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Linda Reynolds

Grattan on Friday: Linda Reynolds’ future as defence minister is in her own hands

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds faces an agonising question. Should she say to Scott Morrison she doesn’t feel up to staying in what is one of the most demanding portfolios in the government?

Reynolds broke down in parliament last week. On Wednesday she was hospitalised after feeling unwell. This was described as “a precautionary measure”. Her office said it followed “advice from her cardiologist relating to a pre-existing medical condition”.

Like any minister embroiled in a serious crisis over how they’ve handled an issue, Reynolds has been under immense pressure since the Brittany Higgins story first appeared on Monday of last week.

Morrison publicly criticised her for not informing him when the incident occurred in 2019 that there was a rape allegation. The opposition in the Senate pursued her relentlessly and this week she had to correct information she’d given.

She’s also personally anguished about her conduct given that, although she appears to have done the best she could for Higgins at the time, Higgins now says she did not feel supported.

This is not the first occasion Reynolds has shown the stress the job can impose on her.

It was clear after the release late last year of the report on alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, which was followed by a row over whether a meritorious unit citation should be removed. Reynolds found herself caught between backing the strong position taken by Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell and the more political stance of Morrison, who was listening to the predictable backlash from some veterans and their supporters.

Leaving aside the Higgins matter, Reynolds has plenty of critics of her portfolio performance. Now she is under fire, they have their own reasons for raising doubts about her future.

Her detractors describe her as a “nice person” but a minister lacking the capacity or political authority to deal with the defence behemoth and its continuing problems such as the vexed submarine program.

Although she was formerly in the Australian Defence Force, and so had knowledge of its issues and culture, Reynolds had limited ministerial experience when she moved into this mega job. She was given the defence industry post shortly before the 2019 election, with the promise of taking over the senior portfolio after it. It was all about Morrison’s number of women.

On the other hand, Reynolds has defenders. Neil James, of the Australia Defence Association, says her comparatively limited ministerial seniority is a handicap at times, but maintains: “We can see no reason to move her as long as her health holds up, and it’s hard to see anyone in the party who could do a better job. New ministers require six months to read into the role – and we can’t afford six months’ further delay now.”

Morrison says he has confidence in Reynolds and looks forward to her coming back. Whatever he thinks, in all the circumstances – not least that she’s a high-profile female – it would be difficult for him to push her out of defence in the immediate future.

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So, at least at this moment, her future rests in her own hands. And it is a painful choice.

If she stepped away from the defence job, it would be seen as conceding to her attackers (or to Morrison’s criticism).

Also, she has been in this portfolio less than two years and it would be galling to leave when, she might argue, she’ll have more runs on the board with more time.

But this fortnight has left her politically weakened, and the question of her health will hang over her. She is from Western Australia and the travelling for ministers from that state is particularly gruelling.

A different, less gigantic portfolio would better suit Reynolds’ abilities and situation. That, of course, is assuming her health is robust enough for her to continue in politics.

One mentioned successor for defence, if Reynolds left it, is Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

Dutton this week was himself drawn in by the tentacles of the Higgins matter. After Higgins re-engaged with the police on February 5, the Australian Federal Police alerted Dutton on Thursday, February 11. This was proper under the protocols for what are defined as “sensitive” investigations.

Dutton says, “I took a decision at that time that I wasn’t going to inform the prime minister because this was an operational matter.”

But then “as a courtesy to the Prime Minister’s Office on the 12th, when there were media inquiries, we provided some detail to him, just that the AFP had an interest in this matter and I wasn’t provided with the ‘she said, he said’ details of the allegations. It was at a higher level and that’s the basis on which we provided information to the PM.”

This information went from Dutton’s chief of staff to John Kunkel, Morrison’s chief of staff.

We previously knew the PM’s press office worked from Friday February 12 through that weekend on questions from a journalist about the Higgins matter – without telling Morrison. With Dutton’s disclosure, we now know the most senior PMO staffer was also informed on the Friday – and didn’t mention anything to his boss.

The information didn’t raise a red flag for Kunkel, apparently because it was vague. Those who argue the silence was driven by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach ignore the fact that would be counter-productive when someone was obviously going to “ask” very soon, and the PM would be caught short.

Before the December reshuffle, Dutton trailed his coat for the defence portfolio, when there was quite a push against Reynolds. If he does eventually get the job (whatever the timing), one question that exercises the bureaucracy is whether he could take with him his present departmental head, Mike Pezzullo (maybe with a lag, while the successor settled into home affairs).

Pezzullo, a hawk and lead author of the 2009 defence white paper when he was in the Defence Department, is the toughest senior operator in the public service. Some say he’d be just what defence needs; others say the military and some defence officials would be apoplectic.

The reverberations of the Higgins affair for the government will continue rumbling for some time. But in the most positive development of the week, with Higgins laying a formal complaint against her alleged assailant, the wheels of justice have started turning, albeit nearly two years after they should have.

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