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Monday, 23 March 1987
Page: 1133

Senator HILL(4.26) —There are many subject matters raised in this White Paper on the defence of Australia which one could address. However, I wish to deal with the basic question of pay and conditions of service for service personnel. I almost choked when I heard the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) refer last weekend to his Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) as the finest in Australia's history. The record of this Government in relation to the key element of Australia's defence-that is, the people who give their working lives for the defence of Australia-has been deplorable. Anyone who has moved around the defence forces, as I have, both in this country and overseas is struck by the sense of frustration and disillusionment. Sometimes what might seem to us such small matters can cause this distress and disappointment. I remember that when I was visiting the Australian military contingent in the Sinai a few years ago the service personnel were disappointed that letters from Australia were taking several weeks to reach them. Obviously it was a matter of small management to ensure that letters got there quickly, but when I raised it with the defence forces on my return I was told that there was simply no satisfactory answer to this concern. That was simply not so; it was a lack of effort.

I am struck by the different status that is given to those who serve our country and service men and women in the United States of America, where the community has a real pride in those who serve in the defence of the United States itself and elsewhere. I suggest that the standing and perceptions of the Australian military force depend a lot on the attitudes of our Government. If a government underpays its service personnel, if it houses them in poor or sub-standard accommodation, if it fails to give them the normal trappings of military office, then the status of those people in the eyes of the wider community is lowered.

Little effort has been made by this Government to accord military personnel the status that they deserve in our society. There is no more honourable career, Mr Deputy President, as you will know more than most, than to devote one's professional life to the defence of what is so precious to us all. We tend to take for granted the fact that we live in a country in a state of peace and security. For many members of the new generation in this country-and if it were not for the fact that I am in this business, no doubt I would be in that category-contact with the defence forces is often negligible. Defence personnel are often separated, by the very nature of their business, from the rest of the Australian community. They live in military establishments and are given little thought by civilian Australia. Little thought is given to their conditions of service or to the shortcomings and difficulties of service. These obviously are matters to which the community should give consideration. I believe that it only emphasises the unique responsibility of governments in this regard. These men and women who make up our defence forces can draw little comfort from this White Paper on defence. True, there is the often cited rhetoric on page 90 of the White Paper in the following terms:

Our people-the men and women of our fighting forces and our defence civilian staff-are our most valuable asset and a vital resource in the security of Australia.

So often in reports such as this do we cite the rhetoric but there is little substance to support it. This is a report about strategies and about equipment; it is not a report about people. We notice simply by thumbing through the document that it contains photographs of ships, aircraft and guns, the equipment of the military forces to which this Government likes to make great reference, but few photographs of the men and women who are the truly critical aspect of our defence establishment. The people of our military forces in fact get only a few paragraphs in this document, and from it they get nothing new. That is little surprise given the Government's record of practice as opposed to its promises. It is no surprise to see that the separation rate from the Australian defence forces in 1985-86 was 12.3 per cent, the highest rate in the last decade.

If members of the forces are cynical about this Government, I suggest that they have good reason. Their employer imposed a three-year wage freeze on them and then they received only a 5.9 per cent pay increase-something which other government servants would not tolerate. It was this Government that decided to tax the recompense of reservists. It failed to understand that that small benefit amounted not so much to extra money but to a community recognition of the importance to Australia of those who, after their normal employment, made a contribution to our security as reservists in the Australian defence forces. The disastrous history of that matter is well known-the crash in the number of reservists and the huge and enormously expensive advertising campaign which followed until the Government reversed its foolish position. Of course, it takes a considerable time to rebuild morale to its previous level. Thus, for a trifling revenue gain we have had an expensive lesson in terms of the effectiveness of reserve forces. There was even talk recently of the raising of the eligibility period for pensions from 20 years to 23 years. Fortunately, it appears that that suggestion has been dropped as, obviously, the flood of separations of which I have spoken would have become a torrent.

Let me look briefly at the position of housing. Housing for members of the defence forces has been a long-standing source of contention. There seems to be a justified perception that defence housing is poor. Given that postings are a fact of life for members, it surely follows that their employer, the Australian Government, should do everything to assist its employees in relation to their housing. This Labor Government, which professes to have a bent in favour of employees, has certainly not shown it in the housing of the defence forces of this country. We hope that the new Defence Housing Authority will not be cosmetic. We hope that the $750m to be spent over the next decade will eventuate. We welcome the fact that the proceeds of disposals will be returned to the Authority rather than being paid into Consolidated Revenue, which we believe will create a positive incentive for the Authority in the management of its properties.

