Something doesn't stack up.
Peter Dutton insists "the only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war".
Fine words. The problem is they're completely at odds with everything the Defence Minister's done since taking office.
A couple of months after arriving at Russell Hill in March last year he was the first to pull the carpet from under the Afghan government, loudly proclaiming he was pulling Aussie troops out of the country. At that time Kabul's forces were still fighting desperately to hold the line, but this sent an important signal. Not long after after Canberra began the rush to depart they collapsed. Families and people who had helped our soldiers were shamefully left behind. The mission to rescue the few who were pulled out was led by volunteers.
But Dutton had already moved on. By now he was secretly working on a really big project that had a great deal of personal meaning - scrapping Malcolm Turnbull's legacy. Why? Because he could. Back in 2018 the (then) PM shattered Dutton's hopes of becoming leader with a humiliating defeat in the party room. Well, he was having the last laugh now. Without bothering to arrange a suitable replacement; without considering the timing problem of finding space in overseas production schedules; without pausing for a moment to consider the already (sunk) cost of billions of dollars' worth of investment, he ripped up the schedule, consigning the cornerstone of Australia's defence strategy to the bottom at the same time.
And this is the key, irrefutable point.
Instead of shifting straight from one vessel to another, today the country has nothing. No plan at all. If there was any easy way of obtaining British or US boats, or transferring manufacturing to Adelaide, we would have heard about it long before the election campaign. The reason nothing's been announced is because Dutton was so desperate to scupper the French build he didn't even consider the blatantly obvious solution - switching to Naval Group's perfectly good nuclear design. Australia could have done this simply - without penalty - and without having Scott Morrison being branded a liar across the world.
But Dutton didn't worry about that. Forging straight ahead with his eyes closed had worked for him before, so why shouldn't things somehow fall into place again? No matter. He'd shifted his attention to the $45 billion (and growing) Hunter class frigate program because this has the virtue of making the submarine debacle look good. Overweight, slow and 18 months behind schedule, this vessel has been the subject of huge angst at Russell. There's little doubt that, if it didn't make the government look so bad for rejecting excellent Italian and Spanish alternatives and plumping for an immature British design, the decision to scrap this frigate would have already been taken. Unusually, and in the middle of an election campaign, departmental secretary Greg Moriarty was sent to the UK to see if anything could be salvaged from this particular disaster.
But it's not just playing with boats that's a problem for this minister. There's another massive project, ready to go, which has been caught up in political paralysis and infighting.
The Army's been working on Land 400 Phase 3 for almost a decade now, including extensive trials of the German and South Korean vehicles selected as the final competitors. This would see the army equipped with hundreds of armoured fighting vehicles and the military's recommendation is in to the national security committee of cabinet. And that's where it's stalled. The rumour is infighting between Dutton (who wants to buy German and build in a neighbouring Queensland electorate) and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (who is keener on a South Korean vehicle made in the marginal Victorian electorate of Corangamite). Result? A blank. The bloke can't get what he wants, so Australia gets nothing.
Oh, and it's also probably worth noting at this point the (German-designed) Boxer reconnaissance vehicle, that's being built in Queensland, has already served up a litany of problems for which units are struggling to find acceptable solutions.
One of the few accomplishments the minister can chalk up to his credit is the purchase of more US tanks. The only problem with these will be ever getting them to the fight. The last time Aussie tanks ever saw action was in South Vietnam over half a century ago - it's difficult to envisage exactly how these could ever be relevant in an age when killer drones can sweep down from the sky and destroy armour's fuel supplies. Just ask the Russian tankers who found themselves sitting helpless in long columns just short of Kyiv.
But do you think Dutton's registering what's happening in Ukraine? Apparently not, because he's just cancelled our military's one remaining armed drone program. Although this was recently described as "an excellent capability [with] cutting-edge technology [including] advanced sensors and systems", that's now gone. This leaves Australia without any future projects for such systems and our helicopter force is in a similar mess. The army had no sooner had a big parade to celebrate the creation of its new Aviation Command in December last year than the minister began trashing the force, insisting our MRH90 Taipans were unreliable and new Black Hawks would be purchased from overseas, trashing another $15 billion program.
Since arriving in the job Dutton's done little other than scrap vital programs and replace them with empty promises. And pick fights with China.
Regardless of which party you think should win the election, Dutton is a proven disaster as Defence Minister.
Morrison knows the guy is hopeless but had to find a job for him simply to stop him plotting. He knew the former copper liked uniforms and enjoyed having people salute him. By normally refusing to speak publicly (except to friendly radio hosts) Dutton's managed to escape proper scrutiny. He seems to think running a defence force is like buying model soldiers. Unfortunately, appreciating shiny shoes isn't enough to qualify you as Defence Minister.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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