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ABSTAINED – Matters of Urgency — Australian Defence Force

Andrew McLachlan

I inform the Senate that Senator Lambie has submitted a proposal to the President under standing order 75:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move "That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

"The government is refusing to acknowledge the poor senior leadership within the ADF. Everyone in the chain of command should be held accountable for their actions, irrespective of rank or hierarchy. Our ADF is in disarray with high attrition rates, low recruitment rates and significant issues with low morale due to the poor leadership standards being set by senior command."

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.

Jacqui Lambie

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The government is refusing to acknowledge the poor senior leadership within the ADF. Everyone in the chain of command should be held accountable for their actions, irrespective of rank or hierarchy. Our ADF is in disarray with high attrition rates, low recruitment rates and significant issues with low morale due to the poor leadership standards being set by senior command.

I rise to talk about leadership, what it means and what a great leader looks like. While I was jotting some notes down last night, I was thinking about great Australian military leaders that we've had in the past, and I kept keep coming back to one of our greatest, Sir John Monash. One of his famous quotes was:

… equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit but for the benefit of the whole community.

I wonder what he would think about the leadership of our Australian Defence Force today. I wonder what he would think of an inquiry into alleged war crimes involving Australia's diggers that, from the outset, ruled out investigating the knowledge or responsibility of the senior command of our military. I wonder what Monash would say about ADF leaders asking for medals back from diggers but marking their own homework when it comes to their own medals. And I wonder what the leadership would think about sending diggers to Afghanistan on tour after tour—sometimes as many as 17 tours—to a war that dragged out for 20 years.

Monash was a great leader and always preferred substance over style. Of his time in the First World War, he said:

We trusted each other, and we fought as one big team, and to this we owe our success. I hope that the lessons of mutual help, comradeship, and self-sacrifice will assist to make Australia a still greater country than at present.

Did you hear that from General Angus Campbell? How do you think the diggers under your command in Afghanistan are feeling when their lives are under the microscope but their leaders are effectively saying, 'Nothing to see here—we're exempt from being looked at'?

I have ranted and sometimes raved and wept at the shocking lack of leadership in Defence for years. It's why I fought so hard to get into parliament. I experienced firsthand the lack of respect in the Department of Veterans' Affairs for those who have served. Their default system, 'delay, deny, die', is the order of the day. Why do you think we have historically low recruitment and retention rates? Why do you think we have record numbers of suicides and abuse claims that literally take years to be resolved? It's about the leadership and the culture that flows from leaders who don't take responsibility for their actions, or lack thereof, and don't look after their diggers.

In the fact of these facts and the disgraceful stories coming out of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, it is shocking to me that the Australian government is refusing to acknowledge the poor leadership in the upper ranks of our Defence Force. Everyone in the chain of command must be held accountable, no matter how many medals they have and how many years they have served—that is the way it is. Let me tell you how they teach it: it's one in, all in, in uniform. You're part of the division that's going on in there between the diggers and the officers.

We have never needed our Defence Force more, and it is absolutely crucial that it is an institution that attracts the young leaders of tomorrow. If we want to build a Defence Force that young Australians aspire to join, a Defence Force that cares as much for the digger as the commander, then the failures of leadership and the deep culture of problems that we have must be acknowledged and must be addressed. I can assure you right now: you have a problem. And this is your big problem. Until you start admitting—until the government of the day starts admitting—that we have a problem with our leadership, your retention rate will continue to go down. And nobody out there wants to join. That is where you're at. This is not good for national security. This is not good for our military. You've got to stop avoiding this. You've got to start asking those generals questions. You've got to stop exempting them. Right now, I can tell you of the amount of hatred coming from diggers towards the generals and this parliament—this parliament, because you won't take on those generals—that is coming at us. I tell you what: it is coming in truckloads. It is awful. You do not want this going on in our military.

We are ultimately in charge, and the government of the day is in charge, not those generals. You need to show some courage, as part of the government. I say to your defence minister—not the one in charge of the personnel, but your big defence minister: you've to stop hiding, mate, because your time's up. I can tell you what: I know what's coming in the next week, and your time is over—and so are those generals.

David Fawcett

I rise to address this matter of urgency. I won't be supporting it, but I would like to address particularly the line where it talks about people in command being held accountable for their actions. I think accountability is incredibly important. And I recognise Senator Lambie's passion around these issues.

But it actually goes far broader than that, if we are looking to the national security of this nation, in every sense. For those who have an interest, I'd encourage you to go back to the ASPI website and see a paper I wrote in 2012 called 'Minister, mandarins and the military'. Another op-ed I wrote around a similar time is called 'Blaming Defence ... again'. What those two pieces highlight is that the public, the parliament, the media and the ANAO often do hold Defence officials, whether they be APS staff or uniformed leaders, accountable for things that occur within the Defence department. Sometimes that is quite correct; sometimes that is relevant. But often the issues which are held out—and they go to some of the things Senator Lambie has talked about, in terms of retention and recruitment and particularly also procurement and the development of our capabilities—actually involve not just the defence department but also central agencies, such as the Department of Finance, and the role of executive government. It's important to understand that decisions that are taken by governments and constraints that are placed on people within the Department of Defence, and the Australian Defence Force more broadly, can constrain their actions, such that people who have command don't always actually have control of all the resources that they require, to deliver the military response options that government asks of them and that the public expects of them.

