Executive Director, Australia Defence Association 1981-2003. PNG kiap, naval officer, credit union CEO, strategic policy and defence capability commentator, public-interest advocate, novelist.
Mike O’Connor was born on Thursday Island in 1938 when his father was the resident government medical officer. As a four-year old the family were living in Darwin when it was first bombed by the Japanese in February 1942. After schooling in Melbourne, in the mid 1950s he undertook his national service with the Army and remained an active infantry reservist throughout the latter 1950s (and a naval intelligence officer throughout the 1960s and 1970s).
His lifelong interest in Australia and Australians being adequately defended had a sound empirical basis from a quite formative age.
In mid-1957 a strapping 6’2” Mike, aged 19, began his service as a Patrol Officer (“kiap”) in Papua New Guinea. He served in remote and barely less-remote reaches of the then Australian territory for nearly ten years. When back in Australia for a year in 1960 (studying at the Australian School of Pacific Administration) he met, wooed and married Colleen. After returning to PNG they did not bother unwrapping any electrical wedding presents for several years because their post had no electricity. On a later long-leave in the early 1960s he transferred to the Navy Reserve.
On return to Australia in 1966 so his older children could get more advanced schooling, Mike resumed his service as an RANR officer, including several years of full-time duty chiefly in strategic intelligence and counter-intelligence billets ashore.
Meanwhile, the Australia Defence Association (ADA) had been founded in Perth in 1975, as a public-interest ginger group, by three World War II veterans (a former RAAF chief, the director of the Perth Chamber of Commerce and a leading WA trade unionist). Its genesis was the strategic watershed stemming from the UK’s strategic retreat from east of Suez, Nixon’s Guam Doctrine concerning greater allied self-reliance, and Saigon’s fall.
When the ADA became a fully national body in 1981, Mike stepped up from honorary secretary of the Victorian branch to become the first federal executive director on a part-time basis. His daytime job was heading a credit union.
By 1989 Mike had built the ADA up enough to sustain his full-time attention or so he hoped. He remained executive director until retiring in April 2003 when increasing deafness prevented him undertaking the full range of public interface needed. During this 14-year period he entrenched the ADA’s independent, non-partisan and community-based institutional basis. Throughout the 1990s the constrained financing such independent integrity required often came at significant cost to the remuneration available to support the growing O’Connor family
In the quarter century after the Vietnam War, particularly up to the late 1980s, there were few informed analysts of strategic policy and defence issues outside federal government departments, often few within them, and very few in parliament. Moreover, the Vietnam War and conscription had polarised, over-simplified and coarsened what little public discussion there was.
Along with T.B. Millar, Bob O’Neill and Joel Langtry in academia, Michael O’Connor became a major commentator in informed public debate about Australia strategic policy and defence issues. Its noteworthy that all four had practical ADF experiences to sustain their philosophical approaches.
Throughout the latter 1980s and the 1990s Mike was at times a lonely voice of reason across the full range of national defence issues.
As the decade closed, Mike’s persistent and detailed criticism of the financial and policy neglect concerning our national defence capabilities was vindicated when our professional but frustratingly under-resourced, often ill-equipped and hollowed-out defence force struggled to respond effectively to the 1999 East Timor crisis.
Australia had to muddle through, especially at first, but we came far too close to major strategic embarrassment and even potential military defeat. Chiefly through the ill-considered loss of those offshore deployability capabilities largely stripped from the ADF throughout the 1990s due to overly-theoretical approaches by departmental policymakers.
A major cause Mike had long criticised was the tendency for strategic policy-making (including White Papers) to be largely prescriptably driven by the financing thought to be available politically at the time of preparation. Instead of realistically facing up to the actual strategic risks Australia faced over the longer term and investing, and risk-managing where funding was short, accordingly.
He was especially critical of the burgeoning strategic policy – force structure mismatch this systemic cultural problem had entrenched in both politics and the bureaucracy.
Mike was, however, much respected for his genuine party-political neutrality, long-term perspective and command of facts by Ministers for Defence on both sides of politics. They enjoyed hearing informed views that challenged the often narrow or banal departmental advice otherwise received. This meant Mike was dreaded somewhat across both major political parties and officialdom as the ADA sought to hold them to account.
His occasional necessary deflation of simplistic nostrums, about how Australia’s international relations and defence policy should supposedly be conducted instead, also tended to upset ideologues on both extremes of the political spectrum.
For over two decades he authored or co-ordinated all ADA research, policy documents and submissions to parliamentary committee inquiries.
