Joel Fitzgibbon’s fight with NATO over its Afghanistan strategy

Joel Fitzgibbon recalls being shocked when he became defence minister in 2007 to discover that after years fighting in Afghanistan Australia did not have access to NATO’s planning documents for military operations there.

In a video interview as part of ASPI’s Lessons in leadership’ series, Fitzgibbon tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that when then prime minister Kevin Rudd handed him the defence portfolio, the ADF’s operational tempo was high with the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

‘I had a very large focus on Afghanistan, and of course, while we supported our intervention there, and certainly supported our troops, we had hoped that there might be an end to that game at some point.’

Fitzgibbon made an early trip to the Australian base at Tarin Kowt. ‘I wanted to ensure the troops knew, absolutely, and were in no doubt, that they had the support of me and their government. I think that’s always critically important.’

He was also particularly concerned about NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan, regarding it as confused and ineffective and lacking strategic focus. ‘So I went to NATO, in some controversy, to share my view with members there and to try to give effect to some change.’

Fitzgibbon was startled to learn that while Australia had a significant number of troops serving in Afghanistan under NATO, the government had no access to the organisation’s planning documents.

‘It might be that we were getting most of it indirectly through our friends and allies in the United States, but it made no sense to me that we were sending our young people potentially to die in the battleground in Afghanistan, and yet we weren’t being given a seat at the planning table.’

He made his concerns clear to NATO officials and Australia was ultimately give a role in the decision-making process.

Asked about high points in his career, Fitzgibbon said he felt that staring NATO down was a rather courageous thing to do, and an important thing to do, and something he was very proud of. ‘There’s a great cartoon on my office wall, which depicts an Australian tank going up to the NATO headquarters with the Australian flag, and two European types looking out from the first floor window, and one asked the other, “What’s got into the Aussies?” And the other responded, “Regime change”.’

Fitzgibbon said he constantly had doubts about the wisdom of operations in Afghanistan. ‘We were committed to the operations on an ongoing basis, but I was really concerned that we weren’t in control of our own destiny, we were at the hands of NATO. And I had real doubts, to be honest, about our capacity to build a government and a democracy in such a failed state, and I think I’ve probably been vindicated in that sense, in the period since.’

Both he and Rudd believed the strategy was flawed and the prospects of success were poor. When the transition was made to training the Afghan army and police they agreed that it was time to start looking for a way out of Afghanistan, ‘but in doing so, not deserting the task we’d set for ourselves’.

Fitzgibbon had been shadow defence minister for the year before the 2007 election and he expected to be made minister when the Rudd government was sworn in. ‘But as you know, these things are never guaranteed.’

He kept in touch with his predecessor Brendan Nelson, who’d been defence minister in the Howard government. There was no formal handover but the two spoke ‘not irregularly’ throughout his time in defence. The two had a good relationship when Fitzgibbon was in opposition. ‘I don’t think he’d mind me saying that I’d ring him from time to time when I was the minister, asking for maybe some guidance and drawing on his experience. Sometimes we found that Defence was giving funny advice and he would joke: ‘Well, I’ll tell you what’s next!’

After more than 11 years in opposition Labor had what Fitzgibbon described as a highly defined game plan for Defence.

‘We’d made some pretty substantial commitments prior to the election, a defence white paper was amongst them, we hadn’t had one for many years, maybe a decade.’

He went straight into organising the white paper and an associated reform program. ‘We wanted to find internal savings to redirect them to the capability we were hopeful would be produced by the white paper.’

As work progressed on the white paper, Rudd was determined to grow Australia’s submarine fleet from six to 12 boats.

Fitzgibbon agreed that increasing the size of the submarine fleet was absolutely the right decision, but he was concerned that if the plan to build the boats in Australia failed, that would be his legacy, ‘trying to chew off too much’.

Asked if he felt at the time that the submarines should be nuclear-powered, Fitzgibbon said Rudd made it clear that he wanted nuclear submarines ruled out early. That did not concern senior ADF officers because there was a general view that Australia was not capable of building nuclear submarines, and it did not have a civil nuclear industry.

Fitzgibbon said he’d since come to believe that it was a mistake to rule out the nuclear power option. ‘I do wonder looking back now whether Kevin had his eye on domestic politics and the resistance in this country to anything that is nuclear. I haven’t asked him, but I suspect that might’ve been a part of his thinking.’

Fitzgibbon said that in retrospect he felt domestic views on nuclear power generation, in particular, should not have fed into the discussions on submarine capability.

When Jennings noted that Defence was inclined to swamp ministers with paperwork, Fitzgibbon agreed and recalled that this was ‘the most punishing job I’ve ever undertaken’.

And he recalled being conscious that senior people in Defence had regular meetings wondering, and working out how they might deal with a minister, but I think that’s pretty standard for any minister. You’d know better than me, Peter.

Being responsible for such a big and complex organisation as Defence was a heavy and important responsibility, said Fitzgibbon. ‘You cannot do it without a good relationship with the leadership over in Russell.’

Ministers were heavily dependent on departmental leaders for advice and guidance and there had to be trust.

‘A great treasurer is not the expert in the economy, a great health minister is not an expert in health policy. A good minister is someone who’s able to listen to competing advice, and instinctively make a judgment about which is the right advice. You’ve got to be strong and forthright and make it clear that you’re on your game. But, at the same time, you’ve got to maintain that good relationship and follow good advice.’

Fitzgibbon says the culture in the ADF’s Russell HQ ‘isn’t always A-plus’.

During a budget conversation and a search for savings he recalls someone telling him: ‘Minister, it’s $300 million, it’s rats and mice’. Fitzgibbon responded: ‘Don’t you ever say that in front of any of my cabinet colleagues’.

‘I mean,’ he told Jennings, ‘$300 million is not rats and mice. I mean, in the context of the Defence budget, it’s not a big outlay, but it’s still a big amount of money. So, there are cultural issues to overcome.’

Fitzgibbon said that after he left the Defence portfolio, friends would tell him he was looking good. And that he looked terrible when he was defence minister.

‘I used to call it sweet and sour. It’s an amazing job you do. You have the opportunity to do some amazing things, particularly in the areas of operations. But it’s sour in the sense that it’s so punishingly hard, and you do find yourself fighting Defence a lot of the time.

ASPI’s ‘Lessons in Leadership’ series is produced with the support of Lockheed Martin Australia.