In relation to housing loans, members of the defence forces are still awaiting news of changes to the defence service housing loans scheme. We were told to anticipate this review within the next few months but I remind honourable senators that it has been nearly four years since it was announced in the 1983-84 Budget. Still there are delays of 10 months and a maximum loan amount of $25,000. These two facts detract enormously from the low interest rates offered and, of course, the maximum loan offered goes nowhere towards buying a house in today's market. The cynical might suggest that the delay in arriving at a decision is merely a device to defer and avoid expenditure. Regrettably, it is not hard to be cynical when one looks at the record of this Government in this area.

In relation to allowances, it has been only in recent times that the national wage cases have applied to the defence forces. Whilst their pay and some allowances are adjusted regularly, many allowances are merely subject to annual review and some are reviewed simply when someone thinks it is appropriate. Some such allowances may be minor, but some which we outside the forces might call minor have not been increased since 1981. On the other hand, rent increases, whilst defence incomes are unpredictible to say the least, are inevitably on a twice-yearly basis and, of course, are deducted immediately. It is interesting that few members of the public appreciate that much of what is provided to the defence forces, such as housing, is not given free and that the defence forces, as I indicate, are in a captive market and often not in a position to try other options as we outside the forces are able to do.

I shall look briefly at the position of pensions. Once members of the defence forces retire, assuming that they have served 20 years, they are eligible for a Defence Force retirement and death benefits pension. If we take last year as a precedent, they then face the prospect of having their pension discounted. This is a most unsatisfactory attack upon long-standing retirement conditions and a most unsatisfactory attack upon what service personnel expect after a lifetime of making contributions towards their retirement. The DFRDB scheme is not applicable to those who join the forces late in life. If they do not serve 20 years they receive merely a gratuity. That matter should be redressed; it is long overdue.

There are a host of other poor conditions that need to be redressed, not the least being the absence of interest when a refund of contributions is made. Most of us would clearly regard that as unsatisfactory. Why the terms of superannuation between the Government's civilian and military employees should be so different is certainly beyond the understanding of many of us. In this instance it is unfairly different to the detriment of the military service personnel. The option is for government to try to skimp now and pay more to train new personnel or to spend more now to retain its personnel and get training and separation rates down to reasonable levels.

The Government's strategy on defence personnel management is failing. One needs only to look at the figures for 1985-86 when we lost 8,614 men and women from the Services. The losses of other ranks personnel based on recruiting and basic training costs will cost more than $91m to make up. The average cost of basic training is $8,500 per recruit alone. Officers, of whom we lost 984, are, of course, a pricey item to lose. The cost of training an officer cadet is some $70,000. The corresponding total cost of the loss of officers is some $69m. Every unnecessary loss of a member is the loss of a valuable resource to which Australia has devoted considerable assets.

There has been a change of emphasis which is reflected in the personnel expenditure statistics in the White Paper. Personnel expenditure forms a steadily diminishing proportion of defence expenditure. In 1981-82 personnel expenditure was 54.3 per cent of the total; in 1985-86 it was only 43.4 per cent. In this financial year it will be below 40 per cent of total defence outlays. While a substantial part of this decline of expenditure on personnel can be matched with a growing capital equipment program-and, of course, to some extent can be matched with the decline of our dollar under this Government-we are finding ourselves in the position of having fine equipment while rapidly losing the fine men and women we have trained to use that equipment.

The situation was put most effectively in an article by Peter Young in the Australian of 18 February of this year. I quote the last few paragraphs of his article on this massive haemorrhage of disillusioned officers:

Quite obviously something has to be done and done quickly. No armed forces in the world can sustain the sort of losses we are taking without a dilution of expertise and operational capability-especially when so many of those who are going are young men and women of a calibre we can least afford to lose.

What is needed is for Mr Beazley to take a second, harder look at the problem and find the money to fund imaginative solutions and crash measures to bridge the growing gap in the quality of life between the military and their civilian counterparts.

But above all, the Government must accept the fact that the soldier is not just another unit of labour in the work force but a member of a unique profession of arms that demands a special recognition both in terms of pay and conditions, and national respect.

That most aptly puts the problem that I am trying to communicate to the Senate today. There are special obligations that we, in the wider community, have to those who undertake a Service career. It is about time that was realised by this Government. These benefits may take the form of re-enlistment bonuses or improved superannuation, and certainly improved housing. There could be, with a little imagination, so many obvious opportunities open to the Government to indicate that respect which we should show for our Service personnel. An improvement in conditions may not mean a lot more money. One suspects that, with better management and long term planning and posting policies, there is scope for considerable savings which could go back in the form of direct benefits to Australian Defence Force personnel. This is the area of greatest neglect in the White Paper and calls for the most urgent remedial action.