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Thursday, 14 May 2009
Page: 4019

Mr OAKESHOTT (12:17 PM) —I will be brief in my contribution to the debate on the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2009 and will not talk at all about the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme because I think it has general support in this chamber. For anyone who knows parliamentary history, having two so distinct aspects of legislative reform in the one bill is almost borderline tacking. Certainly, as far as the home ownership scheme is concerned, it looks to be a sensible reform.

I want to speak on this legislation in relation to the tactical payment scheme. Whilst not opposing it through this chamber, it certainly raises several questions in my mind. The first is these broad and sweeping references to the problems with the act of grace. I would love to hear from the minister, in reply, in detail as to exactly what those problems are and with regard to the slowness of payment and the inappropriateness of that scheme in meeting the needs of operational matters for Defence. To me, it looks odd to be setting up a parallel scheme which is discretionary and which, by the look of it, removes any civilian transparency in this process and treats payments as matters of an operational nature rather than of a management nature. In my view, it should have a civilian element attached to it, and that civilian element is a minister with those discretionary powers.

This is the question I would like the minister, or whoever is going to respond on behalf of government, to respond to: exactly what, in detail, are the problems with the act of grace process for these issues that have been put in this bill and exactly why, in detail, can’t that act of grace process be tightened up so that it does meet the cultural or community interests of the various Australian operational forces, wherever they are located? For me, that is the first question that jumps out.

The second is the reporting and transparency issues. They do reflect on that. I know it is an ongoing debate, and tension goes on between civilian and non-civilian masters within Defence regardless of who is in government, but it has already been picked up by one speaker—I think it was the member for O’Connor—who used the reference about brown paper bags being formalised. There is a danger in not having very strict and clear guidelines and very strict, clear and transparent parameters, because if any of us in this place or any member of the community wanted to know exactly who got which payments, or where and why, then those questions could not be very easily answered by Defence, by the minister and by the parliament.

It seems odd that that is not included in this bill and in this legislative process. We are being asked in good faith to rely on guidelines being put in place in the future by the Department of Defence, which look—and I may have missed it—as though they remove the discretionary authority of a minister in the chair. I think that has inherent dangers attached to it that have already been expressed by one speaker with the colloquialism of ‘brown paper bags being formalised’. I hope that will be considered and will be responded to by the minister—or whoever is responding—as to what exactly the guidelines are, what the reporting processes are and how transparent this is going to be. Will we now see these acts of grace being removed from ministerial discretion and shifted from a management role to an operational role? I would be deeply concerned if that is happening, because going along with that will be a lack of transparency and accountability to the community.

Whilst I do not oppose this legislation, and certainly I understand the reasons given in the briefs, there are some red flags and red lights going off in regard to the reporting, the management and the accountability trail. I hope I am wrong, and I await a response from government to confirm that I am wrong. If not, this has problems attached to it. I have heard from previous speakers here who are flying the freedom and peace flag. From my point of view, you get freedom and peace by being as transparent and as accountable as possible. That is the safe port for all of us in a western, free democracy. If this is an exercise in denying information to the broader community then it has inherent problems attached to it.