We've had a number of reviews over the years. Rufus Black led a review looking at the organisational issues within Defence, and he noted that, in fact, the ADF command chain was actually pretty good, but the broader department had so many committees and so much process that it was difficult to actually track down who was accountable or responsible for particular decisions that had been taken. He recommended reducing the numbers of committees, and to a certain extent that was done in the first principles review, which was brought in by the coalition government in the 2014-15 time frame to try to bring more accountability but also to give more control over the required resources to Defence leaders.

Also at a government level, I am struck by the words of the former secretary, Mr Dennis Richardson, who in talking about the impact of the period from 2009 to 2013, when there were so many changes in strategic direction and funding, he said that the goalposts were not just shifted but 'cut down and used for firewood'. What that shows is that the planning that Defence does around capability, which goes to where we employ people and the equipment that they use, if you consistently change the goalposts, or, indeed, as Mr Richardson said, there is a lack of funding and you're robbing Peter to pay Paul, then it's difficult for leadership within the ADF to keep people motivated, when you have periods where ships are tied up alongside because there's no funding, there are no track miles for armoured vehicles and flying hours are reduced. This reduces not only the training of the individual soldiers, sailors and airmen but also the ability of formed units to actually train together and deliver capability for the Defence Force.

My fear when I look at the Defence strategic review and the delays and deferrals, I look at the budget with no new funding and I look at the number of what we call absorbed measures where Defence will have to shift money from A to B, is that we'll see the same degradation that General Morrison said, in an address he gave, is a 'historical amnesia that is breathtaking in its complacency' about the dangers of hollowing out all the enabling capabilities in the Defence Force. It's harsh for us to criticise the leaders in Defence when many of these outcomes are not directly within their control. Australia needs a competent Defence Force now more than ever.

David Shoebridge

I rise on behalf of the Greens to support this urgency motion brought by Senator Lambie. If we're going to talk about accountability then that needs to start at the top, not at the bottom. That means accountability for the current and former ministers for defence, the Defence secretary and the Chief of the Defence Force. We need accountability at all levels and by all elements of Australia's defence forces. That includes the hierarchy of powerful people presiding over murky decisions to basically gift billions of dollars of public funds to private multinational arms makers to wage endless wars—often with weapons that don't work—because it's good for business. Regardless of the security of this country, it's good for business, raining down hell on communities who have done nothing to deserve it, and no-one's held to account.

We need accountability for war crimes, and this needs to go well beyond just the individuals who were on the ground. They must be held to account, but any organisation that permits such serious criminal conduct needs to be subject to systemic reform, not just hanging out the lowest ranks to dry—and Defence should not be any different. Defence must not be a protected secret club with a culture of impunity that allows the senior leadership in Defence, both civilian and military, to literally get away with murder. The failure to prosecute anyone senior in the chain of command for the murders of Afghan civilians and prisoners is a national disgrace. The Brereton inquiry found credible evidence to implicate 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others. This, as it turns out, was notorious—this conduct—and it was known to our allies. It was also enough to trigger Leahy law considerations in the US.

But what accountability have we seen here in Australia? Charges have finally been laid against just one junior member in the ADF. Meanwhile, the current head of Defence, who is the head of the entire operation in Afghanistan, is out there marking his own homework, deciding for himself in a pretend review of his own medals—medals that he got for serving 2,000 or 3,000 kilometres away from Afghanistan. He is literally marking his own homework. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, what does Labor do? It gets out there but it's not prosecuting the senior leadership of the ADF who let these war crimes happen on their watch—and they're always telling us about how they're all responsible for the chain of command. It turns out that they're responsible until the shit hits the fan, and then they're not. That's the responsibility we get. They're out there and their response is to try to put David McBride in jail because he blew the whistle on it. What a disgrace.

Accountability must also mean compensation. That means compensation for the victims of alleged Afghan war crimes. That's not on the never-never in the future; that means starting now. Families who lost their brothers, their sons and their loved ones a decade ago still haven't seen a cent, despite the war crimes investigation. That is plain unjust and wrong.

There also needs to be accountability for the billions and billions of dollars that the defence sector here just burns. This is public money. Take for example the procurement of the Hunter class frigates. These frigates are still well over the horizon. Defence were told in their own risk assessment that this project had extreme risks. The former Defence secretary ushered it through and put the BAE tender forward and, mysteriously, the records of why disappeared. The current Defence secretary promotes it to government. His department fails to even do a value-for-money assessment of the tender and signs the Australian public up to a $45 billion project. He never tests value for money. Mysteriously, he lost his own meeting minutes, failed to comply with the law on tender requirements and signed us up to this disastrous project, and he's still there. When we cancel the Hunter frigate project, as we will because it's a disastrous waste of money, he must resign. It's no wonder that the troops on the ground are furious and it's no wonder the public are losing trust, because in this case those who are most responsible are the least accountable.

Long debate text truncated.


Date and time: 4:39 PM on 2023-06-19
Senator Pocock's vote: Abstained
Total number of "aye" votes: 16
Total number of "no" votes: 21
Total number of abstentions: 39

Adapted from information made available by