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Thursday, 19 March 2015
Page: 1895


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (10:20): The Greens rise to support Senator Lambie's bill, the Defence Amendment (Fair Pay for Members of the ADF) Bill 2014, and I am glad that it has been brought forward. Senators may remember—I think it was probably in the last or the second last sitting week of the 2014 parliamentary year—that we attempted to suspend standing orders, because at that point it looked as though the Prime Minister was planning on ignoring the calls from across the political spectrum and across the community. With some regret, we saw the suspension motion fail and we were not actually able to get on with substantive debate on the bill. I want to thank Senator Lambie for bringing this forward today, and I look forward to committing this bill to a vote.

When you consider that the annual national Defence budget is slated to grow to around $30.7 billion by 2016 and that the government is in the middle of two of the largest capital acquisition projects probably in the history of defence—the acquisition of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter and the highly-contested and divisive process that has been rolling for years around submarine procurement—the idea that the Prime Minister thought it was appropriate within weeks of committing ADF elements back into Iraq to offer a below-inflation pay deal and then stick to it was extraordinary.

What this bill does, rather than fixing a three per cent figure, is basically make sure that this can never happen again—that a Prime Minister or a government of the day, faced with budget circumstances entirely of their own making, would take a cohort of people, who from time to time will be called on to risk their lives or serious physical or mental injury in the line of their ordinary course of duty and who have no industrial representation. They cannot actually get their unions to go out in front, they cannot go on strike, and they basically have no real recourse. The passing of this bill will ensure that this can never happen again. The government will not be limited in the upper limit of a pay offer it could make to ADF personnel, but it would prevent the Prime Minister of the day doing what Prime Minister Tony Abbott tried to do, which was to offer a below-inflation pay increase to people who really have no recourse and no way of contesting that kind of appalling decision.

The Australian Greens believe that we have, essentially, a twofold obligation to our serving personnel. The first is that we should never deploy them unless it is absolutely necessary. We are well aware that in the past 15 years the ADF have been deployed into three wars of choice. I do not propose to get into arguments about where that decision should lie, or even the merits of those particular deployments. But we owe it to them—in fact, I think it is our highest responsibility—not to throw them into harm's way unless there is the very best possible reason for doing so. Obviously, we strongly disagree with some of the decisions that have been made in the recent past.

The second obligation we owe them is to look after them, both while they are on deployment and particularly when they come back. For anybody who is not aware of what I am talking about, view a Four Corners program that ran not long ago, or read Major General John Cantwell's book Exit Wounds, to get a vivid insight into what happens to some of these people who have been exposed to horrific violence—and these are some of the most highly-trained and disciplined people the ADF has—who, when they return, are basically unable to decompress and assimilate the things that they have seen and done, having been at very close quarters to people being killed or injured, or having suffering horrific injuries themselves.

One of the things that I was not aware of until that Four Corners piece was the fact that it may well be that suicide deaths of personnel after they have returned from deployment may be three times higher than the 41 combat deaths that Australia suffered during the Afghanistan conflict. The most distressing thing is that we do not actually know if that is true. It could in fact be higher. So people return with these invisible wounds and then they are actually, in many instances, very poorly treated, partly by the culture of the ADF, in which it is seen as a sign of weakness to admit that you are having a rough time, and partly by the intense bureaucracy. In one instance, DVA cleared one young soldier's payout and assistance two weeks after he killed himself. We are tying people up in a paralysing web of bureaucracy when actually they need our help.

I guess that second point is the idea that we have an obligation—not that parliamentarians in this place ever put their names to a motion to deploy, because of course that power still rests with the Prime Minister's office. But nonetheless it is amazing TV fodder for politicians to wrap themselves up in the flag and stand in front of the troops before sending them off into harm's way. But it is much harder to find politicians who will stand up for people who are suffering inordinately once they return home. It is that obligation to take care of these people that I think Senator Lambie's bill goes through today.

I think it is entirely responsible—rather than setting a hard and fast rate of pay increase, which we do not really do for any other cohorts—that we set effectively a rate that would float and would not be allowed to fall below the rate of inflation. Linking it to politicians' pay is cheeky, but nonetheless it is one way of ensuring that these people are not forgotten.

So the Australian Greens are pleased to support this bill. I look forward to committing it to a vote, and I think this debate can usefully be used as a way for those who have collectively sent soldiers into war, particularly those who turned up at the press conferences or spent—as I was very fortunate to do—a couple of days on deployment with them, to learn a bit. Politicians enjoy the political limelight, such as it is, but we should ask ourselves, 'What have we done since for these people?' particularly when we are given an opportunity, as we are being given this morning, to ensure—which is one of the least things we can do—that these people are paid fairly.