I don't know retired major-general John Cantwell; I've neither met him nor heard any notable anecdotes about him, other than that he enjoys motorbikes and plonk. But I suspect he's a pretty funny bloke. He let rip last weekend against two of the defence ministers he served: Joel Fitzgibbon (''an auto-electrician in a suit'') and Stephen Smith (''had no respect for those who chose to serve in uniform for their country''). In doing so, he unleashed a storm that still threatens Smith's career. Yet I'm convinced it's all part of an elaborate joke on Cantwell's part.
The giveaway is that he criticised Fitzgibbon for failing to understand the Defence white paper (Cantwell said he had to re-explain to the minister what ''had already been simplified to the point of banality''). Fancy that: a member of the defence establishment lecturing on the merits on plain English. The hilarity here is that Cantwell is talking about a report, co-written by a massive team over several years, whose meaning remains a mystery to the defence forces themselves. Just ask the three services, each of which has an entirely different understanding of the white paper's priorities.
But comprehension is an optional extra in Russell, and long has been. The military's pay manual (which, like everything else, is referred to unnecessarily by its acronym, PACMAN) has more than 2000 pages, and comes with an extra ''administration and technical explanation'' of more than 500 pages. No one really understands it, which no doubt explains the military's constant pay cock-ups.
Then there was last year's Black review of defence accountability. Among its advice was this beauty: ''Defence can improve its capability outcomes by progressively tightening the boundary conditions around the capability development process, improving top-down incentives for better capability delivery in an environment of capped budgets and extension of the current use of integrated project teams … across the end-to-end capability development process.'' And that gobbledygook was the summarised version. An organisation concerned about accountability would have hurled the report back at the consultant and refused to pay for it until it was at least vaguely intelligible. Instead, Defence is now busily ''implementing'' this nonsense. And because no one can grasp its meaning, no one will be able to accuse the department of failing to ''action'' it.
A senior public servant once described Russell to me as ''a decades-long meeting that hasn't ended, because they're still working on the agenda''. This gets to the nub of Defence's real problem. It's an incredibly insular world whose leaders at times seem to care neither whether the projects they oversee are needed, nor what they cost. Just one example of this attitude was the self-serving brief the department gave Smith after the 2010 election. Under the heading '' 'Fat and bloated' perception of the Defence budget'', the department warned its new minister ''there still exists a view that … there is 'plenty of fat' within Defence. These views, although ill-conceived, render Defence an obvious target for any major budget reshaping.''
Ill-conceived? Such views are spot on. Politicians have ever feared the Russell behemoth, which deflects any criticism by recasting it as an attack on ''our men in uniform'', even if the concerns relate to management, not diggers. As a result, Defence has been spared the rigours that all other government agencies must endure. Until six years ago, it was entirely exempt from paying an ''efficiency dividend''; last year, almost 90 per cent of the department's budget was exempted. And while the Gillard government has capped its overall spending growth at 2 per cent a year in real terms, it has guaranteed that the defence budget's real growth will be 3 per cent a year for at least a decade - a disastrous recipe for yet more of the kind of military waste to which the Australian public has become inured.
Defence reckons it has a plan, the ''strategic reform program'', to save $20 billion over 10 years. Yet its unofficial watchdog, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has dismissed much of these savings as smoke and mirrors; ''nothing more than the shifting of expenditure from one category to another without any reform''. The institute's budget brief last year said, ''The time has come to stop pretending that Defence is a bottomless rabbit hole of savings and efficiencies … Defence's financial management system is broken.''
Smith's great crime was to speak openly about some of these problems. In his first address to senior leaders at Russell, 2½ years ago, he directly criticised the advice he was receiving from them. ''I'm not confident … that below the diarchy I get a 'one Defence' view. Rather, I often suspect I get a view from a silo.'' Few appreciated his frankness.
Yet, today, Cantwell is having the last laugh. Many people think this latest brouhaha springs from a spat between Smith and the Australian Defence Force Academy's commandant. It's far more serious. It's the military establishment closing ranks to rid itself of a minister who wasn't toeing the line. I don't know whether Smith is an effective leader or manager. But I know Russell's problems are not the fault of ministers, past or present, because it's been a hell of a long time since politicians had any control over Defence. If only Cantwell or his former colleagues were brave enough to speak out about the biggest problem within the military and its department: their disgraceful disregard for public money. Until then, their joke is well and truly on us civilian taxpayers.
Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. Send your tips to firstname.lastname@example.org