Standing up for Canberra

Defence Legislation Amendment (First Principles) Bill 2015

I rise today to speak on the Defence Legislation Amendment (First Principles) Bill 2015 and to express my and Labor's support. Labor supports the bill that enacts certain recommendations from the first principles review and will, ultimately, instil a stronger whole-of-organisation approach within Defence.

Our support for this legislation is in line with our often expressed position that we will take a bipartisan approach on national security matters when we are satisfied it is in the national interest. The first principles review was released on 1 April this year and made 76 recommendations that it considered would make Defence the most effective and efficient organisation to enable it to deliver the outcomes desired by government. The first principles review made a range of recommendations about roles and responsibilities and structures within Defence, with an overriding goal of achieving a more unified and integrated organisation that has a stronger strategy-led approach and clearer leadership arrangements.

The primary purpose of this bill is to give legislative force to one of the recommendations of the review—namely, that the legislative changes I am quoting here formally recognise the authority of the Chief of the Defence Force and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, including removing the statutory authority of the service chiefs. While removing their statutory authority, the bill ensures recognition of the service chiefs as an integral part of each of their respective services. This bill also introduces a number of measures intended to streamline the legislative foundation of the Australian Defence Force. They are: to recognise the Australian Defence Force as an entity, to clarify the status of the Australian Defence Force Cadets and to recognise the role of Australian Defence Force reserves.

Labor supports the provisions of this bill that are designed to implement two specific recommendations of the first principles review. The first clearly establishes the role of the Chief of the Defence Force as the commander of the Australian Defence Force. The removal of the statutory authority of the service chiefs is also reflective of a broader longstanding trend towards a more holistic integrated approach within Defence, with a greater focus on a joint force—one Defence—rather than three distinct service organisations operating in isolation. We are aware that some in the Defence community regard the changes to the role of the Chief of the Defence Force and the statutory authority of the service chiefs as undesirable. In particular, some have expressed concern that these changes could affect the service chiefs' capacity to do their jobs, including their right of access to the Defence minister.

We have a bipartisan approach to national security issues if we are convinced they are in the national interest. In satisfying ourselves that the proposed changes are in the national interest, Labor sought and received assurances from Defence's leadership that these changes codify existing arrangements in Defence. We also sought and received public assurances from all three service chiefs that they are supportive of the changes. We have been reassured that this legislative change makes no substantive difference to the very real and continuing traditions —and very proud traditions—of each of the services of Navy, Army and Air Force.

While we are supportive of the bill, we note that some of the proposed changes, though minor, will require careful handling. For example, one of the consequential changes to the Defence Housing Australia Act removes the ability of the service chiefs to each appoint one member to the Defence Housing Australia Advisory Committee. Under the new arrangements, the CDF will instead have the power to appoint three people to the committee. It will be important to ensure that in implementing this change appropriate measures are put in place to ensure that each of the three services continues to have input into the process. I want to underscore the point that we have each of the three services providing advice on the Defence Housing Australia Advisory Committee.

The bill also implements a second recommendation of the 'first principles' review—that is, to amend the Navigation Act to allow for consolidation of geospatial information functions into the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation. We have no objection in principle to these two recommendations and we offer our bipartisan support for the bill. But, as I mentioned at the start of my speech, this introduces a number of measures that in all but two cases are not directly related to specific recommendations of the 'first principles' review. As a result of this bill, relevant parts of the Naval Defence Act 1910 and the Air Force Act 1923 are being incorporated into the Defence Act 1903, and these acts are being repealed as they will no longer be necessary. This is intended to streamline the legislative framework for the ADF and reinforce the concept of 'one Defence' as opposed to separately administered services. It is in many ways a continuation of the long-term trend towards a more collaborative, integrated and joint Australian Defence Force. 'Joint' is the direction in which the ADF is going. This in a way just reinforces and underscores the approach that has already been rolling out for many years.

As a result of the repealing of the Air Force Act and the Naval Defence Act, this bill incorporates flexible service arrangements across the ADF, with the CDF able to make or appropriately delegate flexible service determinations. This is incredibly important. It builds on the work that Labor did in government, as part of Project Suakin, to deliver a contemporary workforce with a range of full-time and part-time service categories and options—to deliver a flexible workforce that reflects the modern reality of the working environment today for men and for women.

The bill also proposes changes that will see the legislative coverage of the Defence Reserves amalgamated into a single Defence Act. This is a welcome step and continues, in legislative terms, the integration of the Reserves into the total force concept that Labor initiated through Project Suakin and Plan Beersheba.

The bill also provides a clearer definition for ADF cadets, by establishing new provisions as part of the Defence Act, which we welcome—I particularly welcome that. These provisions emphasise that the cadets is a volunteerbased youth development organisation; that cadets are not part of the Australian Defence Force; that instructors are not members of the Australian Defence Force by virtue of their role; and it will also require the preparation of an annual report on the cadets by the Chief of the Defence Force.

There is a lot of confusion about this, and I speak from experience here. For the 10 years before I entered parliament I consulted with Defence across a broad range of areas, primarily in what was then the Defence Materiel Organisation, but in a broad range of areas—the environment and equity and diversity areas—with the secretary. I also had the great pleasure of consulting with the Australian Defence Force Cadets organisation and, most importantly, the cadet policy branch. I was with the branch for three or four years, and it was a great joy, particularly meeting with the cadets and seeing how participation in cadets actually transforms the lives of young Australians. It gives them enormous skills—it builds their self-esteem, gives them discipline, develops their teamwork skills, builds their confidence, and gives them an understanding of structure. I remember that we did a surveys of both the cadets and the staff. I will never forget a little guy I interviewed in Nowra. In the interviews we conducted as part of the surveys he said that prior to his joining the cadets he was a straight D and E student and after joining the cadets he became a straight A and B student. That transformation occurred in just one year as a result of the time he spent with the cadets.

