GOVERNMENT: by Warren ReedNews Weekly
Political appointments: the unseen costs
, June 23, 2007
Former intelligence officer Warren Reed criticises the Commonwealth Government for overlooking talent and professional experience in its appointments to head Australian embassies and intelligence bodies.The announcement of Amanda Vanstone's appointment as ambassador to Rome put the spotlight back on what is a comfortable escape hatch for redundant politicians. The response of the Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, was weak-kneed. He thought such appointments under the Howard Government were excessive, not necessarily wrong. We don't know what the minister responsible, Alexander Downer, thinks. It seems he just does what he's told.
But if you're working in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, your sentiments are clear. It's like a punch in the guts.
Both Rudd and Downer are former diplomats, yet they ignore the impact that purloined postings - like, say, Robert Hill's as ambassador to the United Nations in New York - have on a professional diplomatic service. When key international capitals are up for grabs, together with the job of head of department, much of the promotional incentive is stripped from your career.Under-resourced
Add to that the fact that DFAT is grossly under-resourced and no one has time to develop special skills, and you'll understand why not many people are happy.
Most officers are flying by the seat of their pants, pulled from one important job to another as higher priorities arise. Why would you stay, even after a boost in staff numbers from the last budget?
In an increasingly globalised world in which China, India and Russia define much of the geopolitical landscape, Australia needs as many trained and focused information-gatherers as it can get. And that's before you start on the war against terror.
Most Australians are under-whelmed by such matters, unaware that people in other places watch these developments closely. Our key adversaries know we're not running an American-style system where a raft of diplomatic postings are political, and hence they appreciate the ill will generated by Canberra's move away from professionalism. Foreign intelligence officers circle like sharks, hoping to exploit the disenchantment that many diplomatic officials feel.
Our adversaries also note the same syndrome at work in Australia's intelligence community, where almost all key agencies are run by bureaucrats with no hands-on experience in the intelligence game. On the shadowy battlefield involved here, those watching us find it difficult to believe that we would put in charge of strategic divisions generals who have never been in uniform and never led troops under fire.
Intelligence has always been about the allocation of limited resources: you never have enough experienced talent to go round. Having agency chiefs who can't understand that one prime factor from direct experience is looking for trouble.
It also has a corrosive effect on the agencies themselves. The inference is that no one with a proven track-record inside is worthy of promotion to the top job, let alone to run another organisation in the intelligence community.
If it is a fact that such internal talent really doesn't exist, then the public needs to know why successive governments have failed to nurture it. In reality, it is there. It's just that it's ignored.
Most Australians logically surmise that bureaucrats are chosen, not necessarily for their experience so much as their willingness to promote the government's political agenda, and one that may not always correspond with the national interest.
Few observers doubt the skills of these bureaucrats in other fields. Rather, it's their inappropriateness for an intelligence agency that's in question. The message that's conveyed inside the system is that under their stewardship only those deemed fit to follow will be promoted or allowed to proffer their wise counsel on important issues.Intelligence work
This, of course, is the antithesis of intelligence work, which is all about ascertaining unknown realities, capabilities and intentions and relaying them back to government decision-makers for what they are, rather than what someone else wants them to be.
The appointment of bureaucrats merely advertises the fact that we're not taking things seriously. It doesn't help with recruitment, nor does it inspire confidence in the broader community in the leadership of these agencies at a time when the country is under threat of possible terrorist attack.
A logical point of comparison for Australia is Britain: our two main intelligence agencies were established off a British plan and under British tutelage in the 1940s and '50s. Though not generally appreciated, this is something that has served our country well ever since.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which is meant to stop nasties - be they foreign spies, terrorists or home-grown traitors - operating on our soil, was modelled on MI5, Britain's domestic Security Service.
The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), our overseas intelligence-gathering agency, was taken straight off the blueprint for Britain's SIS, commonly known as MI6, with an "A" added in front.Career spies
Early in 2006, John Scarlett took over from Sir Richard Dearlove as the new Chief of MI6. Both are professional career spies. Likewise, Jonathon Evans took over as the head of MI5 in April 2007. He had been deputy director-general for two years and a career officer of MI5 for 27 years.
Neither head of ASIO or ASIS has ever been in intelligence.
With Australia now in election mode, we need both parties to explain to us how they plan to arrest the drift here in these important areas of national security.
How are they going to return us to a fully professional and meritocratic system? And will they promise a bipartisan approach for the future?
Not only is this in the interest of all Australians, we owe it to the men and women who work in these often demanding and dangerous lines of work.
If we can't attend to this quickly and effectively, we should be asking ourselves, who is it that gains from the direction we're currently heading in?- Warren Reed was an officer of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) for 10 years. Trained by MI6 in London, he served in Asia and the Middle East.