Can a movie change your life? Just ask this retired admiral – he nearly became a brain surgeon

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Can a movie change your life? Absolutely, says Chris Barrie, former defence chief turned climate campaigner.

As a young teenager, he and his classmates at North Sydney Boys High were taken to see a film at the State theatre called The Battle of the River Plate, about a famed sea battle in the Second World War.

Among the lead actors was Peter Finch, who’d also been a former pupil at North Sydney Boys.

A Peter Finch movie changed the course of Chris Barrie’s life.

“When I got home, I announced that I wouldn’t be a brain surgeon any longer, I might join the navy,” the urbane 78-year-old recalls. His banker father said “no bloody way” but his mother said “that’s perfect”. By the age of 15, he’d signed up with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and headed off for the naval college at Jervis Bay to complete his schooling.

Barrie would go on to have an extraordinarily distinguished naval career, rising to become Vice Admiral in 1997, followed by promotion the next year to chief of the defence force (or CDF as it’s known in Canberra), where he presided over all three services.

He was – and remains – the youngest person ever appointed to the role. After retiring from the defence force aged only 57 (there being no other rank left he could rise to), Barrie went on to a second career as a strategic leadership consultant, with stints at Oxford University and the National Defense University in Washington DC along the way.

The threat of climate change dwarfs that of China, admiral Barrie believes.Credit: Nick Moir

In 2008, he had a second “lightbulb” moment when he was asked by one of the country’s then leading climate scientists, the late Will Steffen, to join an expert panel advising the Climate Institute at the Australian National University. As he was reading up in preparation, Barrie came across Our Final Hour, a book by the former UK Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, which among other potential catastrophes warns about the profound threat of global warming and climate instability.

Barrie became convinced this threat would eventually eclipse all others. “Taiwan is a fatal distraction,” he tells me over lunch. “China is a fatal distraction. Climate change will get us before China.”

We’re sitting on a late spring day at an outside table at Fratelli Paradiso, close to the unit which he and his wife own in nearby Elizabeth Bay. (The couple divide their time between Sydney, a “small home” in Canberra, and a holiday house on the Greek island of Kythera, which they visit annually.)

We decide on the hearty agnello (lamb cutlets with a polenta crust, butter beans and salsa verde) for a main course, and so keep our entree simple: mixed olives and freshly baked rustic bread (dipped in fine olive oil), with a glass of Italian red for the retired admiral.

Former head of the ADF Admiral Chris Barrie at Fratelli Paradiso.Credit: Nick Moir

How does someone who spent 42 years inside one of the country’s most tradition-steeped institutions emerge as a climate campaigner? The synergies are stronger than you might think, he says.

“Culturally the navy made you think ahead. We used to have a thing called the weather eye, always having an interest in the weather and what might happen and what you might need to do. It’s all about thinking and preparing for what lies ahead.”

In 2021, frustrated at the inaction of successive Coalition governments, he and a group of former senior military and emergency service leaders, together with some like-minded people from the business world, set up the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group to agitate for faster action.

In the run-up to the May 2022 election, meetings with then opposition leader Anthony Albanese and climate change spokesman Chris Bowen “all sounded very positive” as his group lobbied for the development of a national climate risk assessment, Barrie says. But since then, he’s been disappointed at its slow progress. (Bowen’s department says the assessment and an adaptation plan will be delivered over two years, from this year.)

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen at COP28.Credit: AP

“Here we are now, halfway through their term of office, and guess what?” Barrie says. “By the end of 2024 they are going to finish this thing we thought might be done in the first year of the Albanese government. They are back to the old paradigm, the old power politics, the two-party system.”

In September, Barrie briefed teal MPs (who share his desire for stronger climate action) in Canberra. They told him they felt resented by the major parties for having “disturbed the system”.

“And I said, ‘well, let’s disturb the system even more’!”

What would he be saying to Albanese now if he had the prime minister’s ear? “That we have no time now in which to delay getting things done,” he replies. “It has been squandered. Before he died, Will Steffen used to say, ‘In 2030 we will know the answer about extinction or survival’. I think he was wrong. It will be earlier than 2030, and I think we are starting to see now what I call ‘planet fightback’ in a way that we could not have comprehended 10 years ago.”

