Monday, 23 February 2009
Questions without Notice
Special Air Service Regiment
My question without notice is to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, I draw your attention to the front page of the Canberra Times, to an article titled ‘SAS troops face expulsion for speaking out over pay’. Can the Prime Minister explain why serving members of the SAS special forces continue to receive debt notices of up to $50,000 for their overseas service and continue to have their wages reduced, despite the guarantee by your Minister for Defence to this House four months ago that this problem would be fixed? Is this any way to treat our troops?
Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. The standing orders do not allow a member to impute improper motives to another member of the House of Representatives. The member has asked a very serious question about our troops, and the minister has impugned his motives. I ask that he withdraw the same.
Order! The member for Sturt! I am pleased that the member for Sturt has been industrious over the weekend. The minister has used three or four words. To the member for Sturt I indicate that I will listen carefully to where the minister is going.
Order! There is no point of order. The member knows, as I indicated to the member for Dickson, that the invite to come to the dispatch box for a point of order is not to engage in debate. I have indicated to the House that I have great worries about question time being used for debate. As yet, the House has not devised a mechanism where the House will investigate this problem, but certainly this illustrates the problem. But people’s frustration should not be vented by coming to the dispatch box in the guise of a point of order and then entering into debate. If what the minister has said needs response, there are other forms of the House which the member for Paterson knows full well he could use at the end of question time.
I will leave it for the member for Paterson to explain himself, but there have been briefings, Mr Speaker. He should consult his shadow minister for defence. Again, we are all collectively distressed at the thought that our special forces soldiers could be incorrectly having moneys deducted from their pay. When I heard of this matter, I told the House—
Unfortunately, the matter is very complex. I am sure there is not one member of this House who would suggest that I or any member of this House would delay in any way the process of fixing this problem. While this problem has its genesis—
While this problem has its genesis in a decision of the independent Defence review tribunal, the real cause is the system we inherited from the former government. Of course, the decision of the tribunal required implementation. The reality is that the ICT and other systems have not been able to deliver. That is the fact of it.
Yes, that is right: the computer says no—the computer system we inherited from you. The fact is that underinvestment in ICT in Defence is causing problems right throughout the Defence organisation.
They said this is not about politics but it seems, by their intervention, that that is exactly what this is about. Again, every member of this House, I am sure, wants to fix this problem as quickly as is possible.
The Chief of Army has personally taken responsibility for and dedicated himself to—because it is not, in the first instance, a special forces organisation problem—fixing this problem. Yes, I have been critical publicly about delays and the inability to fix this problem more quickly, but if only it were so easy.
There is a suggestion that I somehow signed a backdated provision, which is just ridiculous. The tribunal makes its decisions on a regular basis retrospectively. It is required under the act not to make any retrospective decision that could disadvantage a member of the Australian Defence Force. In this case, there should not have been any disadvantage, because what the tribunal had suggested or directed is that allowances be merged with salary, which would have been and should have been of advantage to the soldiers. But, when the computer systems tried to merge the allowances with the salaries, there was an inability to recognise the competencies which are required to secure those allowances. In some cases it was because the competencies were gained or earned informally and sometimes it was because the competencies were just not accepted by the computer system.
Some time ago I suggested that a non-reduction period should be established acting both retrospectively and prospectively to ensure that there are no debts and that soldiers have time to gain the competencies required, to establish them formally. The most recent advice the Chief of Army has is that he now has the power to give more formal recognition to competencies which were formerly considered to be informal. So these are very complex issues. They are issues that we have inherited because of underinvestment in these systems over many years. I said I would fix this problem. The Chief of Army is acting in good faith to fix it as quickly as possible. In the meantime we have put provisions in place to ensure no Defence member is financially disadvantaged.