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David Johnston’s making as a defence minister
The mixed reputations of David Johnston and Julie Bishop rest on the success of our military operations in Iraq.

It is early September and David Johnston is flying into Canberra aboard a C-130J Hercules four-engine turboprop transport aircraft. He knows all the specs. Military hardware is his thing.

As the Hercules lands and its Rolls-Royce engines cut out, the defence minister is “awestruck”.

We know this, because this is how a media release from his office described his mood when he thanked “crack” troops for their role in dropping supplies to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.

At that stage, the Australian government was readying for war, awaiting a specific request from the US for more military support.

Some 10 days later, the anticipated request arrived. It was Johnston who took the call from the United States defence secretary, Chuck Hagel. If the West Australian senator was again awestruck, we were not informed of it.

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott fronts the media in Darwin on Sunday to announce 600 Australian Defence Force personnel will be sent to the Middle East, the chief of the defence force will be by his side. The defence minister will not. As Australia prepares to go to war, Johnston is one of two West Australian lawyers in portfolios that will shape this effort. The other is Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

There can be no doubt that Abbott has led the push for Australia’s involvement in combating the “death cult” in Iraq, but Johnston and Bishop will be his lieutenants.

Both are, for different reasons, at tipping points in their political careers and this military engagement may make or break them.

Johnston has a low public profile and is viewed as vulnerable in any reshuffle. For months, there has been speculation that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison could do a better job. But now there is talk that, having stopped the boats, Morrison could take on a new counterterrorism role.

So persistent is the speculation about Johnston’s future that he was forced to respond in June, saying the PM was satisfied with his performance. “I just get on with doing my job, which may I say is a very onerous and difficult one with a broad spectrum of duties which I take extremely seriously,” he said.

These days, when Bishop professes repeatedly that she is enjoying her “dream job”, cheap canada goose jacket ontario canada is usually because some journalist is asking if she might not, one day, aim even higher. Foreign diplomats describe her as “very impressive”. And her public profile has risen in the wake of the downing of flight MH17, such that a recent poll had her as the most popular frontbencher.

They will both need to prosecute the government’s case for military action publicly, at home and abroad. And perhaps more importantly, they will have the opportunity to shape it, in the private meetings of the powerful national security committee of cabinet (NSC).

Bishop and Johnston, both 58 years old, are friends and have shared many a flight between Perth and Canberra. But in their public utterances there are signs they hold different views of what Australia can achieve in Iraq. Bishop is circumspect, Johnston less so.

In an interview with Fairfax Media on September 8, Bishop said cheap canada goose jacket ontario canada would be “impossible” to completely destroy the Islamic State (or ISIL, as it is also known). “What I’m saying is we have to be wary of claiming to be able to eliminate ISIL,” she said, “because you’re talking about an ideology.”

Johnston was more gung-ho this week on ABC TV’s 7.30. Asked whether it was possible to destroy the Islamic State, he replied: “Well, I believe it is. I believe the endgame is that we will disrupt and potentially destroy what is in the minds of the leadership of ISIL, and that is, to set up a separate caliphate state that is ruled by sharia law and all of the cheap canada goose jacket ontario canada that go with that.”

These comments are indicative of the role they are each playing in the NSC, as Johnston reflects Abbott’s muscular rhetoric but Bishop sounds a note of caution. She is rumoured to have resisted some of Abbott’s wilder proposals, such as sending 1000 troops to Ukraine.

David Albert Lloyd Johnston sometimes introduces himself as a “bush lawyer”. He was born and educated in Perth, but spent years in legal practice in Kalgoorlie, first as a native title lawyer and later advising mining companies. He was elected as a senator in 2001.

His critics also describe him in this way, adding adjectives such as “bumbling”.

But his supporters say this self-deprecation disguises an incisive mind. Ross Babbage, one of Australia’s top defence and intelligence analysts and head of the Kokoda Foundation, says the criticism of the defence minister ignores the complexity of his role.

“He reminds me in some respects of Tim Fischer. He was always very self-deprecating – a lot of people portrayed him as a country bumpkin with grass in his mouth,” he says. “Anyone who knew him knew he was extremely bright but he found it convenient sometimes to portray himself in a way that was self-effacing.”

Babbage says those who deride Johnston either do not know him well or do not understand the pressures faced by a defence minister, who oversees an enormous bureaucracy and budget.

For one thing, he says, the minister’s capacity to do anything is restrained not only by the will of the top military brass but also by the NSC, where ministers are advised by senior departmental officials and the chief of the ADF. “I think some of the advice which may be cautionary is coming from the senior officials,” says Babbage.

Johnston has a tendency to lapse into military jargon, saying last month that Australia at that stage was not involved in “kinetic operations” in Iraq. But even his critics concede he has a good grasp of military equipment, which impresses the troops he meets. “Jaws dropped when he started discussing

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