One thing I was disturbed by at Nowra was the fact that for some of the young people who came to cadets every Saturday the hot meal they had in the mess that day was quite often the first hot meal they had had all week. It just underscores the vital role the cadets play in building self-esteem and self-confidence skills, as a youth development organisation, and also just in terms of providing a sense of wellbeing. It provides support and advice and, for some of them, food in their belly.

I really enjoyed my time working in the cadet policy branch. As a result of working there for that time, having travelled right across Australia—to Thursday Island, to Nhulunbuy, to Bamaga and various other parts of Australia—meeting with cadets and seeing what had happened with the Indigenous cadet program, I know there is a lot of confusion, particularly amongst cadet staff, about their role in the ADFC—the Navy, Army and Air Force Cadets. There was confusion about what their role was, if they were employed by the ADF and how it all worked. That is why I welcome the fact that this has finally been clarified. It has taken while; it would have been nice if it had happened sooner, but I am very grateful that it has now been clarified.

I am also very grateful that the message of this being a youth development organisation has been underscored through the review, because there is a misperception among some in the community—and among some of the staff, too—that this is essentially training junior generals and future soldiers. Yes, there is a very strong pathway between the Australian Defence Force Cadets and moving into ADFA and RMC. So that pathway is there.

You will find that a number of the top brass in Defence and also senior civilians had been cadets when they were younger. But it is not designed to train junior soldiers; it is a youth development organisation that gives cadets a broad range of skills, like with other youth organisations. The beauty about this one, however, is that you get access to the base experience and the mess experience. You also get access to going into the field and eating ration packs. There are some unique benefits from being part of a youth development organisation that has a connection with the Australian Defence Force. So I really welcome the changes that are being made on the Australian Defence Force Cadet front, because it does clarify the positioning of the organisation and the positioning of staff. There has been a great deal of confusion on that.

Labor and I also particularly support the introduction of an annual report on the cadets from the CDF. That will enhance accountability. What I found when I was working with the Cadet Policy Branch was that the Navy cadets, Army cadets and Air Force cadets all had different approaches—and naturally—to rolling out this youth development program. But, of course, in this modern era we must have a uniform set of regulations and guidelines for how we actually go about that. I recall that quite often the Cadet Policy Branch would implement a particular approach and then there would be a reluctance by some in one of the services or two of the areas for it to be applied across their organisation, or there would be a degree of argument which would end up causing delay. It is fantastic that now there is a recognition that it is essentially one Australian Defence Force Cadet organisation, with one approach, and that the accountability for that will be through one annual report from the Chief of the Defence Force.

The bill also puts into legislation the nature of the employment relationship between the government and the ADF, which is currently covered by regulation 117. The nature of the ADF employment relationship and the unique nature of military service has not, until now, been expressed in regulation. This bill seeks to enshrine this relationship in legislation through the Defence Act. The relevant provision states that no civil contract of any kind is created with the Crown or the Commonwealth in connection with the member's service in the Defence Force. We believe that such an important item should be in legislation in the interest of transparency. It is one more sign of the unique nature of military service.

While discussing the First Principles Review and this government's response, it would be remiss of me not to mention the cuts to civilian personnel. There are recommendations about it in the review. Labor is always supportive of well-directed reform and efficiency measures, but such reforms should not be used as an excuse for yet more job cuts in Defence. This government has already slashed a massive 2,406 civilian jobs from Defence.

In April, when the First Principles Review was released, the then Defence minister flagged that the implementation of the review could lead to the loss of at least another 1,000 jobs. This is something that Labor has been highly critical of, as civilian Defence personnel are a vital element to the overall success of our military operations and our capability. Just this month we learned of more job cuts at the Department of Defence, with Defence's executive level workforce to be slashed by 10 per cent in the latest round of redundancies. Some of Australia's most highly-skilled and highly-specialised federal public servants are civilians in the Defence department. They include project managers, engineers, scientists and IT professionals. I am really concerned that this huge reduction in staff at the Department of Defence has the potential to significantly erode capability. I am particularly concerned about losing significant national security capability and a specialist skill set from the public sector.

This government is determined to make short-sighted cuts at a time when Australia should be investing in critical Defence roles. Losing such large numbers of staff could increase the risk of higher project costs and schedule overruns, and it could risk significant damage to workplace morale. I have been calling on the government—as I have been since I became the member for Canberra, and particularly since this government came in—to use this opportunity to go back on those plans for cuts and to explain how it plans to maintain capability after yet another round of job cuts.

In conclusion, while we support this bill, we will continue to closely monitor the implementation of the First Principles Review, particularly when it comes to job losses. We are pleased to support this bill which will ultimately instil a stronger whole-of-organisation approach within Defence. The bill updates the Defence Act to clarify the control and administration of Defence in line with the First Principles Review's first principle— that is, that Defence should have clear authorities and accountabilities that align with resources. In doing so, the bill seeks to ensure that the Defence Act is brought up to date with the way Defence is actually controlled and administered today. We believe it will go some way towards achieving 'One Defence'.

I commend the bill to the House.

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