Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a great pleasure to be able to speak today on the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. In my previous life, before becoming the member for Canberra, I spent four years consulting with the Australian Defence Force Cadets. It was a job I greatly enjoyed. I really loved it. For the benefit of the House, cadets is a youth development program similar to scouts or guides. There are some misconceptions in the community that cadets is a training ground for the soldiers of the future, but that is complete nonsense.
Yes, many cadets do decide to serve their country— they have 20 to 30 per cent sign-up rates for ADFA— but the program is not some kind of junior paramilitary force. It is, however, a community based youth development program that gives young Australians, boys and girls of all abilities and from all backgrounds, the opportunity to learn about the customs, traditions and values of the Defence Force. They learn leadership, team building and survival skills. They learn resilience and discipline. They learn self-respect and how to build their self-esteem. They get to train at barracks and eat at messes. They get to climb all over defence equipment, learn about communications, first aid and orienteering, and, depending on which service they join—be it Navy, Army or Air Force Cadets—they learn how to fly, glide or sail or learn bush craft. And they learn to apply these skills through camps and challenges, both within their own service and across services. They learn these skills from committed volunteer cadet officers or, in the case of schools, their teachers, who are often former or current members of the ADF.
Any young person can join the cadets, including those who have health concerns or disabilities, as it is a team effort and it is as inclusive as possible. Currently the program boasts a membership of close to 22,000 cadets and 2,500 staff in 500 school based or barracks based units throughout the country. Many of these units are in regional Australia, and some of them are in very remote areas. I want to focus on those today, because in my four years of consulting with cadets I had the chance to visit many of the sites throughout Australia. It was a wonderful opportunity and it underscored to me the value of this program for young Australians, particularly in remote and regional areas.
When I was with the cadets, we decided to do a survey on the cadets and also on the staff, to get a sense of what they thought could be improved—where the strengths were and where the weaknesses were. The survey was nationwide and, as part of that, we did a quantitative survey but we also went out and did focus groups with some of the cadets. On one weekend we went down to HMAS Albatross at Nowra to conduct a focus group with some of the kids there. The stories of the kids were quite extraordinary. It was a mixed group of kids. Some of the kids were from defence backgrounds, but others were from the broader community and some were from very disadvantaged backgrounds. When we went to have lunch in the mess, which they all love doing every Saturday, one of the staff who manages the unit was telling me that for some of the kids that lunch at the mess was the only hot meal that they had for the week. That underscores to me the range of people who attend cadets and get some benefit out of it. It was not just the hot meal; those children from disadvantaged backgrounds were getting the friendship of joining with their mates in the activities and also the other opportunities and benefits that you get from cadets, including the discipline, the self-esteem and the self-management. It is a very good program for instilling those skills. During a focus group we asked one of the kids, a bit of rugged nugget, 'What is it you really love about cadets?' He said to me, 'Look, before I started cadets, I got Ds at school and now I'm getting As.' He had seen a huge benefit in his academic achievement, but I imagine there was a huge knock-on effect and benefit for that young man in his personal growth as well as his self-discipline and resilience.
I also got the chance to join in the opening of a new facility out at Cowra. These units are very strong and powerful in schools and in metropolitan areas but they have a huge role in regional and rural areas. This unit was the major youth development hub in Cowra. As was mentioned before by the member for Fadden, the program is designed for kids between 12 and 20. There were little kids there going right up to young adults of 18 or so. There were probably 50 young kids who were part of this Army unit. They were all parading for the first time and were very excited about the opening of this beautiful new unit just off the main street of Cowra. It was really interesting to see them having to stand still for so long for the parliamentary secretary who went down there to visit them. Some of poor little kids— you still see it now when you go to ADFA parades— not being able to move for so long were falling down like dominoes throughout the night. There were parents and others trying to catch these little kids. They did a commendable job in trying to stand up straight for a very long time. The member for Fadden may know this —the member for Eden-Monaro there will definitely know this: you have to move your toes in your boots to stay up straight and not faint. These kids were taught that trick but apparently for some it did not work.
