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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 156

Senator MARK BISHOP (8:10 PM) —Tonight I want to resume where I left off in an adjournment debate earlier this week and address the matter of falling and failing recruitment to Australia’s defence forces. It might be recalled that I referred to data provided in the ASPI report on the 2005-06 defence budget. Those figures showed a picture of failed targets over the last nine years. They also showed retention rates over the same period averaging about 11 per cent. I also spoke on the proposal to attract and retain more women in the Australian defence forces. A key feature of this is training which is offered by all of the services, much of which is transferable into industry after discharge. I identified the concern at family disruption, the needs of partners for employment and the changing nature of society which put it at greater odds with the extant culture of the defence services. There is, however, much more to this matter.

The government and the defence forces need to urgently review their entire approach to this subject. This includes looking at rigidities which might be structural impediments in the system. Some commentators have referred to the current term of service as a problem. Some say that the younger generation these days has a different paradigm of employment life. It is said that there is significantly less concern for single career paths of only one employer for life. That is, income security holds less fear than it did for earlier generations. I must say, though, that I have seen no research on this matter, so it remains fairly speculative. But I note in passing that both generations associated with the Great Depression and World War II held employment security paramount over all, hence the attachment in those days to careers in the Public Service and various government agencies.

I understand, however, that turnover within the Australian defence forces, at various levels, is not always considered to be a bad or retrograde thing. In fact, my information is that for other ranks, ORs, the average period of employment might be only four or five years. In terms of constant force refreshment, that is considered both desirable and healthy. That is particularly so, given the limited career paths for persons in those ranks. For officers it might be different but again there are critical career points when choices have to be made. Equally, turnover as the hierarchy narrows is also desirable. It facilitates careers and prevents the creation of bottlenecks. So perhaps any consideration of career paths as part of the recruitment and retention problem might be marginal. Perhaps wastage rates are simply the nature of the beast.

However, there are two other rigidities in the system which are worthy of comment. The first is the new policy introduced in recent years which set very high standards for fitness but again with the deficiency that there is no apparent safety net. Fitness for duty in the services is, of course, essential. But whether the standards are too absolute and too rigorous is a question. Put simply, not all services require one to be fit for battle.

It has been put to me that wastage could be reduced by having more flexibility for those less able to perform at such a high physical standard. That, though, will vary between the services. We know, for example, that the Navy cannot fill its shore complement and hence denies rotations from sea duty. Unfortunately, fitness standards have another downside. My own experience of military compensation is that medical discharge due to unfitness facilitates wastage. For defence as an employer, it is not a problem because there is no requirement for it to manage its own compensation liability. The compensation bill is always funded out of general revenue. Therefore, it is very easy to diagnose personnel as being unfit and then discharge them without consequences. The recent military justice inquiry has revealed some of those cases.

The result of this is that, in some cases, middle-aged personnel, and younger, return, unexpectedly and without anticipating it, to a labour market for which they are unprepared. The disability for which they were discharged might restrict opportunities for future employment. And, being discharged early, they have not gained marketable skills which would enable them to take up a useful place in the civilian labour market. The impression gained is that, despite efforts to improve transition management, training for work force re-entry is at best inadequate.

If skills are obtained, military personnel can benefit enormously from a service career. If not, then at discharge they are certainly in limbo. It is perhaps unfortunate that the latter impression is so strong. Recruitment, therefore, might also depend on this impression. Added to this is a second policy tenet which prevents deployment within the services to civilian and clerical jobs. This effectively makes discharge earlier, easier and more frequent. This in turn affects the retention rate. The whole debate about retention, training and discharge is, as one would expect, complex.

Some say the current controversy over military justice crystallised an unfavourable attitude towards a defence career. If so, it is a most unfortunate downside, but the remedy is obvious, if the government is serious. The government simply needs to acknowledge the veracity of the findings of the Senate inquiry into military justice. The diminution of the reputation of, and lack of respect for, our military personnel which have flowed from this inquiry are most unfortunate. The reputation of those personnel needs to be restored as a matter of priority, and that is entirely in the hands of the government and more senior personnel within the Australian defence forces.

It also needs saying that modern perceptions of risk are changing. Defence service can entail risk—and sometimes significant risk—to life and limb. In making a choice in a wider and more sophisticated labour market, that risk is logically and properly a consideration for those seeking to enter into a career in the defence forces. Public controversy about the merit of various deployments may, one suggests, be part of that. It is interesting to consider the debate about the deployment to East Timor, under the flag of the United Nations, and the debate that has followed the location of troops in Iraq. We know that in the United States, for example, the increasing body count from Iraq shown on the evening news is making recruitment into the services there quite difficult. Putting one’s life on the line in a national emergency is one thing; doing the same for another country’s emergency, outside the authority of the United Nations, is clearly a different matter.

We note that there has been other speculation, including the potential for recruitment overseas. This idea is not unique to the ADF; it is something many in industry are actively pursuing. It is also suggested that there is a need to pay greater attention to the ethnic communities. These communities are generally considered to be underrepresented in the defence forces. It is said, for example, that the ADF is predominantly a white, Anglo-Saxon community. That is another issue worthy of consideration. Recruitment to the ADF is a matter of continuing importance. This is particularly the case at this time of higher levels of readiness. We will watch this debate, as it unfolds, with continuing interest.