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Richard Wainwright/AAP

Why the defence portfolio could make or break Peter Dutton’s political career

Defence is always one of the Australian government’s busiest — and most powerful — portfolios. Now, as Peter Dutton takes the helm, this is no exception, and he will have much work to do.

Challenges abound, both within Australia and in the region. Tensions continue to rise in the Indo-Pacific, and speculation persists about potential conflict with China over Taiwan. There are also warnings the impacts of climate change could “overwhelm” the defence force.

In addition, defence, often a portfolio that gets only sporadic attention from the public, is front and centre of much political debate at the moment. From bushfire assistance and the COVID-19 pandemic response, to the Brereton Report and twerking at ship launches, defence is never far from the news. As such, Dutton faces a series of major risks as he takes on the portfolio – but also opportunities.

The release of the Brereton Report, and the reaction to it, has brought the defence forces under intense scrutiny in recent months. Mick Tsikas/AAP

In terms of political risk, the role of defence minister seems like a death knell for a parliamentary career. Defence is one of the largest, most difficult and complex portfolios in government.

Few, if any, defence ministers go onto more senior roles in cabinet or leadership of their party. Only two of the past 14 defence ministers have served in the role for three years or more: Robert Hill and Stephen Smith. Eight of the 14 couldn’t even make two years in the role. It seems every new defence minister should be worried about their tenure, in cabinet and the parliament.

If the Morrison government is returned at the next federal election, Dutton has the opportunity to become one of the longest-serving defence ministers in decades. But this could prove elusive.

The next election must occur by May 21 2022. If the Morrison government falls at that hurdle, the maximum time Dutton could be defence minister is 417 days – less than his colleagues Linda Reynolds and Marise Payne, but more than Christopher Pyne and Kevin Andrews.

Despite the existential risk of political longevity, it seems Dutton was exceptionally keen to take on his new role. The main thrust of the argument for this change was that Dutton is a greater political force and would bring extensive ministerial experience to the role, having carved out a formidable reputation at home affairs.

Love him or loathe him, Dutton is a political presence that can’t be ignored. This has the potential to be a major source of strength for the minister and an opportunity for defence. Dutton brings considerable strategic weight and political gravitas inside cabinet, the parliament and with the media, but to many segments of the community he remains a controversial and divisive figure.

Such a spotlight carries as many risks as it does opportunities. The key challenge for Dutton will be how he goes about harnessing this power to advance the national interest and Australia’s security.

Despite being in the job only a few weeks, Dutton has made his presence felt immediately by denying Labor Senator Kristina Keneally the use of a government aircraft and overturning the chief of defence force’s recommendation to revoke the meritorious unit citation for special forces soldiers.

Read more: View from The Hill: Dutton humiliates defence force chief Angus Campbell over citation

These two actions have stamped Dutton’s authority in the role both in party-political terms and in his authority over the ADF. But they carry risk. The challenge for the new minister is threading the needle between demonstrating his strength while not undermining his senior advisers and the defence reform agenda.

Given the turnover of minsters in the portfolio in recent years, it is critical that defence has continuity of leadership in the department and the ADF. In department secretary Greg Moriarty and defence forces chief Angus Campbell, Dutton inherits two of the most thoughtful, respected, energetic and forceful leaders in the defence organisation in a generation. Forging a close working relationship with these two leaders and his other senior department and military advisers will be crucial to the minister’s ability to maximise opportunities and reduce risk.

Another critical area for any defence minister is capability acquisition. This is the big-ticket item in terms of public money.

Bringing some of the world’s most cutting-edge military technology into service is fraught with difficulty. Like all defence ministers, Dutton has to live with capability decisions of the past and the risks they entail into the future. But a new minister brings opportunities for change, greater governance and decision-making.

Acquiring new defence capability will be a key challenge for Dutton, as will maintaining what we have, such as the Collins-class submarines. Richard Wainwright/AAP

He has already fired his first broadside on this topic, saying he expects the future submarines and frigates to be delivered “on time and on budget”. This is perhaps where Dutton’s reputation for forcefulness and doggedness is most needed. He must maintain a laser-like focus on this area, as any blow-out in time or budget could easily threaten both his tenure and the nation’s security.

Read more: Submarines decision ultimately shows the merits of partisan debate on defence

Not only must Dutton shepherd in the next phase of the submarine replacement program, he also faces the challenge of keeping the highly effective Collins-class submarine in service well into the future. One of the greatest challenges here is in balancing the labour force and industry demands of servicing the current fleet while building the replacement fleet. As a non-partisan Queenslander, he could adjudicate in the battle between South Australia and Western Australia over full-cycle docking maintenance for the Collins-class submarines. On this, Dutton has the opportunity to make break the loggerhead that dogged his predecessor, WA Senator Linda Reynolds.

Other key areas for the new minister include taking the opportunity to build on the excellent work Reynolds did on strategic policy , force structure, and defence transformation strategy. He could also launch a much-needed force posture review, which would examine whether Australia and the ADF is correctly positioned to meet future strategic challenges.

Last, but certainly not least, is Dutton’s role in managing Australia’s defence relationships and the strategic environment. Given his past reputation for outspokenness on security issues, this has the potential to present major challenges. He will need to be as nimble and diplomatic on the international stage as he is dogged and forceful in domestic politics.

Dutton must deftly navigate the political reality of a new US administration – a huge shift from the Trump era. This includes dealing with President Joe Biden’s focus on climate change and the ongoing issues of our strategic competition and co-operation with China. At the same time, he must ensure his attention remains fixed on middle-power partners and emerging great powers such an India and Indonesia.

This is the realm that offers up the greatest opportunities and some of the biggest risks for the new minister. He would be wise to increase Australia’s engagement with Indonesia and Southeast Asia, as well as placing more emphasis on India and our strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

There are many other major issues for the new minister to grapple with. In fact, to list them all would seem like diving into a bottomless pit. But before we get there we will have to wait and see if Dutton survives 2021. If history is anything to go by, this could be his greatest challenge of all.

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