In terms of community outreach, Mike assisted generations of journalists covering defence matters, including his 24/7 access for radio and TV interviews often being taken up. He wrote opinion articles extensively for newspapers and a wide range of other publications. Every three months he contributed the backbone of the ADA’s quarterly national journal, Defender.
Later this extended to a monthly bulletin, Defence Brief and, in the later-1990s, ten columns a year in the Australian and the ADA’s developing on-line presence. Colleen also put in many hours typing and re-typing ADA reports, publications and submissions in the era before word-processing, the Internet and mobile phones made such publishing tasks much easier.
Mike’s work entailed extensive travel around Australia addressing community groups and ADA Chapters on defence issues, and contributing to Australian and international conferences on strategic studies and related matters.
His book on Australian defence policy, To Live in Peace (Melbourne University Press, 1985), focused on Australia’s patchy attention to defence responsibilities since federation, the political and bureaucratic cultures underlying this, and latter-Cold War challenges. Former Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, travelled to Melbourne from Perth to launch it, having once overnighted with Mike in the early 1960s, in the swamps of the Fly River, when making an inspection as Minister for Territories.
Five years on Mike authored several chapters for and co-edited Safely by Sea (University Press of America, 1990), on the strategic security aspects of international trade. His contributions concentrated on Australia’s (and regional) economic and strategic dependence on secure sea-lanes for our commerce and overall sovereign-freedom-of-action. When the RAN Seapower Centre was formed, Australian participation for the international study group involved passed to the Navy.
Mike had a good grasp of the mechanics of public finance, of the South Pacific, SE Asian, East Asian and North Asian regions generally, and of Australian political and social history. His tertiary studies at ASOPA gave him a taste for anthropology, as did his first-hand profound respect for PNG’s many distinct peoples and cultures. In the 1990s when most foreigners visiting PNG feared high crime rates, Mike had no hesitation travelling extensively on public transport rather than in taxis. His view was that he faced little danger, and learnt more, when able to happily converse in pidgin with his fellow bus or truck passengers.
All these experiences particularly stood out in an era when much academic and official writing on defence and regional matters lacked such perspectives and was often written by those without such broad backgrounds. Particularly among those Mike referred to ironically as “the clever people”; the academics and bureaucrats prone to theorising and policy-making from afar without any on-ground experience of having to implement policy at the coalface.
To help pay the bills for a young family when specialising in a subject to which most Australians were then indifferent at best, Mike also chanced his arm at novel writing. An Act of War (Random Century, 1990) posited what Australia would be able to do, and not do, if a regional power seized Australia’s distant Cocos Islands territory in the Indian Ocean. While the scenario envisaged a future militarist India as the notional adversary, the point of the exercise was to highlight the strategic complexity of defending mainland Australia and its far-flung territories in a multi-polar region. Given current South China Sea tensions its now well worth a read again.
Mike’s most recent book, New Guinea Days (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009), is an entertaining and reflective memoir of his decade in Papua New Guinea 1957-1966. His keen observations and wry humour pervade the accounts of development projects, enforcing law and order, and preparing the diverse peoples of PNG for self-government and independence. Mike was probably one of the very few still with us who helped educate people who had never voted before, and then helped organise, PNG’s first national election in 1964.
In the 2003 Australia Day honours list Mike was awarded membership of the Order of Australia for his contribution to community understanding of defence issues and to ongoing debates about national security policy. The Chief of Army also awarded him a CA Commendation for his assistance to army research and capability development.
In formal but not actual retirement, Mike tinkered with his model trains, read even more voraciously and widely, and wrote articles for Roman Catholic philosophical journals and Quadrant. He also contributed the occasional but pithy letter to the Australian on defence and political probity issues, the last one quite recently.
He was an intrepid volunteer for various charities. Mike particularly relished one-on-one literacy and numeracy coaching with troubled youth, and conveying people older than him to their medical appointments. Growing deafness eventually precluded the former but could occasionally be a boon for the latter.
After 51 years together the highly-adaptive and capable Colleen passed away in 2011. In 2014 Mike moved to Home Hill in northern Queensland for the warmer weather. Nine days before his death, declining any further treatment, Mike returned to Gisborne in Victoria to be with his family as his illness took its final course.
Of all his achievements, the success in various areas of community service by his five children, and his eight grandchildren generally, remained his greatest pride.
Fired by devout religious belief, steadfast integrity and a commitment to community-building across several spheres, across his whole life Mike O’Connor gave noble and selfless devotion to his family, his country and to the service of his fellow Australians. They do not make men like him anymore.