The mixed reputations of David Johnston and Julie Bishop rest on the success of our military operations in Iraq. By Sophie Morris.

David Johnston’s making as a defence minister

Defence Minister David Johnston and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
Defence Minister David Johnston and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
Credit: AFP

It is early September and David Johnston is flying into Canberra aboard a C-130J Hercules four-engine turboprop transport aircraft. He knows all the specs. Military hardware is his thing.

As the Hercules lands and its Rolls-Royce engines cut out, the defence minister is “awestruck”.

We know this, because this is how a media release from his office described his mood when he thanked “crack” troops for their role in dropping supplies to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.

At that stage, the Australian government was readying for war, awaiting a specific request from the US for more military support.

Some 10 days later, the anticipated request arrived. It was Johnston who took the call from the United States defence secretary, Chuck Hagel. If the West Australian senator was again awestruck, we were not informed of it.

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott fronts the media in Darwin on Sunday to announce 600 Australian Defence Force personnel will be sent to the Middle East, the chief of the defence force will be by his side. The defence minister will not. As Australia prepares to go to war, Johnston is one of two West Australian lawyers in portfolios that will shape this effort. The other is Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

There can be no doubt that Abbott has led the push for Australia’s involvement in combating the “death cult” in Iraq, but Johnston and Bishop will be his lieutenants.

Both are, for different reasons, at tipping points in their political careers and this military engagement may make or break them.

Johnston has a low public profile and is viewed as vulnerable in any reshuffle. For months, there has been speculation that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison could do a better job. But now there is talk that, having stopped the boats, Morrison could take on a new counterterrorism role.

So persistent is the speculation about Johnston’s future that he was forced to respond in June, saying the PM was satisfied with his performance. “I just get on with doing my job, which may I say is a very onerous and difficult one with a broad spectrum of duties which I take extremely seriously,” he said.

These days, when Bishop professes repeatedly that she is enjoying her “dream job”, it is usually because some journalist is asking if she might not, one day, aim even higher. Foreign diplomats describe her as “very impressive”. And her public profile has risen in the wake of the downing of flight MH17, such that a recent poll had her as the most popular frontbencher.

They will both need to prosecute the government’s case for military action publicly, at home and abroad. And perhaps more importantly, they will have the opportunity to shape it, in the private meetings of the powerful national security committee of cabinet (NSC).

1 . Bishop's caution

Bishop and Johnston, both 58 years old, are friends and have shared many a flight between Perth and Canberra. But in their public utterances there are signs they hold different views of what Australia can achieve in Iraq. Bishop is circumspect, Johnston less so.

In an interview with Fairfax Media on September 8, Bishop said it would be “impossible” to completely destroy the Islamic State (or ISIL, as it is also known). “What I’m saying is we have to be wary of claiming to be able to eliminate ISIL,” she said, “because you’re talking about an ideology.”

Johnston was more gung-ho this week on ABC TV’s 7.30. Asked whether it was possible to destroy the Islamic State, he replied: “Well, I believe it is. I believe the endgame is that we will disrupt and potentially destroy what is in the minds of the leadership of ISIL, and that is, to set up a separate caliphate state that is ruled by sharia law and all of the things that go with that.”

These comments are indicative of the role they are each playing in the NSC, as Johnston reflects Abbott’s muscular rhetoric but Bishop sounds a note of caution. She is rumoured to have resisted some of Abbott’s wilder proposals, such as sending 1000 troops to Ukraine.

2 . Johnston's self-effacing image

David Albert Lloyd Johnston sometimes introduces himself as a “bush lawyer”. He was born and educated in Perth, but spent years in legal practice in Kalgoorlie, first as a native title lawyer and later advising mining companies. He was elected as a senator in 2001.

His critics also describe him in this way, adding adjectives such as “bumbling”.

But his supporters say this self-deprecation disguises an incisive mind. Ross Babbage, one of Australia’s top defence and intelligence analysts and head of the Kokoda Foundation, says the criticism of the defence minister ignores the complexity of his role.

“He reminds me in some respects of Tim Fischer. He was always very self-deprecating – a lot of people portrayed him as a country bumpkin with grass in his mouth,” he says. “Anyone who knew him knew he was extremely bright but he found it convenient sometimes to portray himself in a way that was self-effacing.”

Babbage says those who deride Johnston either do not know him well or do not understand the pressures faced by a defence minister, who oversees an enormous bureaucracy and budget.

For one thing, he says, the minister’s capacity to do anything is restrained not only by the will of the top military brass but also by the NSC, where ministers are advised by senior departmental officials and the chief of the ADF. “I think some of the advice which may be cautionary is coming from the senior officials,” says Babbage.

