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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1019

Senator JOHNSTON (2:38 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, Senator Faulkner. I refer to the fact that on 26 February this year the Minister for Defence waved around in the parliament the salary variation advice of an SAS soldier who had been financially disadvantaged by the government’s bungling of the SAS pay issue. I refer the minister to the fact that, when the Minister for Defence was asked by the partner of the SAS soldier concerned for details of the salary variation debt advice, the minister refused to provide it to her on grounds that ‘the release of information is constrained by the requirements of the Privacy Act 1988’. Minister, why was it okay for the Minister for Defence to have access to the soldier’s salary variation advice and wave it around for all to see but it was not okay for the soldier’s partner to be provided with details as to what debt recovery had been undertaken whilst he was away on deployment?

Senator FAULKNER (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) —I am certainly happy to provide Senator Johnston with what information I have on this issue, and I will not be able to answer all the elements of the question that he has asked me. I would make the point in commencing my answer to Senator Johnston that of course the government is committed to looking after our service personnel. The dangerous work that they do, including our special forces soldiers on deployment in Afghanistan, they of course do, as we all understand, in the service of the nation.

My understanding is that on 22 October 2008 the Minister for Defence issued an instruction that the debt recovery on this particular matter should cease. Senator Johnston may be aware that the Chief of Army then directed that all debt recovery action would cease from 13 November 2008, which was the next pay period. I can say that since that time the Army has been conducting a thorough audit to find out how many people have been affected. Senator Johnston may be aware that KPMG is now conducting an independent audit to ensure that any remaining pay concerns of special forces soldiers and their families are put to rest. I can also inform the Senate that an interim report from KPMG was delivered today. I can say in relation to that independent audit report— (Time expired)

Senator JOHNSTON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I ask Senator Faulkner, who is representing the Minister for Defence: does the government now admit that the SAS pay issue has been bungled from the start by the Minister for Defence and that he has now been exposed as not being across his portfolio?

Senator FAULKNER (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) —What I can say to Senator Johnston is this: the independent auditors have provided an interim report to the Minister of Defence. I can say that the auditors note that the complexity of the situation has meant that progress has been slow. Included in the terms of reference for the audit is a requirement that the audit identify ways to remedy any outstanding pay situations and how to avoid these problems in the future. Of course the government looks forward to getting this advice. The minister will make that final report public by tabling it in parliament, and I think most reasonable people would accept that this is a very proper way for the Minister for Defence to conduct— (Time expired)

Senator JOHNSTON —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Will the government now apologise to the dozens of SAS soldiers who have been in financial turmoil for the past eight months for the bungling that led to the SAS pay fiasco and will you table in the Senate today a copy of the KPMG audit into the issue ordered by the minister?

Senator FAULKNER (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) —I have indicated that I am advised that the minister has made clear that the final report of KPMG will be made public, so it certainly can be tabled at that time. There is no problem with that, Senator; it will be done, as you would expect. I can also say that as recently as last Wednesday the minister met with SAS forces and some family members and discussed these issues at length with them and, I think, indicated his concerns to them at that time and certainly acknowledged the need for these matters to be addressed. You know that, Senator Johnston. You have been made aware of that, and again I would hope that you would agree it was an appropriate— (Time expired)