A trap is being set for Abbott

The Abbott government's biggest challenge yet will come to new defence minister David Johnston. Between the DLA Piper review into Duntroon and the JSF mess, he's in a dangerous situation.

In John Howard’s first two years as prime minister he lost seven cabinet ministers as a result of conflict of interest. The first danger signs that the inexperienced Abbott government will also be trapped are already emerging, despite the intensive efforts of the respected Philip Ruddock, who has been a member of the Australian parliament for four decades, and is now party whip.

For any new government (of either party) the most dangerous situations arise when the previous government hands over matters that were filed in the “too hard” basket and were not dealt with or concealed. There are at last two such issues facing the Abbott government and both have the potential to create conflicts damaging to the government, possibly leading to ministerial resignations. And they are linked.

The first is the explosive final DLA Piper review on military abuse at Duntroon, which trained most of Australia’s top military officers. DLA Piper is one if the world’s largest and most respected law firms and its report goes to the heart of the implications of the abuse scandal. The DLA Piper review names eight or nine men, some of whom rose to high levels in the defence forces. The previous government foolishly succumbed to defence department pressure and kept the report under wraps. (Taxpayers paid big sums to learn the truth and it should have been released, with names blocked out, because the men are innocent until proved guilty).

I do not know who the eight or nine men are but some people in the ALP, now in opposition, know the identity of the ‘eight or nine’. The opposition can’t wait to put a noose around Tony Abbott’s neck should he appoint one to a senior position.

Last May I warned Tony Abbott that he should check the report before appointing a military person as the next governor general (Tony Abbott's fine red line, May 7). 

I must emphasise that there are a large number of wonderful military people who in retirement have a great contribution to make. But in much the same way as we do routine police checks before appointing people to posts involving caring for children, so the current government needs to do a “DLA Piper check” before appointing military people to senior posts outside the defence force.

In the Abbott government’s first day in office it made a significant appointment of a military person. It’s highly unlikely he was one of the ‘eight or nine’ but there would not have been time to make the DLA Piper check given that the DLA Piper report cannot be accessed without delaying bureaucracy. I am not in any way suggesting that the person involved was in the “eight or nine” but merely that due diligence was not undertaken, which was a clear sign that the lessons of carelessness that were so damaging to John Howard’s early years have not been learned.

If that embedded carelessness spills over to the second issue a minister could be lost. Over the weekend the new defence minister, Senator David Johnston, will have been bombarded with an enormous bureaucratic smokescreen following the “deep throat” revelations about the joint strike fighter from inside the US top brass. There are some people in the US military prepared to act in the nation’s interest (US 'Deep Throat' destroys a JSF cover-up, September 20). 

But when the most expensive defence weapon ever constructed is shown to be a failure by a person who is intimately involved, bureaucratic smokescreens are merely delaying tactics.

In good faith, in opposition, current defence minister David Johnston spoke in the Senate in favour of the JSF and it is possible that prior to taking up a ministerial position his legal firm did work for JSF suppliers. 

Both actions are perfectly legitimate and the minister is in no way compromised. But that potential conflicting situation will change if he does nothing and succumbs to the cover up.

When the disaster is made public, Johnston will cop the wrath of the Australian people if he was seen to be compromised when dealing with the cover up.

At some point Tony Abbott is going to have to tell the Australian parliament that previous defence ministers (including one in the Howard years) took advice from the defence people involved and misled the parliament on the cost of the aircraft (at one time the JSF was costed at just $40 million by using a figure that left the engine out). The parliament has still not been told the extent of the all-embracing cost. But if it were just a cost problem, it could be managed. Unfortunately the JSF has simply been a monumental developmental failure. Unless a new path is taken we will lose control over our country’s air defence because the Indonesian, Indian and Chinese aircraft will be stronger than the US/Australia. I keep writing about this because I believe it is by far the biggest issue facing our nation. The horror will be revealed during the term of the current Abbott government and the prime minister needs to be able to say that when the current defence minister saw the danger he took the following actions…

The abuse scandal showed there is a culture of cover up in defence and, worse still, of acting in career rather than national interest. The final DLA Piper review exposed this culture in the abuse area. It could have suggested that is this same culture – in both the US and Australia – contributed to the JSF tragedy.