Unfortunately the job of being a minister in Federal Cabinet has become much more difficult in the past decade. The public service no longer has the talents to give the right advice, so ministers must consult more widely and apply their own judgment.
Successful ministers in the current government like Julie Bishop, Greg Hunt, Scott Morrison, Andrew Robb and Malcolm Turnbull win because they are brilliant at moulding the departmental advice to what must be done.
In this context, the minster with the hardest job in the first Abbott Ministry was axed Defence Minister David Johnston. He failed because in the face of a barrage of wrong advice and mistake cover-ups, he did not have the skills to make the correct calls. Defence was probably an impossible task for a first-time minister.
The new Defence Minister Kevin Andrews is more experienced but his task will be the most daunting of all the new appointments. He faces a department that still carries the deep scars that go with what has been a massive abuse cover-up. It made the wrong call on a series if equipment purchases and the largest call of all, the Joint Strike Fighter, has deep problems which like the abuse situation are covered up.
And even if the immense JSF design and performance difficulties are overcome (and the US now have good people doing the work), the JSF will be no match for the Russian/ Indian aircraft (being bought by Indonesia) and the Chinese aircraft.
Earlier this year we saw the Australian Prime Minister caught in Johnston’s defence morass when he declared the JSF would give Australia air superiority in the region, in direct contradiction to what the Americans chiefs are saying (Misguided Abbott strikes out on the JSF, April 28).
And we are also spending large sums to embrace the ‘Pearl Harbor’ technique, which clusters all the planes on the advance defence base so they are easy targets. Pearl Harbour must have been dropped from the defence manual (A defence lesson we should never forget, October 15).
And the defence department has no idea how you link overseas suppliers with local manufacturing to gain an industrial base as well as a modern submarine in world best time. That led David Johnston into making his canoe mistake and Treasurer Joe Hockey saying things that were almost as silly (How the public service conned Hockey, December 4).
For all our sakes, we have to hope Kevin Andrews is up to the task. With the exception of John Faulkner, no minster has been able to handle the task in recent times. And Faulkner only got as far as recognising the problem. He then resigned.
I was hoping that one of the top five Abbott ministers --perhaps Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison -- would take the defence task. But in Kevin Andrews we have an experienced minister who knows what it is like when mistakes are made. It’s a good start.
The Coalition will be hoping that some of the other new appointments can recapture the vision we saw when Abbott first came to power.
It lies dormant because the public servants have sidelined so many of the big proposals, including ending duplication with the states in heath and education, extending fair contracts to small enterprises, administrating independent contractors in accordance with the Howard legislation so helping to overcome industrial relations problems, promoting our key export industries of health education, tourism and high end manufacturing plus northern development.
You need a vision when you are cutting expenditure. Abbott had a wonderful vision and, unless it returns, this is a one-term government.