By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
As Australians have come to expect of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, his cabinet reshuffle was all announcement, no substance.
The opportunity to consign inept, compromised and in some cases disgraced ministers to the backbench or lesser ministries went begging.
Scandal-prone energy minister Angus Taylor remains, as does bumbling government services minister Stuart Robert (who pays no price for the catastrophic failure of Robodebt), disgraced Attorney-General Christian Porter remains the nation’s chief law officer because his salacious antics pre-dated Morrisons prime ministership, and out-of-his-depth aged-care minister Richard Colbeck loses the substance of his portfolio to health minister Greg Hunt but retains “aged care services” in what can only be interpreted as a face-saving gesture by the Morrison government which never admits fault, thus ensuring that Colbeck remains a minister, however emasculated. Alan Tudge, who like Porter has been inducted into the 4 Corners Hall of Infamy, was promoted to Education and Youth, presumably because Morrison felt it was important that young Australians be led by example.
Scott Morrison characterised his minimalist reshuffle as a service to the nation: “In a time of great uncertainty, stability and consistency is very much what is needed.”
One might have thought that in a time of great uncertainty what is needed is a ministry of the brightest and the best, without regard for factional or personal allegiance, or base political considerations. But these are the factors that compelled Scott Morrison to keep his mediocre ministry largely intact even though the rebuilding challenges facing Australia are as seismic as those confronting the nation following the second world war.
Those challenges include the rebuilding of the post-COVID economy (with “post-COVID” being a problematic proposition), the repairing of trade and diplomatic relations with China, the urgency to create a climate-action policy that places Australia in lockstep with the rest of the world, and the overhaul of the Australian Defence Force in the wake of the damning Brereton war-crimes report.
Which brings us to the Defence ministries, undisturbed by the modest Morrison reshuffle.
Linda Reynolds remains Defence Minister
The genial Darren Chester retains his ministries of Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs (despite simmering disquiet in the veteran community about the byzantine and capricious bureaucratic netherworld of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs) and the eccentric Melissa Price, who can best be described as doing no harm as Minister for Defence Industry, keeps her job.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds also retains her ministry despite speculation that she would not.
Reynolds was recently humiliated, very publicly, when Scott Morrison overturned the decision by Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell to strip 3000 Special Operations Task Group soldiers who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 of their meritorious service citation, as recommended by the Brereton report.
The report by the office of the Inspector-General of the ADF, conducted by Paul Brereton, a judge of the Supreme Court of NSW and a Major-General in the Australian Army Reserve, found 25 current and former soldiers were complicit in the alleged murder of 39 Afghan prisoners and civilians and recommended that 19 of them be investigated for possible prosecution.
The report recommended that the Meritorious Unit Citation awarded to the Special Operations Task Group be rescinded as "an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability" of the task group. It was a controversial recommendation but one Angus Campbell supported.
General Campbell had been given a free hand by the federal government to lead the reform process outlined by the Brereton report in a clear signal that cultural and institutional reform of the ADF was a military matter above politics. It was Angus Campbell, after all, who as Chief of Army commissioned the inquiry in 2016 and it was General Campbell, as Defence Chief, who received the report, released it to the public (heavily redacted) and announced that he had accepted all 143 recommendations.
Accordingly, General Campbell said he would write to Governor-General David Hurley to have the group citation revoked.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds was fully aware that General Campbell had accepted all the recommendations – including that the Special Operations Task Group citation be rescinded – and endorsed that decision.
As Minister, Reynolds confined her interest to implementation. She appointed an Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel to ensure that the ADF delivered on its commitments to implement the inquiry’s recommendations.
Scott Morrison intervenes
Scott Morrison, famous for his overwrought devotion to the ADF, was unable to contain himself and intervened to block General Campbell. And just in case the general was of a mind to assert his independence and make the recommendation to the governor-general anyway, Morrison sent a typically aggressive signal to Government House that was unambiguous in its intent when he declared: "As always, governor-generals [sic] take advice from their prime ministers."
General Campbell read the tailwinds and sounded retreat.
"No decisions have yet been made with regard to the appropriate options and approaches to implement the more than 140 recommendations as the complexity and sensitivity of the issues outlined in the report will take extensive and considered deliberation," the general said in a statement.
General Campbell was rolled and he knows it. He will be watching over his shoulder as he embarks on the reform of the ADF, a process that has now been politicised and as such undermined. The general won’t be the only one keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror. Linda Reynolds knows that Scott Morrison is now effectively in charge of “reforming” his beloved ADF, which means a political response not the root-and-branch overhaul promised by General Campbell.
Any self-respecting minister would have resigned over such a flagrant undermining of her ministerial authority – doubly so a Defence Minister whose Chief of Defence was so publicly hung out to dry – but given the “the never explain, never apologise, never resign” ethos of the Morrison government, it is hardly surprising that she did not.
Reynolds has been an unremarkable Defence Minister and overbearing though her boss might be, the former Army Reserve brigadier gets to keep her job. For now at least.
Scott Morrison’s minimalist ministerial reshuffle saw just two new faces emerge from the backbench: Queensland Senator Amanda Stoker, who becomes Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, and of particular interest, WA MP and former SAS captain Andrew Hastie, who becomes Assistant Minister for Defence.
We can only speculate on Scott Morrison’s thinking, but Linda Reynolds might wish to invest in a bigger rear-view mirror.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.