Election 2022: Ministers dance around issue of defence department staffing

By Melissa Coade

May 6, 2022

Peter Dutton and Brendan O’Connor went head-to-head on Thursday at the National Press Club’s defence debate. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The Labor and Liberal men who may be responsible for overseeing Australia’s defence portfolio on the other side of the federal election both skirted around questions about staffing concerns in the department. 

Peter Dutton and Brendan O’Connor went head-to-head on Thursday at the National Press Club’s defence debate. When asked what they would do to address the thousands of additional contractors and external workers engaged by defence in the last two-to-three years, both men dodged answering what their plan was to ensure this phenomenon did not eat away at defence’s acquisition budget.

O’Connor responded first. He referenced Labor’s broad plan to tackle wasteful government spending and efficient service delivery, singling out the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) for ‘untrained’ and ‘often unskilled’ employees who were used to process a volume of sensitive applications in place of dedicated public servants in secure work. 

“We’ve already made a commitment insofar as DVA is concerned to rededicate $250 million to renovate that department because it’s in a terrible way. It’s got 60,000 veterans waiting for their matters, their applications, to be properly sorted; we need to do better.

“That’s a very good example of what’s happened under this government’s watch, I believe,” O’Connor said. 

Labor’s defence spokesperson also referenced shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers’ argument at a debate held the day before, saying an over-reliance on temporary staff and consultants was failing government service delivery.

“We know there’s been a total depletion in DVA, of removing dedicated public servants and putting in place [sic] labour-hire employees to try and do a job they’re not particularly made for. 

“We’ve got concerns, to be honest, across government about the overuse of some of these consultancies,” O’Connor said.

Peter Dutton then had a crack at answering the question, blaming past Labor governments for not investing enough money in defence over the forward estimates. Dutton stepped into the defence minister role, replacing Linda Reynolds, in March 2021. 

“Labor spending $10 billion a year or less, it does mean that you need to trim numbers and that’s the impact: it provides great uncertainty for the workforce, for the forward projections about how programs are going to be delivered and the like,” Dutton said, arguing the Coalition had worked hard to ‘correct’ Labor’s deprioritisation of the ADF.

The minister also warned that a Labor government, backed by the Greens and other minor parties, would mean defence investment would be impacted by policies informed by progressive or Independent values. The consequence would be tens of thousands fewer jobs in defence and defence industry across Australia, he claimed.

While Dutton was able to respond to increased defence funding under the Coalition government, he did not directly address what it would do to restore permanent numbers of public servants in the portfolio.

“Not only have we stabilised but we’ve increased the [defence] spending, and over the forward estimates we go beyond 2% and we grow to next year $48 billion a year and by $3 billion or so each year from there,” Dutton said. 

“My judgement is that we will need to commit more to defence into the future as well.”

Dutton also artfully dodged addressing wasteful spending of the taxpayer money that was allocated to defence programs. He did, however, make clear he had informed ADF chief General Angus Campbell and defence secretary Greg Moriarty of his expectation that programs which were not performing would be terminated. 

“I don’t want the problem projects to overshadow the successes that we have,” Dutton said. 

“I’ve been clear with our industry partners that we value the partnership very much, but we expect in a contracted arrangement for there to be performance. When people aren’t performing, then we aren’t going to continue that arrangement,” he said. 

O’Connor admonished the Coalition for playing politics with national interest matters, adding it was time to hold the government to account for failing to deliver on defence capability needs after almost 10 years in power. He also underscored the embarrassing delay in delivering a new submarine for Australia in over a decade, and asked voters whether they thought six defence ministers in nine years may be why the defence portfolio had received ‘inadequate oversight and focus’.

“They have not delivered the assets that they promised and I think it’s also fair to say that if you could guarantee Australia’s security by announcements that have been made, we would be the most secure nation in the world,” O’Connor said.

“The Morrison government has made some serious national security mistakes and some significant foreign policy missteps. They’ve had four defence ministers in four years under Scott Morrison, which has resulted in inadequate oversight and focus on this portfolio.”


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