MINISTERIAL STATEMENT: Capability through Diversity

I welcome the statement by the Assistant Minister for Defence on capability through diversity, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond. When we talk about our defence capability we often focus on the technology, the hardware, the systems and the infrastructure. But I do not think there is a person in this place who would not agree that, when it comes to capability, our single biggest asset is our people—the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. It is their courage, their dedication and their bravery that make our Defence Force what it is, so it is vital that we as policy makers do all we can to attract the best people to the ADF and to provide them with the support they need throughout their career.

Both sides of government can be proud of the work that has been done in recent years to increase flexibility, inclusivity and diversity within the ADF—initiatives such as Project Suakin, which is delivering an enhanced employment model for the ADF by providing consistent access to a range of flexible career options; Plan Beersheba, which is increasing the integration between full- and part-time soldiers; the Broderick review and the Pathway to Change strategy, which have explored employment pathways for women and implemented measures to promote gender equality in Defence; and the ADF's Indigenous Employment Strategy. These initiatives are recognition of the fact that flexibility, inclusivity and diversity are each crucial to Defence's ability to operate at peak performance and demonstrate maximum capability.

While we have come a long way, there is still work to be done, and so I welcome the assistant minister's statement on capability through diversity, which focuses on recruiting and developing a larger and more representative culturally and linguistically diverse workforce. Our defence forces should reflect the diversity within our society. Through diversity Australia gains the varied perspectives needed to face complex problems. As the assistant minister said, 26 per cent of our population was born overseas and a further 20 per cent have at least one overseas born parent. Yet only 12.4 per cent of our ADF personnel were born outside of Australia. In her introduction to the white paper Australia in the Asian Century, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said:

Predicting the future is fraught with risk, but the greater risk is in failing to plan for our destiny. As a nation, we face a choice: to drift into our future or to actively shape it.

She was of course talking about the need for Australia as a nation to have a clear plan to seize the opportunities presented to us from the Asian century. The white paper states that one of Australia's greatest strengths is that we are a country which welcomes diversity and values respect, understanding and inclusion, which helps connect our people, business, institutions and governments. Cultural diversity is at the centre of Australia's identity. We are one of the most successful, if not the most successful, multicultural nations in the world. The paper goes on to say that there are gaps in participation in some of Australia’s institutions:

Our parliamentary representatives do not reflect fully our diverse population. In business, while there is encouraging cultural diversity among accounting and business services firms, there is a shortfall in the proportion of senior executives and up-and-coming executives who originate from non-English-speaking countries and who speak languages other than English.

The paper goes on: Not just business, but high-performing organisations of all kinds, will need staff who can operate comfortably in the region.

We should ensure, as much as we can, that such gaps do not exist in Defence. The Defence Agency Multicultural Plan 2013-2015 states that:

Defence’s professionalism and war fighting strength is underpinned by our ability to problem solve, innovate and adapt quickly. We achieve outcomes by drawing on the different strengths, attributes and characteristics of the many individuals who make up our teams. We understand that teamwork requires we think about how we relate to one another, respect one another, recognise the value of each person’s contribution, are fair and inclusive, and that we work collaboratively to achieve the best results on all days and in all ways.

It says: It is important that Defence engages a culturally diverse workforce that not only represents the community in which its personnel live and serve, but that draws from the full breadth of skills available. People are, and always will be, a fundamental part of our capability and valuing the differing skills and attributes of all personnel is essential to providing an inclusive workplace. Engaging with the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse community will not only support Defence’s future capability through recruitment but will assist the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse community to embrace Defence as a positive and integral part of Australian life.

The assistant minister has quoted Lieutenant Colonel Philip Holgin's 2013 article 'Religious diversity and the Australian Army: the next diversity frontier?'. I would also like to mention the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Holgin highlights a range of capability benefits to having a more culturally and linguistically diverse ADF—for example, the improved cultural understanding of local populations in likely areas of future operations, including religious sensitivities. The assistant minister highlighted the benefits of having women on the ground in Uruzgan province as well as throughout Afghanistan. The intelligence and the feedback which they have managed to gain from that experience was invaluable to that mission. A more diverse ADF will enhance international understanding during coalition operations, multinational exercises, and other activities where diverse religions are represented in an international task force. It will also enhance the effectiveness of domestic disaster relief programs through consideration and understanding of religious customs, traditions and immediate faith-related needs in affected areas. It will further strengthen the high regard in which our defence forces are held, both in Australia and internationally.

I am pleased that the assistant minister has highlighted a number of new initiatives in his speech. I welcome his focus on recruitment. I welcome the government's immediate push to increase the accessible talent pool from which the ADF can recruit individuals with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. This must be done by appealing to the influencers—that is, parents, community leaders or teachers of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I also welcome the focus on the Australian Defence Force Cadets, and I would like to acknowledge the key role that cadets play in widening the recruitment pool for the ADF, as well as being a youth development organisation, which the cadets' primary role. Traditionally, cadets have more strongly reflected the multiculturalism of the Australian population. This needs to be nurtured and carried through into the ADF. Labor has a proud track record when it comes to cadets, and it is pleasing to see cadet numbers have steadily increased over the past six years.

I also welcome the assistant minister's steps to identify a part-time Islamic imam to join the ADF's religious advisory committee and to represent the 96 ADF members of Islamic faith.

Significant progress is going to take time. And it is not going to be easy—I think the assistant minister is one of the first to acknowledge that, along with the service chiefs. I believe that a key factor in the encouraging results we are seeing with regard to having more women and more Indigenous Australians in our defence forces has been the commitment by the ADF leadership to this task. It has been particularly pleasing to see the dedication of the Chief of Army, David Morrison, to improving the gender balance within Army. Lieutenant Morrison set clear KPIs for the army to attract more women, and the gender balance is improving. Leadership, both at the political level and in the ADF, is crucial, and that is why I welcome the commitment by the Assistant Minister for Defence to this issue. We have seen strong leadership from service chiefs; of the kind we saw, for example, from General Hurley and General Morrison on the issues of sexism and abuse. On becoming Chief of the Defence Force last year, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin said that now is: 'a time of transformation for the ADF, and it is a time for continued reform for the ADF.' Diversity must continue to be at the centre of this reform. As a result of becoming a more inclusive force, the ADF will only become better; it will only become stronger; it will only lead to greater capability—because a more inclusive Defence Force will lead to a more harmonious and stronger Australia, and that is good for everyone.

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