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Monday, 26 November 2018
Page: 11317

Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (11:53): On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the committee's report entitled Contestability and consensus: a bipartisan approach to more effective parliamentary engagement with Defence.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

Mr CHAMPION: by leave—On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the report, Contestability and consensus: a bipartisan approach to more effective parliamentary engagement with Defence.This committee report examined the prospect and desirability of a formal bipartisan Australian Defence agreement. Chapter 5 examines the benefits and risks of a formal bipartisan agreement. This chapter of the report outlines a spirited debate about the nature and desirability of bipartisanship in this area.

The risks of a formal agreement are best expressed by the evidence of Dr Carr in clause 5.50 and former Vice Chief of Defence Force Des Mueller in clause 5.53. Lieutenant General Mueller is quoted in the report:

The real danger of a bipartisan agreement is that it could become an exit ramp from the more robust, better-informed and ongoing discussion about defence which is what the national interest deserves.

The evidence was that a formal written agreement on bipartisanship did not meet Australia's national interests. In short, a written formal agreement was undesirable and possibly counterproductive. The evidence submitted to the committee did, however, lead to a more controversial conclusion—that in order for the parliament to be properly informed and for the parliament to give appropriate oversight of Defence, a new committee of the parliament should be formed.

This recommendation is borne out of the experiences of the Defence subcommittee in examining the Defence annual report. The review of the Defence annual report 2015-16 highlighted the challenges the subcommittee faced in seeking to oversee Defence's implementation of the internal reforms arising from the first principles review and the progress of $200 billion worth of investment in new Defence capability outlined in the 2016 Defence white paper. These challenges derived from the fact that most of the assessments in form, and the documents that guide Defence planning, are classified and, therefore, are currently unavailable to parliamentary committees. And that makes meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of Defence, and scrutiny of the decisions and actions that flow from them, very difficult.

This experience is common to other parliamentary committees scrutinising Defence projects—notably the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. This report recognises that Defence strategy and planning documents, and the risk and security assessments that inform them, must be classified. However, parliament appropriates the money that pays for the work that goes into producing them, and it appropriates the money to implement the planning and acquisition that flows from them. Parliament has a constitutional right to the information necessary to properly oversee Defence. A high-security or commercial-in-confidence classification shouldn't be used as a veil to prevent or obstruct parliamentary scrutiny of Defence strategy, capability planning, investment decisions and expenditure.

The report recommends a way to reconcile parliament's right to scrutinise with the need for the protection of classified information. The subcommittee has recommended the establishment of a new statutory parliamentary committee with an exclusive focus on Defence. This new committee with the legislated mandate to review Defence strategy, planning and investment decisions and with the powers to access information under safeguards and protections similar to those applying to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security would provide a means for the parliament to discuss and debate complex areas of Defence policy and reach agreement on solutions that transcend party lines to advance the interests of Australia.

Clearly, a new committee for Defence replacing the Defence subcommittee and, in effect, having stronger powers and more effective oversight must be balanced by maturity and responsibility on the part of the parliament. Scrutiny must be combined with safeguards. Australia now faces the most challenging set of strategic circumstances since the 1920s, when the termination of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty and the Washington Naval Conference radically altered the balance of power in the Pacific. At the same time, the recent turmoil in Australian domestic politics has seen a rapid succession in Defence ministers. I believe we need less examination of Machiavellian Australian political life and more of Mahan and Mackinder in order to advance the national interests. The challenges of the next two decades will require the informed attention of a generation of members of parliament, and a new committee for Defence would create the mechanism to do that in a sensible and measured manner.

For their efforts in the development of this report I'd like to thank Senator Jim Molan, the Chair of the Defence subcommittee; Senator Kimberley Kitching, the Deputy Chair of the Defence subcommittee; and the former chairs, Senator David Fawcett, Senator Linda Reynolds and Madeleine King. I'd also like to thank Mr James Rees, the secretary of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, for his efforts in this regard. I commend the report to parliament. I move:

That the House take note of the report.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Goodenough ): The debate is adjourned and a resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.