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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Andrew James (Jim) Molan (1950–2023)

by Greg Sheridan

from Australian

Jim [Andrew James] Molan was not only one of the three or four most important soldiers Australia has produced since the Vietnam War, he was unique in modern Australia as an army general turned politician (the last before him was William Glasgow from World War I). More than that, he was a great man, as true and brave and straight and dedicated as anyone we’ve produced.

I’m honoured that he was a friend of mine.

A Liberal Party senator, Molan, AO, DSC, died on Monday, aged 72, after a battle with prostate cancer. His condition had worsened seriously after Christmas.

Before politics, Molan had a 40-year career in the Australian Army and rose to the rank of major-general. He was Chief of Operations for all coalition forces in Iraq in 2004-05 and served in a range of difficult posts including East Timor, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

In 2017 he entered the Senate but failed to secure a winnable seat at the 2019 election. However, he re-entered the Senate in November 2019, replacing former finance minister Arthur Sinodinos, who became Australian ambassador to Washington.

Leaders from both sides of politics and from overseas paid tribute to Jim’s integrity and military leadership.

Jim was a hero in every way a man can be. He put his life on the line for others time and again. In the war in Iraq he was the coalition’s Chief of Operations, the most powerful position in combat any Australian has held for many decades. The Americans revered him. He believed in counter-insurgency, that it could succeed if properly resourced, thought through and followed up with long-term commitment. I didn’t finally share that view. That, and tanks, were the only things we ever disagreed about.

But Jim was always a hard-headed realist. He believed Australia’s contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq were not designed to have any strategic effect. He was thus highly critical of them.

Before that, he put his life on the line in Indonesia. In the chaos surrounding the fall of Suharto, Jim, then the military attache, was all over the chaotic streets gathering vital intelligence for Australia. At six foot four and with strikingly blond hair, he was an inviting target for snipers.

On one terrible night in East Timor, with the murderous militias running wild, Jim advised then prime minister John Howard over the phone that Australia should send in peacekeepers, that the risk was manageable so long as the operation was done professionally.

Shortly after, in East Timor, when militia violence was at its worst, he saved the life of Bishop Belo, who the militia badly wanted to kill, in an airport confrontation. He personally drove an army vehicle through Dili to pick up Filipino nuns and stranded Australians and evacuate them. He was frequently under fire in Iraq, and more than once in East Timor.

More than anyone I’ve known, in Jim Molan there was not a sliver of daylight between what he said and what he did.

In 2012 he designed for Tony Abbott what became Operation Sovereign Borders, which enabled Australia to stop the flow of unauthorised immigrants coming by boat. This was not a callous policy. It prevented people drowning at sea. Controlling the borders meant the government could run a big, legal immigration program, including a generous, regulated refugee intake.

I first met Jim in 2005 when I went to his home in Queanbeyan to interview him for a book about his time in Iraq. It was an authorised interview and we both recorded it, he for the benefit of Defence Department boffins. Before he switched on the recording he asked me to stay afterwards and talk without a recorder. In that heartfelt conversation he told me the truth about Australian defence.

Our forces were not designed to have any significant independent strategic impact. They were purely designed to provide niche components of larger American missions.

We were, in his view, abdicating our own defence and cultivating complete dependence on the Americans. When Scott Morrison first announced the AUKUS deal under which we will one day get nuclear submarines, I was one of few media sceptics.

I strongly support the nuclear subs but the timeline is so distant that it will have no effect on our present and approaching strategic challenges.

I said this on TV and Jim immediately texted me to express his agreement. His text read in part: “There is no capability for at least 15 years, what do we do between now and then?”

He badgered his government to produce an integrated national security strategy, but no one was interested.

Jim spent the decade of his political involvement in intense frustration. Today is the day to honour him, for his like don’t come along very often.

But we should also acknowledge that ever since he got out of uniform, Jim warned that Australia is grievously unprepared for any difficult security challenge.

He made no significant progress in getting his government to take the remedial action on defence that he thought was necessary. He was intensely frustrated by this.

How could a decade of Coalition government result in spectacularly ineffective defence ministers David Johnston, Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds, but leave Molan on the backbench?

That was a sign, ultimately, that the Coalition governments were not serious about defence.

They didn’t want a giant personality like Jim, who knew more about defence than the rest of his party combined, in the job because he would have shaken things up.

He would have forced the government to answer hard questions.

Jim was constantly denied a winnable seat in the Senate and ended up in parliament through casual vacancies, happenstance and resignations. When offered a giant, the Liberal Party chose pygmies every time.

Jim was my friend and I thought the world of him. He once paid me the great compliment of saying my books on Christianity led him to think hard about his own faith and that he had started praying again.

To lose both Jim and George Pell in one week is a terrible blow for our country. I think, though, that these two good and great men will now have lots of stories to tell each other, in a place where there is only friendship.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Andrew James (Jim) Molan

Citation details

Greg Sheridan, 'Molan, Andrew James (Jim) (1950–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/molan-andrew-james-jim-33059/text41211, accessed 19 April 2024.

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