Bureaucracy, Accountability and Effectiveness — National Security and the Australian Defence Force Matters of Public Interest

I rise to address this matter of urgency. I won’t be supporting it, but I would like to address particularly the line where it talks about people in command being held accountable for their actions. I think accountability is incredibly important. And I recognise Senator Lambie’s passion around these issues.

But it actually goes far broader than that, if we are looking to the national security of this nation, in every sense.

For those who have an interest, I’d encourage you to go back to the ASPI website and see a paper I wrote in 2012 called ‘Minister, mandarins and the military’. Another op-ed I wrote around a similar time is called ‘Blaming Defence … again’.

What those two pieces highlight is that the public, the parliament, the media and the ANAO often do hold Defence officials, whether they be APS staff or uniformed leaders, accountable for things that occur within the Defence department.

Sometimes that is quite correct; sometimes that is relevant. But often the issues which are held out—and they go to some of the things Senator Lambie has talked about, in terms of retention and recruitment and particularly also procurement and the development of our capabilities—actually involve not just the defence department but also central agencies, such as the Department of Finance, and the role of executive government.

It’s important to understand that decisions that are taken by governments and constraints that are placed on people within the Department of Defence, and the Australian Defence Force more broadly, can constrain their actions, such that people who have command don’t always actually have control of all the resources that they require, to deliver the military response options that government asks of them and that the public expects of them.

We’ve had a number of reviews over the years. Rufus Black led a review looking at the organisational issues within Defence, and he noted that, in fact, the ADF command chain was actually pretty good, but the broader department had so many committees and so much process that it was difficult to actually track down who was accountable or responsible for particular decisions that had been taken.

He recommended reducing the numbers of committees, and to a certain extent that was done in the first principles review, which was brought in by the coalition government in the 2014-15 time frame to try to bring more accountability but also to give more control over the required resources to Defence leaders.

Also at a government level, I am struck by the words of the former secretary, Mr Dennis Richardson, who in talking about the impact of the period from 2009 to 2013, when there were so many changes in strategic direction and funding, he said that the goalposts were not just shifted but ‘cut down and used for firewood’.

What that shows is that the planning that Defence does around capability, which goes to where we employ people and the equipment that they use, if you consistently change the goalposts, or, indeed, as Mr Richardson said, there is a lack of funding and you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, then it’s difficult for leadership within the ADF to keep people motivated, when you have periods where ships are tied up alongside because there’s no funding, there are no track miles for armoured vehicles and flying hours are reduced.

This reduces not only the training of the individual soldiers, sailors and airmen but also the ability of formed units to actually train together and deliver capability for the Defence Force.

My fear when I look at the Defence strategic review and the delays and deferrals, I look at the budget with no new funding and I look at the number of what we call absorbed measures where Defence will have to shift money from A to B, is that we’ll see the same degradation that General Morrison said, in an address he gave, is a ‘historical amnesia that is breathtaking in its complacency’ about the dangers of hollowing out all the enabling capabilities in the Defence Force. It’s harsh for us to criticise the leaders in Defence when many of these outcomes are not directly within their control.

Australia needs a competent Defence Force now more than ever.