How the Commonwealth has managed the defence of Australia

Until 1 March 1901, when the Commonwealth took control of the former colonial military forces, responsibility for defence matters rested with the individual colonies.

After Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth took over responsibility for national defence, and established the Department of Defence to coordinate all armed services. Initially, it was mainly responsible for naval and military matters and controlling railway transport for defence.

In the 20th-century, administrative changes at times resulted in the creation of related Departments of Defence – navy, army and air. A century later, the Department of Defence continues to determine Australia’s defence policy and strategy, as well as coordinating the navy, army and air force.

Read on for more information and links to sample records.

Colonial defence

Some records were transferred from the colonies to the Commonwealth at the time of Federation in 1901 and are now held by the National Archives. But most records relating to colonial defence are held by the state archives in the state in which they were created.

The National Archives holds the following series of records on colonial defence:

We have produced some fact sheets on our holdings as well:

Council of Defence

The Council of Defence was created in 1905 to inquire into and discuss matters affecting general policy of the naval and military defence of the Commonwealth, measures necessary for the defence of the Commonwealth in times of war, and defence expenditure. The Council’s role and functions have been redefined a number of times since then. Its membership has generally consisted of the Minister for Defence, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force and the three service chiefs.

The series likely to be of interest to researchers are:

Defence Committee

Established in 1929, the primary objective of the Defence Committee was to advise the Minister for Defence on defence policy, coordinate all arms of the Defence Department and deal with the financial requirements of defence policy.

Membership of the Defence Committee currently consists of the Secretary of the Department of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force, the three service chiefs, and the secretaries of the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Treasury.

The records of the Defence Committee are in these series:

Joint Planning Committee

Established in 1940, the Joint Planning Committee (JPC) was established to advise the Defence Committee and the Chiefs of Staff Committee on operational aspects of defence planning, plans for combined operations, coordination of inter-service training and strategic appreciations.

The records of the JPC are in these series:

War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council

Australian War Cabinet
War Cabinet, Brisbane, 1940 (NAA: A5954, 1299/2 photo pl1)

A sub-committee of the Cabinet called the War Cabinet was formed soon after the outbreak of World War II. Its function was to facilitate speedy decision-making about civil defence, military defence and operations. A complementary body, the Advisory War Council, was also formed.

A good starting point for research about both of these wartime bodies is:

A detailed study of the War Cabinet appears in Inside the War Cabinet, by Dr David Horner, published jointly by the Australian Archives and Allen & Unwin in 1996.

Defence Signals Directorate

The Defence Signals Directorate within the Department of Defence is responsible for signals intelligence and communications security. The Directorate, which adopted its name in 1977, inherited a number of record collections from its predecessor agencies, the Defence Signals Branch and the Defence Signals Division. The series include:

Joint Intelligence Committee

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) was established within the Department of Defence in 1944 to report to the Defence Committee. The JIC was responsible for controlling and coordinating Defence intelligence policy, and for the preparation of intelligence reports and appreciations. In 1969 the JIC was replaced by the National Intelligence Committee.

Several hundred records produced by and about the JIC can be easily found by doing a keyword search in RecordSearch using the phrase ‘Joint Intelligence Committee’ and the acronym ‘JIC’.

Joint Intelligence Bureau

In 1947, a Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) was established to ‘collate, evaluate and distribute factual intelligence relating to topography, communications, ports and harbours, landing beaches, aviation facilities, the defences, the economic, industrial and manpower facilities and the social and constitutional organisation of countries within its area of responsibility’ (which generally covered a broad area including China, Korea, Manchuria, Japan, Burma, French Indo-China, Siam, Malaya, Netherlands East Indies, the Philippines and the Pacific Islands as far east as 180 degrees). The reporting and dissemination of political intelligence was not a function of the JIB, but rather was the responsibility of the then Department of External Affairs.

Other defence administration records

Over 500 collections are held dealing with aspects of defence policy and administration. Major Department of Defence collections include those covering the years 1935–58 and 1957–74. Other collections can be identified through searches in RecordSearch.

Sir Frederick Shedden, Secretary of the Department of Defence from 1937 until 1956, collected a large body of records. This collection, commonly referred to as the Shedden Collection, consists of more than 21, 000 records. They are described individually on RecordSearch.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019