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Tuesday, 5 December 2006
Page: 95

Senator BARTLETT (8:00 PM) —Senator Bishop has just gone quite thoroughly through all the provisions of the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill 2006 and the amendments that will be made to the act, so I will not go over the same ground again. I would like to reinforce some of the concerns that he raised and associate the Democrats with them. Being on the crossbenches with a lot of different areas I have to try to cover, I have not been able to follow this issue with the detail that I would like.

I was involved to a relatively small degree in the original Senate committee inquiry into the military justice system and I thought it was a very good report. I was pleased to be a part of it and I have been seeking to follow progress since that time. I share the concerns in regard to the inadequacy of some of the responses. I suppose I have to say, to be balanced, that compared with the way that many ministers respond to other Senate committee reports the government and the Defence Force are doing pretty well. It would not be hard to do well by comparison because most government responses to committee reports are abysmal. They are extremely slow for starters and often fairly dismissive as well when their response does finally come down. I would at least acknowledge again on the record there was a relatively prompt response by the then Minister for Defence, Minister Hill, which was accompanied by some action, and there is continuing action.

I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that, even so, I am not satisfied with all that has been done but it is also appropriate to acknowledge that there has been action, there continues to be and there will be further action. I know the committee, which I am no longer a member of due to time constraints, is continuing to follow through, to pressure the government and defence forces and also to monitor progress. That is very commendable because one area where committees sometimes fall down is in the follow-through when they have produced the report and urged everybody to take it on board but do not actually then follow through with the issues. The committee is doing that and I think it should be commended for that.

I have said a number of times in this place—I do not think it can be repeated often enough—that one of the core issues that affect recruitment and retention of personnel relates to how people in the ADF are treated, and the military justice system is a key part of that. When people get a raw deal then not only they but their families really sense that injustice and they let a lot of other people know about it as well. It is a very big signal to a lot of people who are thinking about joining the military that perhaps they might want to think again. If people do not think they will get a fair deal when they run into difficulty in any organisation, line of activity, pursuit or profession then, not surprisingly, they are far less likely to go into that line of activity. So it is very much in the national interest as well as just in the general interest of the people in the ADF that we continue to get positive reform in this area.

This legislation does go some way towards doing that. We saw today in reports of another internal investigation inquiry into the way the ADF deals with discipline and justice matters that there are still significant problems, and you cannot fix all of those by legislation or by changing structures. Those matters are important, but it is about the culture and that is something where significant improvement is still needed.

I have a lot of respect for the current head of the ADF and I believe there is a genuine desire to move things forward, but it is always a difficult job to make the sort of quite major changes that have been recommended and that I believe are still needed. I do not think any organisation has a history or role quite like the defence forces do, but in any group of that size and with that sort of history it is quite difficult to dramatically change cultures, attitudes and approaches in a short space of time. Structural reform is a key part of ensuring attitudinal change as well and that is why continued progress in this area is important. From the Democrats’ point of view that is really the key issue here.

I will not go into the fine print in the way that Senator Bishop has done but that broad principle is still important and I would also take the opportunity to link it to the equally important area, beyond the scope of this particular legislation, of how we treat service personnel, ex-service personnel and veterans when they have been injured, been wounded or run into other difficulties. I think we still have a lot of room for improvement there as well. That has some linkage to the military justice system but goes wider than that.

Whilst I always try to be balanced and to acknowledge positive moves forward when things are being done well—and I do acknowledge that you will never have everybody 100 per cent happy and have everything perfect—I think we still have significant room for improvement in the way ex-service personnel are treated and the support that needs to be provided to them when they run into difficulty. Although there have been improvements, I think there is still significant room for improvement in that area as well. On behalf of the Democrats I am keen to try to play a role in maintaining pressure and continuing to get the change that is needed.