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The Big Defence Beast

By Graeme Dobell

All Australian governments come to office with a deep admiration for the military and some apprehension about the Department of Defence.

Politicians embrace the uniform but worry about the organisation.  After some time in office, the mystique of the slouch hat is confirmed; the men and women who salute are as impressive as their reputation.

The Defence Department, though, is a big beast that doesn’t become more lovable by close association.  Apprehension shifts towards frustration and even anger.

The big beast is tasked with doing many things that are expensive, tough and complex.  The high degree of difficulty is matched by the huge dump of dollars.

Ministers are in the power game; they’re in it to make things happen, not have things happen to them—or happen extremely slowly, if at all.  Ministers push and pull at the beast and coax and cajole, yet not much seems to shift.

Another dimension of this is that Defence’s mission is to see that catastrophic things don’t happen.  The beast gets fed huge amounts of cash, to what result?  No war on our shores.  Tick.  National security.  Tick.

Trouble is, Australian voters tend to see defence as a given—a core mission that’s a minimum competency.  Defence is what any government is expected to deliver while voters get on with their lives.

If Defence does its job, nothing happens.  And governments know they don’t get much credit from voters for what doesn’t happen.  Ministers have to tend and feed the beast, but fret about what they get in return.

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