Militarisation of the public service continues

By Stephen Bartos

Monday July 12, 2021

If the defence forces comes to be seen merely as a stepping-stone to a senior public service appointment, the public service ethos is undermined.
Ray Griggs (right) speaks to Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne during Senate estimates hearings at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, October 25, 2017. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Of three new public service commonwealth departmental secretaries appointed last week, two have strong military ties and the third is closely associated with the security and intelligence community. 

Kathryn Campbell, moving from Social Services to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (an upward move in the hierarchy of departments), is a senior officer in the army reserve. The new head of Social Services, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, is a former Chief of Navy and vice-chief of the Defence force. Katherine Jones, appointed to head the Attorney-General’s department, was previously the deputy secretary responsible for national security.

It is notable that the prime minister chose to highlight these military and security features in his announcement of the appointments. He devotes a whole paragraph to Campbell’s rank and awards in the army reserve, waxes lyrical about Griggs’ ‘long and successful Defence career’ and mentions national security not once but twice in his paragraph on Jones.   

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Campbell was also the leading public service figure involved in the illegal robodebt program, described by the Federal court as a ‘massive failure of public administration’. That appears to count for little compared with her military record.    

The militarisation of the public service is a trend. We saw it with the appointment of two serving military officers to public health roles: Lieutenant General John Frewin to head the national COVID vaccine taskforce, and prior to that Commodore Eric Young to the commonwealth’s Vaccine Operations Centre. The exact role and remit of Lt General Frewin is not entirely clear, although he has become a very public face of the commonwealth government’s vaccine efforts.

Over at Crikey, columnist Guy Rundle railed against the Frewin appointment, likening it to what happens in a Latin American banana republic.

Respected defence academic John Blaxland, without the rhetorical flourishes, expresses similar concerns. He notes that the government’s tendency to call in the military for situations that ought to be handled by the public service leaves the defence force with less time for what it is actually meant to do, and in the meantime we are not properly resourcing the relevant public service agencies.

Militarisation of public service activity has antecedents in the Howard government’s Operation Sovereign Borders established in 2013. Still going, in the Home Affairs department, it sees the defence force take a lead role in our immigration program by deterring arrivals. 

That operation, however, was far from common practice: until now. Of late, we have seen military people in various non-military roles, not only the vaccine rollout — a classic public health issue — but others previously managed by public servants such as veterans’ affairs, emergency management and natural disaster responses. 

Moreover, some parts of the public service itself are now copying military styles of management and behaviour — especially the aforementioned department of Home Affairs, where uniforms and firearms, including, since 2014, guns for staff working in airports are de rigeur. 

It is easy to see why having a military viewpoint would appeal to conservative politicians.

A prerequisite for success in the military is willingness to obey orders. The institution of the armed forces inculcates respect for authority, hierarchy and conformity. These values are also fundamental to the conservative view of the world. 

They are not liberal — as a general rule liberals value independence of thought, tolerance and pluralism — but despite the name of the majority partner the current coalition government leans more conservative than liberal. 

As the influence of military and intelligence agencies — and their way of thinking — grows more prominent in the Australian public service, we can expect harsher and less flexible staff management — for example, the infamous Home Affairs directive to staff not to wear sleeveless tops on zoom calls during lockdown, so outrageous it even got a run in the Washington Post.  

Over the long term, should the path to militarisation continue we will face a more serious consequence: the undermining of the separation of the military and civilian arms of the public sector. 

Like it or not, defence personnel are also public sector employees. They don’t fall under the Australian Public Service Act, but then neither do thousands of other employees who look much the same as normal public servants but are outside the coverage of that Act, mainly in semi-independent entities. 

The defence forces have, though, carved out a special status outside the normal public service and public sector family. In the past uniformed members of the armed services have had a different career path, training, goals and aspirations to those of other government employees. They considered themselves to be nothing like public servants.

If, however, service in the defence forces comes to be seen merely as a stepping-stone to a senior public service appointment, this ethos is undermined. It is a problem that others have raised in relation to the increasing trend of army personnel moving into intelligence and security roles – but at least there you can see some subject matter links.

It is much more dubious when people with defence backgrounds take over mainstream public service functions. Although it might be quite flattering for the army or navy to be asked to send someone senior in to fix a crisis — and then see that person promoted to a public service leadership role – this comes at a price.

A military person may or may not be suited to the public service environment — partly, how well they fit depends on whether success is measured in terms of giving and taking orders. However, regardless of whether or not they succeed in the public service role their move sends a disturbing signal back into defence ranks about what matters for an officer’s career, and undermines one of our important democratic institutions, the separation of military and civilian authority.

The three recent secretary appointments are not in themselves a fundamental shift — but they are part of a trend. They again confirm the growing power of defence and security mindsets in the corridors of government.  


Calling in the army for the vaccine rollout and every other emergency shows how ill-prepared we are

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