new government can deal with these issues.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.