Peter Dutton has insulated his ministerial office from interference by Defence, accepting only the bare minimum of departmental staff as he prepares to shake up his $44bn portfolio.
The Australian has learned the Defence Minister has allowed just two departmental liaison officers and a uniformed aide-de-camp to work on his staff, in stark contrast to his predecessor Linda Reynolds whose office was stacked with Defence bureaucrats.
The DLOs — a feature of all ministerial offices — were brought in fresh from the Defence Department after he was named to the post in late March, rather than keeping on those who had worked for Senator Reynolds.
It’s understood he relies on his aide de camp, a naval officer, for ceremonial and protocol support.
Defence is famed for co-opting and even undermining its ministers, limiting the tenure of many who occupy the role.
Mr Dutton’s move to keep the department at arm’s length comes as he works on plans to get major procurements back on track, including the troubled $90bn Future Submarines program.
There is speculation this could include key personnel changes inside Defence’s Capability and Sustainment Group.
Senator Reynolds, a former Army Reserve officer who critics said was “captured” by her department, had 12 Defence staff in her ministerial office in 2020 who were on unpaid leave or filling temporary roles, as well as two DLOs and an aide-de-camp.
Mr Dutton’s approach at Defence is similar to the way he ran Home Affairs, when he allowed only one departmental staffer in his office in addition to the standard two DLOs.
The minister meets regularly with Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty and the Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell, and is said to enjoy good relations with both men.
He is riding Defence hard to provide solid policy advice, but is determined to keep officials away from the decision-making process.
One source said: “No one from Defence is allowed anywhere near policy in Dutton’s office.”
There has been speculation that Mr Dutton’s former secretary at Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, would follow him to Defence. But a senior source said: “I can’t see (Mr Moriarty) going anywhere.”
It’s understood Mr Dutton is working on plans for a major intervention in Defence shipbuilding programs, which face cost and schedule blowouts.
Mr Dutton, who has warned the prospect of a war with China cannot be discounted, is understood to be focused on delivering near-term capability upgrades to the ADF, given the acknowledgment in last year’s Defence Strategic Update that Australia can no longer rely on a 10-year warning time before a major conflict.
Ben Packham – The Australian Foreign Affairs and Defence Correspondent
18th May 2021