Three years ago, just after the Gillard government was returned to office, then secretary of the Defence Department Ian Watt handed a brief to his new minister, Stephen Smith. Dr Watt had previously been the longest-serving head of the Finance Department, which had regularly (yet mostly without success) tried to rein in the military's spendthrift ways. However, that brief, the so-called ''red book'' for the incoming Labor government, suggested Dr Watt's priorities had changed.
Under the heading '''Fat and bloated' perception of the Defence budget'', the brief warned Mr Smith that the department's budget was ''typically seen either as largely discretionary spending or at least more capable of being financially reshaped than other government agencies''. It noted some people held the view that ''there still is 'plenty of fat' within Defence. These views, although ill-conceived, render Defence an obvious target for any major budget reshaping.''
(The department did confess to some ''budgetary problems'' but, when the document was later released under freedom of information law, all details of those problems were censored - some, bizarrely, on the basis that publishing them would expose trade secrets.)
Last month, the Defence Department gave its new minister, David Johnston, his own confidential brief: the ''blue book''. The public is unlikely to ever know the entirety of what it says. Perhaps, though, it spurred Senator Johnston to declare this week that the Defence bureaucracy was bloated and its budget was a mess. The minister said of his department: ''I believe 23,000 public servants is too heavy. We are methodically and carefully going to trim that back.''
Some in the Defence community may feel surprised, even betrayed, by Senator Johnston's comments. The Tony Abbott-led opposition repeatedly attacked Labor for delaying Defence funding increases (even though, under Labor, spending on Defence continued to grow faster than on other areas of government). Whenever a Coalition frontbencher pledged to cut public service jobs, it was always with the caveat that ''frontline'' public servants - code for staff in Defence, customs, intelligence and policing roles - would be exempted. The Coalition's pre-election policy warned that Labor had ''unfairly and irresponsibly gambled with the security of future Australians by underfunding defence investment''; that ''we are now spending six times more on social security and welfare payments than we are on defence''; and so on.
Yet the Coalition also committed to ''look for savings in every area of government, including the huge Defence bureaucracy which has grown rapidly in recent years''. No one should be surprised by Senator Johnston's latest rhetoric.
His challenge, however, will be to transform that rhetoric into meaningful savings. There is no question that, relative to other areas of government, the Defence Department and the military are indeed fat and bloated. For spurious reasons, Defence was exempted from the efficiency dividend - an annual cut to administrative budgets - until only recent years, when other departments and agencies were being whittled to the bone. Even now, Defence does not report how much of its budget is exposed to the dividend (though it is believed that about $8 in every $9 it receives is exempt).
The government seems to believe it can somehow conjure up efficiencies by imposing a civilian hiring freeze while, at the same time, increasing Defence funding. The result will simply be that military personnel end up doing the jobs for which public servants are at present employed. It may look good on paper - it may seem that the government is hiring more ''frontline'' troops while shedding civvies - but it will be a false fix. Are trained military personnel necessarily the people we want doing office work? There is no evidence they are better at innovating; indeed, it can be argued they are more suited to process-driven tasks that require stringent discipline.
The waste at Russell will only worsen if the government's only way of measuring it is a civilian headcount. Pruning waste is hard work at the best of times, let alone when one is showering with money what one is meant to be cutting.