Will Defence and Home Affairs bureaucrats be honest when briefing their new ministers?

By Bernard Keane

Thursday March 25, 2021

Peter Dutton; Linda Reynolds. (Image: AAP)

Public servants in the two biggest departments, Defence and Home Affairs, will be hastily preparing ministerial briefs over the next two days on the suspicion that they’ll have new bosses to brief any minute now.

Those in the Attorney-General’s Department — far smaller but also important — will be doing the same, although they’ve had an acting minister for a while now. There may well be other consequential ministerial changes — if Linda Reynolds merely gets demoted and not dumped, she’ll need briefing in her new role, while the incumbent there will move elsewhere.

Home Affairs and Defence are two of the worst-performing portfolios in the Commonwealth. In the case of Defence, to be fair, many of the problems are not of its own making. The submarine project is a debacle because of the Turnbull government’s protectionist decision to build the things here in Australia, adding a huge premium to the cost, the likelihood of significant delays, and ongoing tensions with Naval Group and French politicians who see the whole deal as primarily about jobs in France, not Adelaide.

The F-35 program, however, is a colossal stuff-up entirely of Defence’s making. There’s yet another of an endless series of reports on cost blowouts and delays for the plane, this time around its software, while Congressional leaders are now openly warning the program will be dramatically cut — especially given the ridiculous cost of upgrading older F-35s. The program is now so old due to delays that the earliest planes are hopelessly out of date.

Home Affairs, as Crikey has repeatedly recorded, is in a class of its own when it comes to scandals and stuff-ups. The auditor-general’s staff may as well open a permanent branch office there, so persistent are the problems around procurement and compliance in the mega-department. At no stage has Peter Dutton, now once again being touted for Defence, demonstrated the slightest care about the incompetence and failures that have marked Immigration/Home Affairs since he arrived there from his disastrous stint in Health in 2014.

That augurs very poorly indeed for the chances of stronger ministerial control over Defence’s persistent procurement problems. It’s not even clear that Dutton, a former policeman, understands the basics of procurement and importance of good processes and compliance with government rules.

In most departments, procurement disasters might cost a few million dollars. In Home Affairs they can cost billions. But in Defence, they can cost tens of billions of dollars over decades.

Let’s hope the new defence and home affairs ministers get an honest and comprehensive briefing on why their new portfolios have been such disaster areas in recent years.

This article is curated from our sister publication Crikey.


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