Gillard Government Matters of Public Interest

I just want to take this opportunity to note the fine contributions that Senator Faulkner has made over many years to government. That speech really lets him down. That very grubby party-political comment takes away from the great contributions that he has made in the past to good government. It is no surprise that he is currently sitting on the back bench, as opposed to being part of the current government. I do recognise his good work, but I wish that kind of contribution had not been made. It adds nothing to his reputation.

The MPI today talks about honesty, transparency and accountability. I know that Senator Arbib is keen that we engage in a round of party political bashing, but I do not need to do that because the Labor Party itself has done quite a good job in highlighting the fact that people cannot actually trust the things the Prime Minister is saying. We just need to look at the carbon tax or the comments of the former Minister for Foreign Affairs that he was a ‘happy little vegemite’. We could go on and on. We could look at the efficacy of their programs such as school halls and pink batts, what was transparent and what was not, how well it was managed and why it was not reported up front; but, to be honest, the public knows that, so it is not going to add a lot to the debate.

I would like to look at the impact of those characteristics of the government—the fact that their honesty is suspect, they are not transparent and they are not held accountable—in a far more important area, which is national security. As you read various commentators or you look at the world stage or at headlines around the world, the events of last week have done considerable damage to Australia’s position in the world and have done considerable damage to our relationships with key international stakeholders. Even processes that the Labor Party has held dear and that the coalition has been prepared to support, such as looking at a temporary seat on the Security Council, have been set back by the affairs of last week, which were caused by the internal focus of the Labor Party. If we go back in the history of the government, we also see the dysfunction that we are talking about has been previously reported but that the lessons do not appear to have been learned. Both sides of politics quite happily stand up and say that national security is one of the most important roles for government. When Prime Minister Gillard first took over the role of leading this country, she was accused of having a scandalous disregard for national security, because instead of attending meetings of the national security committee of cabinet she found other things to do and would send her bodyguard on her behalf. That never came to light until leaks within the ALP started to prompt other people who had been involved in the process to reveal details.

That transparency—that difference between what is said and what is done—is at the heart of the dysfunction of this government, and it affects really important areas such as national security. Even senior Labor ministers conceded that the animosity between the Prime Minister and Mr Rudd was killing their election campaign and causing them not to manage as they should. The ABC reported that even Mr Rudd had shown a casual disregard for the national security committee and at times had sent his chief of staff, 31-year-old Alistair Jordan, to deputise for him. Former senior public servants described Mr Rudd’s and Ms Gillard’s attendance records as very odd and very, very unusual. Compare that with Prime Minister John Howard, who attended all but one national security committee meeting of cabinet. Under his prime ministership, only senior ministerial staff were allowed into that meeting—a completely different approach to national security.

As of August last year, there were some six senior positions unfilled in the defence and national security bureaucracy. Even the position of National Security Adviser was vacant from last August. There was not a lot of transparency around that from the government and it was only after considerable media coverage that, very quietly, the position was filled. An internal memo announced it; there was no public announcement. That is in stark contrast to that which accompanied the then Prime Minister Rudd’s appointment—again, a lack of transparency. Senior officials looking at the treatment of that appointment within the national security structure of government said, ‘It looks like they’re killing off the job by neglect.’ It is one of the most important and key roles of government, yet they are killing it off by neglect.

Mr Michael Carmody, the CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, said in the 2010-11 Customs annual report that Customs was struggling to maintain current operations given the devastating budget cuts that the agency had received. Some $34 million was slashed from Custom’s Passenger Facilitation program, Critical Area Surveillance was cut by $20.8 million and cargo inspection was cut by $58.1 million. On the one hand, you have the rhetoric but, on the other hand, you have what is done. What we see is a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability and a lack of honesty between the government and the Australian people over things far more critical than the pink batts or the school halls that people love to put in the headlines. This is national security; these are things that really matter.

Prime Minister Rudd and later Prime Minister Gillard both said that they would be supporting Defence, whose budgets have had bipartisan support over many years—figures such as three per cent real growth, 2.2 per cent real growth in the budget out to 2030 and 2½ per cent fixed indexation. But then look at what they did. In 2009 there was $8.8 billion in deferrals and $1½ million in absorbed measures. In 2010 there was no reinstatement of the cuts, despite the economic recovery, and there was a further $1.1 billion in absorbed measures. As of 2011, there is $1.3 billion of investment delayed. Talking around the fact that this government supports defence and our national security, what they are actually doing is completely different. Where is the honesty, where is the transparency and where is the accountability in how this government is approaching national defence? The real issue is that there is a sting in the tail. If you look at forecasts to meet Defence’s capability program between 2012-13 and 2016-17, you will see there needs to be a 107 per cent increase in defence spending to get back on that capability curve.

Senator Johnston: Shocking.

‘Shocking,’ Senator Johnston says, and that is absolutely correct. Where is the honesty, transparency and accountability in the government towards our national security? On the one hand, they say nice things but, on the other hand, they put us in a position where there is an almost unachievable recovery path to provide the capability that our Defence Force needs. Lastly I would like to come to the issue of leadership. Minister Smith, as the Minister for Defence, has not shown the kind of openness and transparency in leadership that is required to provide the guidance that the department needs. We have just got to look at the recent reports around the Kirkham report and how he has handled that issue. Today in question time when Senator Johnston asked the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, Senator Carr, about this, the response we got was, ‘We haven’t released that report because there are sensitive legal issues.’ If that is the case, why did the minister decide at the time that he could leap in, boots and all, and reach down—like the chair of the board beneath the CEO—to actually try to run the organisation? The Defence Act actually appoints statutory authorities to run the Defence organisation, and it is a gross breach of his duty for the minister to try to reach beneath that, to effect outcomes which have obviously now had unintended consequences. He is too embarrassed to be transparent enough to allow the Kirkham report to surface so that he can be held to account for the things that he has done during his leadership of that portfolio. Honesty, transparency and accountability: this government has not covered itself in glory in many aspects across different portfolio areas; but in the area that is perhaps the most costly and has the most significant long-term implications, the Gillard government has been found extremely wanting.