Johnston has a tendency to lapse into military jargon, saying last month that Australia at that stage was not involved in “kinetic operations” in Iraq. But even his critics concede he has a good grasp of military equipment, which impresses the troops he meets. “Jaws dropped when he started discussing burn rates of ammunition propellant with an army sniper,” wrote a defence industry publication approvingly, after observing Johnston at a recent warfare exercise in Darwin.

But his public profile is still slight, and until now he has been near invisible. The last time Johnston was on the warpath was in February. He had the national broadcaster in his sights.

At issue was the ABC’s reporting of claims that passengers on an asylum-seeker boat were forced by the navy to hold on to hot metal, causing severe burns and blisters. With Darling Harbour as his backdrop and his voice full of righteous indignation, he said: “The good men and women of the navy, the Royal Australian Navy, have been maliciously maligned by the ABC.”

So furious was Johnston at what he saw as the besmirching of naval heroes that he “required a period of time to cool off” before launching his attack two weeks later. Asked why his department would not investigate the allegations reported by the ABC, Johnston fumed that the broadcaster itself should be the subject of an investigation.

It was a rare press conference for Johnston. In a government that tightly controls ministers’ media appearances, Johnston’s department has released transcripts from fewer than 40 broadcast interviews and press conferences in the past year. To put this in context, Julie Bishop has racked up some 200.

During his appearance on 7.30 this week, Johnston was unclear as to whether this military engagement in Iraq was primarily humanitarian or to protect Australia’s national security. Interviewer Leigh Sales pulled him up on an erroneous reference to al-Qaeda.

Professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University Hugh White says the interview showed Johnston was not able to clearly explain the reason for war. “He was incapable of answering the most basic of questions about why we are undertaking this military operation.” To White, this is alarming. Given the prime minister seems impatient to deploy troops, he says it is vital that the defence minister be posing the tough questions about why it is justified and what it will achieve.

3 . How Johnston joined the ministry

Johnston was in parliament for five years before he got his break, stepping in when fellow West Australian Ian Campbell was dumped from cabinet after revelations he had met fraudster Brian Burke. The resulting reshuffle created an opening for Johnston as justice and customs minister for the final months of the Howard government.

At that time, disgraced former WA Liberal senator and powerbroker Noel Crichton-Browne claimed credit for Johnston’s career.

“I would be paralysed with shock if Johnston denied I plucked him from obscurity to have him elected as vice-president of the party and then president, for which in the past he expressed his gratitude,” The West Australian newspaper quoted Crichton-Browne as saying.

Now Crichton-Browne has praise, albeit rather faint, for Johnston. “He’s intelligent, articulate and capable. You might think that’s a generic reference, but those qualities should equip him to handle his job well,” he said this week.

In opposition, Brendan Nelson made Johnston shadow minister for energy and resources. When Malcolm Turnbull became leader in September 2008, he shafted Nelson-supporter Nick Minchin from defence in favour of Johnston.

After Abbott ousted Turnbull as leader in late 2009, Johnston stayed on, with Minchin’s blessing, as Abbott sought to avoid major frontbench changes in the interests of continuity. And so it is that he finds himself defence minister as Australia sends troops and aircraft to the Middle East.

4 . Bishop's rising reputation

If Johnston speaks the language of the military, Bishop’s skill is her ability to out-charm most diplomats but also deliver tough messages with a steely glare.

Her rise has been well charted but what is sometimes forgotten is that she started her parliamentary life in 1998 with a reputation as a moderate, even risking John Howard’s ire in 2001 by saying Australia should take more refugees.

At a time when the government is being warned to avoid ideological stances, she may be the perfect Liberal, more focused on efficient administration and management than on tribal loyalties and values.

She served as education minister in the Howard government, then as deputy to the three succeeding Liberal leaders in opposition, including a brief failed stint as shadow treasurer.

Now she is in a job that suits her likeability and her ability to quickly master a complex brief and work tirelessly around the clock.

“Her reputation around this town [Canberra] is that she is very much on top of the technicalities of issues and forceful in arguing her case,” says White. “But I don’t share the very high regard some people have for her. She is well regarded in day-to-day diplomacy but the other thing the foreign minister has to do is think where is this country going. I do think Bishop is far too absorbed with the day-to-day diplomacy.”

As Bishop and Abbott head to New York for a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the demands of day-to-day diplomacy will only increase.

Abbott is certainly at the centre of the government’s recent decisions on defence, foreign policy and national security. For the nation’s long-term security, it is to be hoped that those around him with responsibility for defence and foreign policy can pose the tough questions in private and answer the basic ones in public.

It’s probably a good idea, too, if they can keep cool heads and avoid getting too awestruck as they make decisions on war.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 20, 2014 as "The making of a defence minister".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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