The lamb at Fratelli Paradiso.Credit: Nick Moir

Much as he enjoyed his naval career, Barrie says there was a striking lack of professionalism in the RAN when he first joined up, recalling “extraordinary hijinks” on board the first ship he sailed in.

Sixteen young midshipmen graduated in the year ahead of his in 1963. Twelve months later, eight of those young men were dead in naval accidents (one of which was the notorious collision between HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager in 1964).

“Our navy changed dramatically after [that] when its association with the US Navy began from the mid-60’s onwards,” he recalls.

His straight-talking style wasn’t always appreciated by higher-ups. “I’ve [still] got two letters that I received when I was in New Delhi [on a defence posting], telling me to go and find another job.”

Barrie ignored them and stayed on, gaining himself two university degrees on the side including an MBA from Deakin University. These days he is an honorary professor at the Australian National University’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions (and Australian chair of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change).

John Howard had command of his job, Barrie says.Credit: Jacky Ghossein

Despite John Howard’s climate change scepticism, Barrie says he found him easy to deal with during the years he was defence chief. “He never swore at anyone, he never threw things at anyone, he was in control of the job. I hear a lot of stories about people who get that job and lose the plot.

Military men who’ve seen action tend to be more cautious than politicians and desk warriors about sending young soldiers, sailors and air crew to war and Barrie, who saw active service during the Vietnam War, is no exception.

He’s critical of the way Australian leaders seem to almost automatically follow the US into any conflict our powerful ally embarks on.

He believes Iraq was a mistake because the UN had not sanctioned the action, and not enough troops were provided to stabilise the country afterwards. When Australian troops went to East Timor, he says, they were there at the “invitation” of the Indonesia government, “so we were not invading that country”.

“[But] when we went into Iraq in 2003 we had invaded somebody else’s country. If I know anything from broad history it’s that when the invader arrives, the people who live there busy themselves working out how to get rid of the invader.”

Nor does he think we should be in Ukraine, Europe’s latest land war. “It’s not our war [and] we are a small power.”

He is more circumspect on whether Australia should join the US in any future military clash over the future of Taiwan.

“ I think that depends,” he says. (He knows Taiwan well, having gone there several times in the 2000s.)

Barrie in the Balibo area of East Timor in 1999.Credit: AP

The Americans would expect us to get involved, I suggest. “Yeah, I’m sure they do. But would we make much difference? No. It’s totally symbolic,” he replies.

I ask for his reaction to the landmark Brereton inquiry, which found “credible information” pointing to war crimes being committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan on 23 occasions, with 25 soldiers implicated.

“I’d like to know what advice was given to the government about the successive combat rotations [of SAS troops], about these guys going back in 12 times” he says. “Personally, I think that was unconscionable”.

The bill

As for the AUKUS deal engineered by the Morrison government and signed up to by Labor – under which Australia is meant to get eight of its own nuclear submarines – Barrie is sceptical on that front too. He is not opposed to nuclear submarines per se. He says he and onetime head of the defence department, Paul Barrett, spent several years “chasing the nuclear submarine option for Australia”. But their thinking back then was premised on a domestic nuclear industry, which is not the case with the AUKUS deal.

That means “we are taking some risks”, he says. “Where will the continuity of nuclear engineering be if we don’t have nuclear power stations? We’re going to have to rely absolutely on the Americans – or the British.” He adds that if Trump were to win next year’s presidential election and renege on the submarine deal, “that will be the end of it”.

Barrie believes the fast-intensifying interoperability of Australia’s forces with the US military is “practical [because] we will always be a small defence outfit, we are never going to be a world shaker”.

But the challenges lie in “what I call the great seduction of America”, he says. “You need to be in the room and eyeball people, and you need to have a brutal talk about what you are prepared to do and what you are not prepared to do.”

Coming back to climate, he fears that on current trends, limiting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees has disappeared – “now it may be two, but it’s much more likely to be three”. When I phone him this week for an update as COP28 (the global climate conference) grinds to an end, he’s disappointed. There has been progress, but it’s weak, he believes. “Like the 2015 Paris commitments to take action to hold to 1.5 degrees, it will likely suffer a similar fate”. Has he lost hope then? “Maybe we need to find another way”, the grandfather of three replies. “I think you have got to keep trying. You simply owe it to the future generations.”

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