(above): Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon: some of the media have been acting as cheerleaders in his “media war” against his own Defence Department.
(below): Colonel “Iron Mike” Kelly has the street smarts and time in unform to become Defence Minister. Photos: ADF

By Sasha Uzunov
Copyright 2009

Regardless of the SASR pay dispute, you know it is time for Australia’s Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon to fall on his sword when he publicly has to wage a media war to bring his department under control.

So much has been made by some journalists, acting more like cheerleaders and unofficial spin doctors, about how tough, feisty and angry Mr Fitzgibbon is with the Defence Department.

He has launched a well crafted media campaign where he has vented his “anger” at his department over being kept in the dark on a number of issues and the break down in communication of events in Afghanistan. In an unusual move, his predecessor, Dr Brendan Nelson, from the opposition, backed him up in Federal Parliament. Subsequent events, such as the SASR pay dispute, have confirmed what many have been saying for a long time, and that is Mr Fitzgibbon is out of his depth.

Mr Fitzgibbon, a former automotive electrician without military experience, simply does not have the respect of those who serve in uniform and lacks the political street smarts to control the civilian bureaucracy within Defence.

He can vent his “anger” as much as he likes through the media but it will not change the situation. With Australian soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan, the Defence Department cannot afford to be distracted by political squabbles over who controls turf.

However, the underlying problem and largely ignored by some in the media with their own agenda is that when you place politicians who have never served in the Defence Forces as Defence Minister, they are too busy trying to make up for it by ‘acting tough’. We do not need those with emotional baggage to prove their manhood by risking soldiers’ lives.

The ideal replacement for Fitzgibbon would be Parliamentary Secretary “Iron Mike” Kelly, a former Army Colonel and lawyer who has served in Somalia, East Timor and Iraq.

He has the runs on the board: as an Army lawyer with the rank of Major he once wrestled and fought, in true Crocodile Hunter fashion, a warlord during the 1993 mission to African nation Somalia. (See the link to Iron Mike Kelly’s Rumble in the Jungle – 1993)

To demonstrate his political cunning, he turned the tables on his opponent, the sitting member for the NSW Federal seat of Eden-Monaro during the 2007 election.

Iron Mike , who was critical of the then Howard government’s decision to go to Iraq, was holding an election meeting and was heckled by, Mr Peter Phelps, the chief of staff of the sitting Liberal member of parliament, Mr Gary Nairn.

Mr Phelps criticizing Iron Mike’s opposition to the Iraq War and the fact that he still served on the mission: said “…And you took part in it willingly because you weren’t sent over there, you volunteered, didn’t you?”

MIKE KELLY: No, I was a soldier, and I did what I was ordered to do.

PETER PHELPS: “Oh, like the guards at Belsen, perhaps? Are you using the Nuremberg Defence? No, no, come on.”

The Nazi Germany comparison would have lost a lot of public sympathy for Mr Nairn’s election campaign, which saw Iron Mike take the seat.

Moreover, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is no stranger to using military glory, such as the awarding of the first Victoria Cross medal for bravery in 40 years, to score political brownie points. So why not appoint Iron Mike Kelly as Defence Minister?

If this present government is serious about the Defence portfolio and in breaking with bad habits from the past, then it needs to practice what it preaches.