Defence Minister Peter Dutton has never shirked from hard decisions, and for the first time in some years a minister has the temerity to ask the searching questions of the ADF uniformed hierarchy and make contrary decisions to theirs.
It seems, like a certain other politician, they don’t like it.
Dutton is a canny politician who has never been shy about upsetting some community interests when he believes his instincts are better than theirs.
Like the canny copper he once was, he knows when push comes to shove, you only get one opportunity to prosecute a successful outcome. He gathers and assesses the evidence, often in this case a brief prepared by trusted staff, weighs the pros and cons, then acts.
It seems his determination to overturn some decisions made by the CDF Angus Campbell have annoyed some of Campbell’s close associates, not to say the general himself, who some Canberra insiders are now describing as a “lame duck”. Among those contentious issues creating friction are Dutton’s directive the Meritorious Unit Citation awarded to 2 Squadron SAS not be rescinded.
He also seems determined to prevent Campbell’s inner circle from controlling the agenda to reorganise the SAS following allegedly adverse recommendations in the heavily redacted Brereton report, exact details of which are known only be a select few.
Criticism from some in the ex-ADF community that Dutton’s interference in Campbell’s decision making is undermining Campbell’s authority begs the question, what authority Campbell has left? Not to mention credibility.
Informed insiders also claim Campbell has lost the confidence of many ADF personnel by appearing not to accept responsibility for alleged actions that clearly occurred on his immediate watch in numerous command positions in Australia and overseas.
Low morale is hard to quantify but anecdotal evidence of individuals either resigning from the ADF or refusing further service suggests all is not well.
Figures from the SAS suggest the equivalent of a whole operational squadron has simply walked away, losses of specialised personnel neither the SAS nor the wider ADF can continue to absorb without loss of some serious capability.
Even the Australian Defence Association’s Neil James challenged whether it was appropriate for the minister to overturn decisions made by the CDF.
Dutton’s unequivocal response has been as minister he has that right because ultimately the buck stops with him.
Having lost the minister’s trust, Campbell should now walk before he is pushed.
Ross Eastgate OAM is a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon and military historian who writes a weekly column on defence issues and blogs at Targets Down. This piece is reproduced with permission of The Townsville Bulletin, where an earlier version appeared.
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