Labor is being burnt by Defence as it burns through Defence secretaries.

With the abrupt departure of Duncan Lewis (pictured) next month, Labor is on to its fourth Defence secretary since taking office in 2007. An average of about one a year is a lousy look. If Stephen Smith had managed to bail from Defence and head back to Foreign Affairs when caucus again beheaded Kevin Rudd in February, then Labor would be on its fourth defence minister.

Losing this number of secretaries from Defence is far more than misfortune, as Lady Bracknell would say, and Labor is shifting into political territory well beyond carelessness.

Canberra will note the way news of the Lewis departure broke; it certainly wasn't in a way that Labor would have wanted. Geoff Barker scored the scoop, reporting that Lewis was close to resigning amid 'mounting turmoil over current and planned funding cuts.' A while ago in print I described Geoff Barker as a 'distinguished journalist'. He protested that if this idea took hold, he'd have to start shaving more regularly. Let's force him to wear a tie by dubbing him eminent.

Most people who follow Defence would listen carefully to the Barker interpretation that the secretary was ready to resign because of the tensions between the ambitious equipment program of the 2009 Defence White Paper and the budget-cutting realities confronting next year's new White Paper: 'What the government is prepared to spend has remained so uncertain that Mr Lewis may have decided that his job was impossible.'

The Barker yarn was too accurate for anything but action. Thus, the Prime Minister put out a hastily constructed press release that starts with the Lewis departure and takes until the fifth paragraph to announce that Dennis Richardson will shift across from head of Foreign Affairs and Trade to become the new secretary of Defence. At least if Stephen Smith could not get back to Foreign Affairs, he can get someone he knows to come across from Foreign. 

Sending Lewis to be ambassador in Brussels means the Government can claim that the Defence secretary did not resign in disgust. Plus, giving him another job means Lewis cannot let off any verbal fireworks. In terms of sturm und drang, however, the haste and manner of his departure reveals much of what needs to be said.

Canberra will go back and re-read as a valedictory the highly interesting speech Lewis delivered last month. Entitled Talking dollars and strategy: the challenging link in defence planning, that effort might have just brought relations with the Defence Minister towards the boil.

The speech started by talking about the Defence secretary who set the gold standard, Sir Arthur Tange. Lewis recalled the Tange lambasting of the military services which became known as the 'Tange Harangue'; drawing inspiration from that title, his speech will enter history as the 'Lewis Lament'.

The Tange injunction that you can't talk defence without talking dollars was at the centre of the Lewis challenge to his political masters: 'Sir Arthur's maxim about matching dollars to strategy must perpetually ring in our ears. Our aspirations must match our projected budget and resource allocations.'

Lewis noted that Defence has 'reprioritised' $8 billion – including $5.5 billion to put the federal budget into surplus – out of a projected appropriation of $110 billion. He described this position as 'hard but manageable', while concluding that 'our aspirations may not easily match the available funding.' The gap between aspirations and cash is looking chasm-like.

To track the tensions between Labor and Defence, go back through the list of the recently departed secretaries. Bear in mind that this is not just a Labor phenomenon. Defence secretaries today serve at the Minister's pleasure and depart rapidly if it so pleases. The Coalition set the rules by sacking Paul Barratt as Defence secretary back in 1999. In Barratt's wrongful dismissal case the courts ruled that a minister has the right to sack a secretary on almost any grounds: poor choice of ties, bad haircut, whatever can be said to be 'prejudicial to the effective and efficient administration of the Department of Defence.'

The first Defence secretary to get pushed by Labor was Nick Warner in 2009, dispatched to run ASIS. Warner was a good man in the wrong place at a dreadful moment. He paid the price for being in the seat when Labor was very sore at Defence over the forced departure of
Joel Fitzgibbon as Minister. The revisionist view out of Russell is that the leaks against Fitzgibbon were coming as much from Labor as from within Defence. While never discounting the level of bastardry towards each other to be found in Labor ranks, Fitzgibbon's distrust of Defence still burns

Labor tried to get on top of the money and management problems at Defence by shifting Dr Ian Watt from Finance. Watt certainly didn't fail (moving on to head the Prime Minister's Department is the biggest promotion the bureaucracy offers) but he couldn't change much in two years.

The promotion of Duncan Lewis to secretary from his post as national security adviser to the PM was another example of the John Howard rule: anyone who serves the PM as a senior adviser is extremely well placed to get the nod to head a department. Giving Lewis Defence was a mark of Gillard's confidence and may also have had a touch of sending in a former poacher to be the gamekeeper.

Making a former major-general the top civilian at Russell ensured the secretary would not be easily blinded by military bulldust. Equally, as it has turned out, the departing secretary had no illusions about the tensions between policy bulldust and budget baloney.  

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.