ADF Recruitment and Retention Debate — Matter of Public Importance Matters of Public Interest

I rise to make a contribution on this matter of public importance raised by Senator Lambie, and I thank her for submitting it to the Senate.

This is not a new problem. Having served in the Australian Army as a regular Army officer for over 22 years and another three years in the active reserve and then having been in this place for around 15 years, involved in national security issues, I have seen a number of cycles around recruitment and retention issues.

There are a couple of things, though, that make this substantially different, and I just want to comment on those.

First the strategic update of 2020 and then, more recently, the Defence strategicreview have highlighted that, now more than ever, Australia needs a strong Defence Force. No longer do we have the 10-year warning time for creating capability, which is not just equipment but also personnel in terms of recruitment and training—individual training on equipment but also collective training as units to operate that equipment and joint training in conjunction with other forces. So the retention of ADF members is critical because it takes time to train a competent force.

There is another thing that is different.

The Parliamentary Library issued a summary of some of these issues earlier this year, and what it highlighted is that whilst, as others have pointed out, Army is leading in terms of loss rates, at around 13.2 per cent, it’s also across ranks, and the middle ranks in particular experience it.

In Army’s case, sergeants and senior NCOs—who are the repositories of most of the corporate knowledge that we need to train new recruits and, importantly, to provide leadership to people who are in the Defence Force—are some of the people we’re struggling to retain.

In the past we have seen things like retention bonuses help for particular skills, whether that be engineers of particular types or aircrew or others where there’s a high net worth and salaries outside are attractive. It may have worked, but, now that we’re looking across a broad section, we need to understand what it is that’s driving, as Mr Greg Sheridan wrote in the Australian recently, soldiers from the Army to leave in droves.

I think there are a couple of things, having been through these cycles. Morale in the Defence Force is actually linked to how they perceive they’re being treated by government, and a lot of that comes down to funding decisions.

For Army in particular, we look at the Defence Strategic Review, which has dislocated soldiers and their families. Over the next couple of years, people are going to leave my home state of South Australia, where Defence deliberately made an investment some years ago, partly because we didn’t suffer some of the same training area burdens during the wet season but also, importantly, because of retention and recruitment.

Families are more likely to want to allow their spouses to remain in defence if they’re living in Adelaide rather than Darwin. That’s not biased. It’s a fact that actually drove a significant investment by Defence around a decade ago to move units from Darwin down to Adelaide. What’s the DSR doing? It’s reversing that, and—it’s a funny old thing—we’re seeing an uptick in people leaving.

We’re also seeing budget cuts within Army.

The decision to cut two-thirds of the infantry fighting vehicle program has led to the decimation of the 1st Armoured Regiment and taken us from three armoured brigades down to one. This goes against all military history in terms of the ability to deploy capability, and that affects morale.

So, whilst retention and recruitment have been a problem for a long time in fits and starts, the decisions of this government around the DSR, in terms of cost shifting, dislocation and disrupting well-established—and for good reason—structures of three units to be able to deploy only one, are having an impact on the men and women of the Australian Defence Force.

The current recruiting, according to estimates, is achieving only 41.7 per cent of targets for people in the ADF.

Significantly, that has a flow-on effect to the defence industry, who we look to as the people who actually provide the materiel side of our capabilities. As Mr Brent Clark, who is the CEO of the Australian Industry & Defence Network, which represents small and medium sized businesses, said, ‘I have never seen so many angry people because delays and deferral of projects have seen our industry start to lose people and lose incentive to be involved in supporting defence.’

So this government is making a difficult problem worse.