A tainted Defence Strategic Review

Apr 19, 2023
AUKUS banner with USA, UK, Australia flag icons. American, British, Australian security alliance pact design.

P&I Editorial:

Conflicts of interest at the heart of AUKUS and the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) – including the principal author of the DSR benefitting from US State Department funding designed to build support for AUKUS and the US alliance – demand independent investigation.

Australia’s independently-led Defence Strategic Review will shortly be released to the public.

Announced on 3 August 2022, the DSR examined “force structure, force posture and preparedness, and investment prioritisation, to ensure Defence has the right capabilities to meet our growing strategic needs.” It was delivered to government on 14 February 2022 in a highly constrained timeline.

Two ‘independent’ leads were appointed by the government: former Defence Minister Stephen Smith and former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Houston.

New information provided to Pearls and Irritations raise serious questions regarding conflicts of interest relating to staff appointments made by the independent leads that put into question the integrity and independence of the DSR.

We outline the information received below and invite further clarification of these matters by the independent leads and the Government.

Prior to his appointment as Independent Lead of the DSR, Stephen Smith was a senior advisor to The Asia Group (TAG) and a Professor of Public International Law at the University of Western Australia (UWA). TAG’s March 2022 press release listed Smith’s concurrent roles as “a Distinguished Fellow and Board Member of the Perth USAsia Centre based at UWA” and “Chair of the UWA Defence and Security Institute, which he helped establish.”

These roles would not be problematic, except for the fact that, following the establishment of the DSR, Professor Peter Dean, the United States Studies Centre’s (USSC) Director of Foreign Policy and Defence, was appointed as principal author of the DSR and Co-Lead of the 2023 DSR Secretariat.

Prior to his appointment to the USSC in August 2022, Peter Dean was a Professor at the University of Western Australia, Chair of Defence Studies, a director of the UWA Defence and Security Institute (DSI), and a Senior Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre.

Neither Smith, nor Dean, are currently listed as board members or fellows at the Perth USAsia Centre. Smith, who was appointed High Commissioner to London on 30 September 2022, is no longer the Chair of UWA’s DSI. Dean retains a role as an Honorary Fellow with DSI.

According to The Australian, Dean received $283,000 in taxpayer-funded consulting fees for his DSR assignment.

Mack Williams recently reported in Pearls and Irritations that Dean also “currently leads two US State Department-funded public diplomacy programs on the US-Australia Alliance”.

The two US State Department-funded public diplomacy programs on the US-Australia Alliance that Dean runs appear to be the $150,000 USD, ‘Regional Workshops on the Future of the U.S. – Australia Alliance, Department of State’ (2018) and the $200,000 USD, ‘Looking to 2040: Developing Next-Generation Leaders and Policy Thinkers of the U.S.-Australia Partnership in the Indo-Pacific Region’ (2019). Dean features prominently on the Regional Workshop and Alliance Network project outputs, delivered in collaboration with several other institutions.

Mack Williams correctly identifies this as problematic. US government grant documents quoted by Williams outlined the objectives of the projects Dean runs as follows:

“Young Australians tend to be skeptical of the importance of the U.S.-Australia bilateral relationship …. To address these trends … the U.S. Embassy in Australia seeks to fund a program … [that will] identify a diverse network of next-generation leaders who … could build public support for the alliance … [and] develop awareness among younger Australians about policies that support the alliance.”

In contrast, Australia’s Defence Strategic Review was initiated by the Labor government to “prepare Australia to effectively respond to the changing regional and global strategic environment and ensure Defence’s capability and structure is fit for purpose and delivers the greatest return on investment,” and will, according to Defence Minister Richard Marles, “underpin our Defence policy for decades to come”.

It was designed to enable the incoming government to independently review whether defence policies and planned acquisition of US nuclear powered submarines announced by the previous Coalition Government, at an eye watering cost of $368 billion, were either value for money or compatible with Australia’s national interests and defence needs.

Can the DSR be seen to perform this function if the principal author is, at the same time, benefitting from US State Department public diplomacy funding designed to promote support for AUKUS and the US alliance?

What role did Smith, a professor at UWA, former Chair of the DSI and a former board member of the Perth USAsia Centre, have in the appointment of Dean, a former professor at UWA, inaugural director of the DSI and a former Senior Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre, to a taxpayer-funded role as principal author of the DSR?

Was any conflict of interest declared or identified by the Defence Integrity Division during the recruitment process for the DSR in Dean’s appointment as a principal author of the report? Who else was considered for the role?

Most critically – why did the independent leads appoint Dean to author the report rather than selecting from the far larger number of Australian defence experts not benefitting from funding by the US State Department?

These questions follow sustained investigation into conflicts of interest in AUKUS by the Washington Post – not by any Australian MSM – showing how retired US naval officers advising the Morrison government benefitted from a series of overlapping interests in the Australian government’s cancellation of the French submarine deal and purchase of US submarine technology under AUKUS, while concurrently holding positions with companies that were set to benefit from the Australian government’s purchase of that technology.

With the imminent release of the DSR, these questions lie with the Australian government and the Independent Leads to answer.

The serious questions over conflicts of interest under both the Labor and Coalition governments demand an independent investigation to restore public confidence in how Australian defence policy is made.


For more on this topic, read the full series of P&I articles on the DSR here:

Defence Strategic Review – Read all about it

Mack Williams

The ‘Senior Advisor and Principal Author’ of our Defence Strategic Review is a Director of the United States Studies Centre


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