Lessons in leadership

| August 5, 2023

Kevin Andrews remembers well his concern when, as defence minister, he was briefed on developments that signalled a major turning point in Australia’s relationship with China.

When Xi Jinping stood on the White House lawn in September 2015 and declared that China was not militarising islands it had created in the South China Sea, ‘I knew that was totally wrong,’ says Andrews, who held the portfolio from December 2014 to September 2015.

In a video interview as part of ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership series, Andrews tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that he knew from intelligence briefings that China’s construction of these artificial islands was continuing apace, and Beijing was militarising those structures.

‘This was clearly a threat, because they weren’t being built as tourist spots, to go and look at the South China Sea; they were being built as military installations,’ says Andrews.

‘They were building runways, hangars, missile installations, ports that their coastguard and naval vessels could dock at, et cetera, et cetera. So, this was a reality,’ he says.

‘I suppose at the time both we and our major allies, including the Americans, thought that we would be able to somehow contain this, that this would be the limit of China’s aspirations or ambitions, but we’ve found since then that that’s not the case.’

Andrews says he strongly favoured Royal Australian Navy vessels carrying out freedom-of-navigation exercises through the South China Sea, ‘and so should the Americans and the Brits and anybody else who happened to be there, just make it a regular exercise’.

Other members of the government were more restrained and so, says Andrews, was the navy.

He does not recall being aware of a Northern Territory plan to lease of the Port of Darwin for 99 years to a Chinese company.

When he did find out about it, he was dismayed, he says.

‘I don’t know whether it ultimately did go to the NSC [National Security Committee], but it was obviously a decision that should have.’ Darwin was of national strategic importance as the jumping-off point to Asia and an important military installation.

With a long interest in social policy and a wish to do serious welfare reform, Andrews says he was surprised to get a call from the prime minister, Tony Abbott, asking him to switch to the defence portfolio. ‘I thought, look, it’s silly to remove me from this area when I’m just in the process of getting things done,’ he says.

‘My approach to every ministry I’ve had is to essentially put your head down for the first two months, learn everything you can, read everything you can, get as briefed as much as you can, make as few public statements that you can get away with making, and really try to get on top of the portfolio, at least at a broad, superficial, or a bit more than superficial level, and that’s the way I approached defence.’

He sought to build a close working relationship with Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson and Australian Defence Force chief Mark Binskin.

One secret to being a successful minister is to be absolutely genuine, Andrews says.

‘Be yourself and don’t pretend to be anything else, don’t pretend to be an expert in the area when you’re dealing with people who are experts in the area in terms of the detail. Understand that your job is much more at a strategic and political level.’

Andrews says he aspired from the outset to ensure that when he, the CDF and the secretary spoke in public, ‘there would not be a cigarette paper between us’. While military operations are directed and commanded by uniformed leaders, the minister and the NSC authorise missions, he says.

Just 10 days after being sworn in, Andrews flew to Iraq with Abbott.

To go there was very important, he says, because to be on the ground provided experience of what was happening. ‘To fly from the airport to the “green zone” in helicopters, surrounded by special forces, just gave you a sense that this is a dangerous place.’

Talking to the troops gave an understanding of their experiences. ‘Coming at a very early stage in the ministry, I think that was very significant in terms of my better appreciation of what the defence forces are actually experiencing.’

Andrews says he tried to understand defence platforms and capabilities at a strategic level and not to get bogged down in detail. ‘I didn’t need to know how a destroyer worked in fine detail or the ins and outs of a submarine, but I did need to know what’s the strategic importance, what’s the timeframe we need to be putting in place.’

He was conscious that there’d been long delays in replacement of equipment, especially for the navy. ‘And so, it was I suppose easy enough to come to a decision that we’ve got to get on with this job.’ With that was a promise to return defence spending to above 2% of GDP, and the development of a 20-year equipment plan.

On Abbott’s wish to buy Japanese Soryu-class submarines, Andrews says that was about much more than just the submarine. ‘It was about how we build a strategic relationship in our area, in the Indo-Pacific, with a major power, namely Japan, that had been very friendly to us, and we were very keen to build relationships with Japan, with Singapore, with India, with like-minded nations in the region.’

There had to be a competition to get the best boat.

‘The competitive evaluation process was deliberately designed to address the technical issues, the financial question, and the political issue that we were dealing with domestically here in Australia,’ says Andrews.

Quotations were sought from the Germans, the French and the Japanese, which involved options of a full offshore build, a full onshore build or a hybrid build. That was done to compare the costs knowing that offshore would be the cheapest, because it was being built where submarines had been built before.

‘And it was also to try to deal with the domestic political problem, and that is that there was this clamour for the submarines to be entirely built in Australia,’ Andrews says.

‘My view always was that it should be a hybrid build. We know from other shipbuilding that the most expensive costs come with the first two or three vessels. We knew from a RAND study of surface ships that it can cost up to 45% more to build a ship onshore in Australia compared to offshore, and my view was with the submarine that differential would be even greater.’

Jennings notes that a mystery of the process was that the Swedes, the principal designers of the navy’s Collins-class submarines, were left out.

Andrews says that was discussed, but he could not go into detail. ‘The clear advice to me was that the Swedish submarine simply wasn’t up to what we required for Australia, whereas the other three, with modification obviously, could possibly meet our requirements.’

It was assessed that the German submarines were being built for the North Sea and the Baltic, and the Japanese needed to be bigger and more developed.

Ultimately the French proposal was accepted, even though it was a nuclear-powered design that had to be retrofitted with a conventional power plant.

Andrews says the submarine selection was his most difficult task as defence minister.

‘I think Australian domestic politics, and if I can be absolutely frank, South Australian domestic politics, perverted this discussion for a long period of time under both Labor and Liberal–National governments.’

A colleague saying in the party room that every bolt and weld must be done in South Australia illustrated the extent of the problem. ‘I think the delays that occurred under the Labor Party in terms of making decisions were partly the consequence of how do you resolve this problem.’

Andrews says this was in the context of South Australia’s economy languishing with the end of the vehicle manufacturing industry and jobs being lost.

‘And some of those issues are still playing out today.’

ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series is produced with the support of Lockheed Martin Australia. This article was published by The Strategist.