I also got the chance to go to Thursday Island for the opening of TS Carpentaria, a Navy unit up there. The unit has a lot of Torres Strait Islander kids as well as kids whose parents are on postings with the Navy there. Again, I saw very vividly the benefit for youth development for that remote community. The beauty about that training ship was the fact that they capitalised on the skills and the strengths of the culture in that area. It was of course a Navy unit, they were on an island, but they also adapted the program to fit in with Torres Strait Islander culture, because they are great at fishing. So they went out and did a lot of fishing programs, which is not traditionally in the cadets program. So they do adapt programs to whatever remote or regional area they are in. Again it was a very popular unit, very well attended by young kids from Thursday Island and also one with a strongly committed staff.
One of the more interesting units was in an incredibly isolated part of Australia in Bamaga. You can only get there by charter flight. Some members may recall a number of years ago some doctors and nurses being involved in a tragic air crash on Bamaga's tiny airfield. There was a huge memorial there. It was a very touching to land there knowing how dangerous and perilous it could be. Two mothers in the Bamaga community had decided they needed to have a youth development group set up in the community for fear that their youth would run a bit wild. They set this unit up next to a Defence Force facility there. It was pretty basic and we were there to look at how we could make improvements to it. Two Indigenous women set this unit up, got funding for it and got it running as a unit designed for Indigenous cadets. What touched and heartened me in visiting that unit was that, again, it underscores the community nature of cadets and how it was a grassroots-up thing. It had been grown organically by these women, who wanted to ensure that the kids were not running wild, that they were getting life skills, self-esteem skills, resilience skills and discipline skills—and they were doing it through this Army cadet unit.
Another unit I visited on that trip, which was also in Nhulunbuy, was TS Melville Bay, another traineeship, again with a mixture of Indigenous kids and kids who were up there with the Army. Located in a very remote part of the world, this is a unique youth development program linked into something that is nationwide. The kids could have their adapted, tailored program where they lived, and it is managed and guided by broader Defence Force programs on resilience, self-esteem, first-aid and orienteering. They could capitalise at the local level on the local nature of the program but also at the more national and macro level of the program. So it was a win-win everywhere.
My experience with the Australian Defence Force Cadets, as you can probably tell, was something that I absolutely loved. I cannot speak highly enough about the program. It is a great program that builds confidence and provides a constructive activity for young people in the community, particularly in remote and regional Australia. As the member for Fadden has said, many great Australians have started their careers in cadets and many of them have gone into the Defence Force. One of Australia's heroes from World War I, General Sir John Monash, and our only field marshal, Thomas Blamey, both started their distinguished careers in cadets. As I said, it is not just a training ground for future soldiers. Yes, about a third go into the Defence Force, but the other 66 per cent go into life with a great set of skills, high self-esteem, great resilience and a strong sense of discipline. For that we can thank cadets.
The legislation that we are talking about today makes some minor amendments to provide the Chief of the Defence Force with the authority to issue direction to the service chiefs on the administration of cadets. I know from the four years I spent working with cadets that we were faced with a number of governance issues. As a result of having the three services in cadets, there are three different single service cultures. When I was there it was transitioning to a more streamlined approach but there were essentially three different ways of doing things and three different sets of policies. So there were enormous amounts of duplication and siloing, and there was an enormous amount of resistance when it came to streamlining or harmonising some of those policies. When I saw this bill come up, I thought, 'Hallelujah—after all this time!' because there has been an ongoing process in harmonising a range of elements in cadets to improve the governance of cadets, improve financial management and improve accountability. This bill is just another improvement in the effectiveness and efficiency of cadets. It is a welcome improvement for a great program. It is long overdue. It results from a recommendation of the 2008 Hickling review and it will make changes and improvements to the governance of cadets as did a number of other measures that have been introduced over recent years. The program is great and can only get better through harmonised and streamlined policy and management. I do commend this bill and I do commend the government for finally getting around to introducing this bill to the House.