The unprecedented clampdown on Defence’s engagement with media imposed – or agreed to without explanation – by Defence Minister Peter Dutton, has reinforced the importance of Senate Estimates in prising information from sometimes-reluctant Ministers, senior ADF officers, and bureaucrats. Especially bureaucrats.
The spectrum ranges from hard-won insights into the progress or otherwise of multi-billion-dollar programs to eliciting responsibilities – the latter an activity that occasionally resembles an episode of Yes Minister.
This aspect was on show at the standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation on 1 and 2 June. Although only two months after Dutton assumed the Defence portfolio, it was long enough for the new and restrictive media contact guidelines to have been circulated within Defence, with an immediate and adverse impact.
But circulated by whom?
Although the Minister’s office has failed to respond to questions on the genesis of the restrictions, Associate Secretary of Defence Katherine Jones told the committee on 1 June she understood that an email had been sent “by someone within the department purporting to paraphrase.”
As set out in the leaked guidelines, responses to media queries were to be as brief and succinct as possible with answers limited to three paragraphs regardless of question complexity, while capability-related interviews were unlikely to be approved and should instead revert to written responses.
Questioned by Senate opposition leader Penny Wong, Jones was reported by Hansard as saying she did not know who had distributed the email but it was a low-level officer.
“What I would say is that, in the course of engaging the Minister’s office around media issues, we received feedback in our ministerial and executive communication area. That general feedback and advice about expectations was then communicated more broadly to the senior leadership,” Jones said.
Senator Wong: “Somebody in your area – is that right? – received those instructions from the Minister’s office, paraphrased it and sent an email to other officers in the department.”
Jones: “The email that was sent did not come from my area. It was someone summarising the advice that had been provided to the senior leadership.”
Senator Wong: “Someone summarising advice provided to the senior leadership by the Minister’s office.”
Make of that what you will.
(Author: An official source later told ADM that work was proceeding as normal on processing media requests and inquiries. However, many requests continue to be either declined or ignored).
Red carpets and submarines
Moving on, some eyebrows were obviously raised when red carpet was included in an arrival ceremony for Prime Minister Scott Morrison at an undisclosed RAAF base.
Rejecting suggestions this had been requested by the Prime Minister’s office, Air Force chief Mel Hupfeld attributed the carpet to “protocol creep” at the base.
While appropriate stair guards could be used to greet VIP visitors “in working across the Defence enterprise now for ceremonial occasions, my intent is to only use red carpet, as a key example here, for regal, vice regal or (foreign) head of state occasions,” he told the committee.
On a separate occasion, arranging for the Top Gun soundtrack to greet the Prime Minister as he entered a hangar at RAAF Williamtown had been organised by industry for an industry event, Air Marshal Hupfeld added.
Considerable time was spent not only on Future Submarine progress – which, of course, was scrapped in September – but also on whether Commodore Tim Brown, Director-General of Submarine Capability, whose presence at the hearing had been requested by Senator Wong and independent senator Rex Patrick, was sufficiently senior to attend.
Referring to what he described as a long-standing convention that Defence was represented at Senate Estimates by Band 2 officials, two-star officers and above, Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty acknowledged he had informed the Defence Minister’s office in advance that it was not usual practice for one-star officers to attend the hearings.
This, he confirmed, was in relation to a media article stating that CDRE Brown might be asked to appear.
Summarising a lengthy exchange from her perspective, Senator Wong commented that on the basis of the Secretary’s evidence “he just magically reads this article, decides that he doesn’t want (CDRE Brown) to attend, he says, on the basis of convention—which Senator Patrick has demonstrated is not the case—raises it with the chief of staff or the deputy chief of staff to the Minister for Defence and makes sure he speaks to the Chief of Navy on the night before Estimates, after he gets the letter from us.
“That’s a lot of transactions and attention from a very senior public servant making sure someone doesn’t turn up to answer questions.”
CDRE Brown did in fact attend the hearing the following day, presumably after the Secretary had consulted, as he had said he would do, with the Chief of the Defence Force, the Head of Navy, and Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, Chief of Joint Capabilities.
Answering questions, CDRE Brown disclosed that he was focusing on the broad aspects of undersea warfare requirements that were relevant to the Defence Capability Enhancement Review headed by VADM Mead which, it emerged separately, commenced work in February.
Much of what he had been doing was highly classified and could not be discussed, CDRE Brown explained, and that, basically, was that.
So far as the review itself was concerned, Moriarty disclosed it was underpinned by a detailed intelligence assessment, and would be looking at the impacts of the changing threat environment and developments in technologies “to determine the suitability of our planned capability investments in meeting our strategic objectives.”
The Future Frigates
Taking up concerns with the $44 billion Future Frigate program, the Estimates process again proved its worth by eliciting information not only forewarning of potential delays to the Hunter-class but providing valuable background to the delay in construction of up to 18 months eventually announced by the Defence Minister on 31 July.
Two months earlier Sheryl Lutz, first Assistant Secretary Ships at CASG, had advised the 1 June Estimates hearing that the maturity of the UK Type 26 reference design for the Hunter-class program had been affected by COVID “and that is impacting how we work through our combat system changes that are the mandated government changes to the Type 26.”
These she noted as the Aegis combat management system, the Australian-developed CEAFAR2 phased array radar, the Lockheed Martin MH-60R naval combat helicopter, and Australian-specific weapons and communications.
Options to government for the start of construction were being progressed as part of a systems definition review and would be completed in one to two months, Lutz said at the time. And the Dutton announcement was then made almost precisely as predicted.
ADM was subsequently told by a government spokesperson that the construction delay “will enable greater design maturity and a more efficient build phase.”
Time lost in delaying construction of Ship 1 would be recovered – sources separately said by Ship 4, but not how – and all nine frigates would still be delivered by 2044, as planned and within the $44.1 billion budget, the spokesman said.
Other concerns raised earlier at Estimates included the 8,200 tonne ‘light ship weight’ of the Hunter-class and a weight growth margin of just 270 tonnes, or 3.3 per cent.
“We’ve come from a reference ship design, and we had space and weight envelopes which (designer and shipbuilder) BAE had to adhere to for the mandated changes,” said Lutz.
“I suppose there’s always risk when you’ve got a smaller weight growth margin, but, throughout the fleet, Navy has managed small growth margins and maintained the ships,” she added.
Although the Hunter-class was heavier than the UK Type 26, the range, speed and acoustics of the Australian ship would not be affected thanks to changes to the hull being funded by Australia and possibly incorporated in batch 2 of the UK Type 26’s, Lutz stated.
Full displacement weight of the UK ships is about 8,800 tonnes; that of the Hunter-class was still to be determined but was expected to be around 10,000 tonnes, Lutz disclosed.
Construction of the UK’s Type 26 first-of-class Glasgow began in 2017. Glasgow was originally expected to enter service in the early 2020s but delays have put that back to 2027. The second and third ships will follow at intervals of up to 18 months.
A version of this article first appeared in the September edition of ADM.