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Defence Chiefs grilled over mistaken pay cheq -

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ELEANOR HALL: To Canberra now where Australia's highest Defence Force officials faced a series of
embarrassing questions from senators this morning, over mistakes in the payment of Australia's SAS
troops.

Defence Force Chief Angus Houston and Army Chief Ken Gillespie told the hearing that no soldier
will have to repay money mistakenly paid to them and that there'll be no retribution against those
who've raised the issue publicly.

The army has launched an audit to try to resolve the problem but the Opposition has accused the
Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon of a remarkable display of incompetence in dealing with the
problem.

In Canberra, Sabra Lane reports.

SABRA LANE: The bungle happened after a pay ruling in 2007.

A Defence Force remuneration tribunal found special allowances paid to SAS soldier should be rolled
into their salary.

It became a problem last year, when it was discovered many soldiers were receiving allowances for
which they weren't qualified.

So the Defence Department starting docking their pay to reclaim the money.

Opposition Defence spokesman David Johnston says in some cases, that was thousands of dollars and
this morning he highlighted one case and wanted assurances there would be no retribution against
the soldier concerned.

DAVID JOHNSTON: I have in front of me a pay slip that has at the bottom 'zero dollars'. That pay
slip, you would be surprised to know, was issued on the 22nd of January last month.

It sought to recover from the particular soldier, who has been battling with this problem since
May, the sum of $9,133 I think is the figure.

SABRA LANE: The Defence Chief, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.

ANGUS HOUSTON: Senator, nothing is more important to me, than the welfare of the people at the
Australian Defence Force, and their families.

You have my undertaking that there will be no retribution.

SABRA LANE: The Opposition claimed some soldiers serving in Afghanistan were among those being
asked to make amends.

Defence brass admitted this morning, the last Senate estimates hearing in October was the first
time they knew anything about the bungle, something that clearly frustrated the Defence Force
chief.

ANGUS HOUSTON: I find it a little frustrating that these issues come up in this forum, which is a
highly political forum, when perhaps we could have these issues raised with the chief of Army or
myself so that we could address the issues in a normal professional way.

Nobody will be financially disadvantaged by this issue, and you have my word on that too.

SABRA LANE: The Department is now reviewing the pay and qualifications of SAS soldiers, and will
offer troops a chance to gain qualifications before reducing their salary.

Potentially, it affects around 100 soldiers and could take months to resolve.

The Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie.

KEN GILLESPIE: If soldiers fail to attain the required formal competencies by the completion of the
designated timeline, the soldier will have his pay adjusted from that time with no retrospectivity.

Let me emphasise, no retrospectivity, that is, no debt.

SABRA LANE: The Army Chief admits he became so frustrated he intervened last December to sort out
the mess. And last week, he issued a directive about soldiers who've received letters about their
debts.

KEN GILLESPIE: Soldiers in possession of this debt documentation, that was raised before I
intervened, should now use their chain of command to have the matter addressed.

SABRA LANE: But Senator Johnston wanted further assurances that the troops wouldn't have to pay it
back.

KEN GILLESPIE: The money will be repaid; I couldn't give you an answer off the top of my head on
interest issues.

DAVID JOHNSTON: If the debts being repaid I take it its debt and interest, I take it you'd want to
see that repaid to them.

KEN GILLESPIE: I would like to but I don't understand the implications of it just yet so I won't
give you an off the cuff answer.

SABRA LANE: The Federal Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull says Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon
should have acted immediately last year when the problem became public.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: It is a remarkable display of incompetence. The idea, the idea that men could be
fighting in Afghanistan, taking on the most dangerous enemy in the world and have nothing in their
pay packets, have their wives anxious about whether they're going to lose their houses, it's an
incredibly situation.

The fact that he has allowed it to continue for so long, the fact the he has allowed it to continue
for months and months let alone any amount of time.

This is something that should have been fixed instantly.

SABRA LANE: The Defence Minister admits he continues to be frustrated by the bungle and that a memo
issued last week, threatening disciplinary action to those who spoke outside the chain of command,
was over the top.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Look I think the memo went a little bit too far, I thought it was a bit heavy
handed in its approach, but these are internal matters for those in uniform.

SABRA LANE: And Joel Fitzgibbon also admits to serious problems manning the Collins Class
submarines. It comes amid speculation the Government is about to approve the doubling of the
submarine fleet.

The Defence Force currently only has enough submariners to operate three of its six submarines.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: There is no doubt that our people shortage and skills shortage is the single
biggest challenge facing the Australian Defence Force in the coming decade.

We've initiated a range of paid bonuses, up to $60,000 annually, in order to keep people, those
much needed people, within the Navy and in particular within our submarine workforce.

ELEANOR HALL: That's the Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon ending that report by Sabra Lane.