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Defence Minister orders independent audit of -

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ELEANOR HALL: The Defence Minister has ordered his department to open its books to a team of
independent auditors as he attempts to get to the bottom of the SAS pay bungle.

And angry Joel Fitzgibbon admitted in Parliament last week that he couldn't say how many soldiers
were affected and he expressed his frustration that despite two directives to fix the problem, it
remains unresolved.

So far it's been the Defence Chiefs who've been forced to publicly explain what's gone wrong.

But now the focus has shifted to the defence bureaucracy which administers the military's finances.

In Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Having directed Defence twice to fix the pay dispute which has seen SAS soldiers
hit with debt recovery after the payment of new allowances and the problem still festering, the
Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has called in a team of independent auditors to get to the bottom
of it.

The Minister's pointing the finger at his department, signalling a testy relationship between the
two.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: My department, frustratingly for me and of course it made me very angry, was
unable to tell me with any accuracy whatsoever how many people had been affected by this debacle,
so I did the honest thing.

I think people are sick of political spin and counter political attack and I simply told the truth,
that is that my department has been unable to tell me how many people have been affected by this
series of events.

But here's the even more frustrating thing, I was able to tell the parliament that my directive was
followed, but my department isn't able to absolutely guarantee me because of the antiquated nature
and the untidiness of both the ICT system and the payroll system, that you know, no soldier could
possibly still be having money deducted as a result of the implementation of the tribunal's
decision.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: At a time when the minister is trying to save some money, he's had to spend some
more to fix the problem that first came to light last October.

The World Today understands the Defence department has to present the minister with its plan to
implement his latest order as a matter of urgency as he sets about fixing the problem permanently.

Having spent last week under intense pressure from the Opposition, weekend newspapers reported
soldiers are still having money deducted from their pay.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: I'm going to send that auditing firm in to have a look at the pays of all special
forces soldiers so I have an independent source of advice, and then I can finally determine once
and for all what's going on, whether indeed my directive to stop recovery has been effective or not
effective.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Joel Fitzgibbon has openly expressed his anger, frustration and disappointment and
there's no end in sight yet.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: It makes me very angry as minister, last week in the Parliament when this issue
first arose again, I should have been able to pick up the phone to my department and say ok, how
many people? What have we done on this? Has my directive been followed? How many people are
affected? How much money is still owing? How much money is involved in total? But they've simply
not been able to give me those answers.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The World Today sought an interview with the Secretary of the Department of Defence
Nick Warner, but his office has indicated he's unavailable because he's in a series of meetings and
then travelling.

The Opposition's Defence spokesman, David Johnston, isn't easing off the pressure on the minister
despite Mr Fitzgibbon's homing in on the Defence bureaucracy.

DAVID JOHNSTON: I really do not care about what is happening in terms of audits and the legislative
background and all of that. When I raised this is October, I did it because I wanted to see these
soldiers properly paid without incurring massive debts that they were having difficulty paying.

Now, no one's interested in these audits, the minister should just fix the problem.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: With respect though, the coalition when it was in government faced a similar
problem I think in 2004/2005 in terms of the pay of soldiers. So clearly it's a long standing
problem that hasn't been fixed. So do you have some sympathy then for a government which is trying
to fix it?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I have no sympathy whatsoever for this minister, having given him a free kick in
October and not raising it again until February thinking that it would be resolved.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But didn't the coalition try to fix the problem as well? And failed clearly because
it still remains a problem.

DAVID JOHNSTON: We did not have SAS soldiers with $30,000 and $50 000 debts having money taken from
their pay retrospectively without notice. We didn't have that problem.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: So do you agree now that the problem rests with the Defence department, which
administers the military's finances, rather than those in uniform?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I reckon the problem has always rested at the feet of any earnest, responsible,
good minister and he's dropped the ball repeatedly on this subject.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Do you think that an independent audit team has the potential to fix the problem
now?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Into the future that's a good thing to do. Into the future it is good to find out
what has gone on, what's wrong with PMKeyS, what's wrong with the department, all of those things
are good, but as long as we have men who are getting bills that haven't had the situation
rectified, I'm firstly concerned about them.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Senator David Johnston, he's the Opposition's Defence spokesman. Alexandra
Kirk with our report.