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The government’s appointment of a three-star general to head the vaccine rollout is part of a larger trend that risks politicising the Defence Force. By Karen Middleton.

The militarisation of the public service

In Australia’s upper military ranks and wider Defence community, senior figures are closely watching the secondment of a three-star general to run the government’s vaccine rollout – some, with slight unease.

The appointment of Lieutenant-General John “JJ” Frewen is being described as understandable given both the Australian Defence Force’s capabilities and his personal reputation. But there is also concern.

“The government is being increasingly reliant on those parts of the federal bureaucracy that can actually do this,” says Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James. “The big difference this time is the increasing risk of politicising our nonpartisan Defence Force.”

Neil James says using Defence is reasonable but “misusing the brand” is not. “They’re seeking to rebuild the deficit in public confidence in the government by misusing the Defence Force.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed Frewen to the newly created Covid-19 vaccine taskforce on June 8.

Already drafted from the Australian Signals Directorate to run Defence’s Covid-19 response, Frewen shifted to the Health Department and a civil role.

It was not the first such recent move. The bushfire taskforce, now a permanent agency, was also initially headed by a military officer.

This is partly because senior Defence personnel receive specialised training in leadership, logistics and cross-agency co-ordination not routinely provided to bureaucrats.

“The public service does not train its senior managers the way the military trains its senior managers,” says John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University.

Blaxland, a former army officer, endorses Frewen’s appointment. “He has dealt with pretty senior officials and dicey circumstances in the past. He’s an impressive guy. Under the circumstances, I actually think maybe this is the best option.”

But the grey area is in the ethics: how governments may use officers to seek a political benefit from the uniform.

The taskforce is in a civil agency but Morrison has dubbed its work “Operation Covid Shield”. This echoes what he did as Immigration minister with “Operation Sovereign Borders”, although that actually was a military operation.

Frewen’s job goes beyond vaccine delivery. He told the senate’s Covid-19 taskforce that he is also tasked to “ensure confidence in the vaccine rollout”. He said: “I have direct operational control of all relevant assets and resources across the Commonwealth. And I’m also responsible for communication with the public.”

The appointment effectively sidelined another seconded officer, Commodore Eric Young. Morrison wanted someone of higher rank. More pointedly, it also sidelined Health Department secretary and former chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, who lost his press conference role when the vaccine rollout stalled.

Having adopted Murphy’s line that the rollout was “not a race”, Morrison suffered politically as it became clear it was, and that Australia was losing.

Frewen, the PM and Health Minister Greg Hunt now constantly talk up the vaccination statistics to demonstrate moving faster, enabling Morrison to acknowledge Australia is in a race without saying he was wrong.

This fits a pattern.

If an announcement has clear political benefit, prime ministers and ministers make it themselves. If the messaging turns bad, they distance themselves and apportion blame.

When a difficult message is required, or one that might be more effective coming from others with relevant credibility, such as the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, government either attributes it to them or has them deliver it.

Anecdotes from inside Health suggest Frewen is more willing than Murphy to push back against some ideas.

This week, Health refused to detail Frewen’s delegated powers or which agency pays him. Defence directed all questions to Health. The Saturday Paper understands he is seconded on instruction from the chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, acting on a government directive. A deputy secretary equivalent, Frewen reports directly to Morrison and Hunt.

General Campbell has experience in becoming a government prop – and in resisting. On March 28, 2019, he interrupted then Defence minister Christopher Pyne mid-sentence during a news conference, insisting he and other military officers step away when questions turned political.

In a report on Defence communications in January last year, the Australian National Audit Office singled out this act as setting a standard. It said Defence should improve “protocols for preserving public confidence and perceptions of impartiality” when Defence personnel “make public appearances with ministers and overtly political issues arise”.

General Campbell is likely very conscious of this. In 2013, he was promoted to run the newly created anti-asylum-seeker Operation Sovereign Borders alongside Morrison. Both refused to answer operational questions, calling them “on-water matters”. At the time, Morrison blamed Campbell for the secrecy. In fact, government drove the messaging.

As with Frewen’s appointment, the secondment was perfectly legal under the Defence Act. Refusing to follow a lawful instruction would have ended both men’s careers. It was not until becoming chief of Defence that Campbell had the authority to push back under certain circumstances. Campbell is the only ADF officer with that power.

Using the military for political gain is not new. In 1995, the Keating government’s commemorations marking 50 years since the end of World War II – badged “Australia Remembers” – became a handy platform for boosting its Defence credentials.

In 2007, the Howard government seconded a major-general to run its controversial Northern Territory intervention, although he did not usually appear in uniform.

Campbell did, as does Frewen. The Health Department refused to say who requires that.

Neil James says the uniform increases the risk of politicisation: “It’s improper if they have told him he has to wear uniform.”

As another observer puts it, the government is “very taken by the braid”.

Former public service commissioner and now ANU public policy professor Andrew Podger worries those with military skills are being favoured for permanent policy jobs. He cites Kathryn Campbell, a reservist now in the top diplomatic job at Foreign Affairs, and former vice-chief of Navy Ray Griggs, who replaced her as secretary of the Department of Social Services.

“It’s all very well to use the military from time to time … but there seems to be a shift which is concerning,” Podger says. “There’s way too much emphasis on Defence and security. It’s not a nuanced view of the world, which we desperately need.”

But Frewen’s appointment also highlights a genuine capability gap. For the past year, Defence has been called on continuously, responding to bushfires, floods and the pandemic. Some 2500 uniformed personnel have been diverted to civil tasks, along with 250 Defence public servants. Inside, the word being used is “fatigued”.

Some fear this legitimate civil role could undermine its main job: defending Australia from external threat.

Blaxland says using the ADF is sometimes necessary, but he fears a knock-on effect. “There’s not just the fatigue, there’s the opportunity cost,” he says. “These people have not done their normal training and Defence activities.”

This, he argues, could jeopardise readiness and leave Australia vulnerable.

Blaxland suggests creating a standalone civilian reservist-style agency whose members train for civil crises – a better Covid-19 legacy than just “huge debt”.

Mid-last year, General Campbell told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that the civil use of Defence personnel hadn’t reached concerning levels. He said it could “walk and chew gum, on occasions”.

However, another serving ADF officer worries Defence is skewing too far towards civil tasks. The officer points to an Army Reserve recruiting advertisement featuring crisis-relief, including rescuing injured animals.

“We don’t need people who can save koalas,” the officer says. “We need war-fighters.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "Militarisation of the public service".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.