Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee; Report
I rise to speak on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report, Contestability and consensus: a bipartisan approach to more effective parliamentary engagement with Defence, and to commend its key recommendations to the House. As my friend the member for Bennelong has just said, this place works best when its members and senators work together for the Commonwealth of Australia. I wholeheartedly endorse that sentiment.
I recently had the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Australian parliament at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's Pacific Regional Conference in the Cook Islands. My topic for that speech was 'What role for parliaments in tackling corruption?' I spoke at length about the many and varied ways in which the Parliament of Australia holds the executive to account and helps to prevent poor administration and inappropriate conduct through our government and our federal bureaucracy.
My colleagues at that conference would rightly have been concerned, however—as the members of this joint committee are—at the effectiveness of our parliament's scrutiny when it comes to the government's record defence investment. This government is currently undertaking the largest ever peacetime investment in its military capability, delivered largely through tenders with the private sector. That investment is some $200 billion, to be spent over the next nine years; it amounts to one of the greatest single items of expenditure for the Commonwealth in the decade to come. Yet parliament's ability to provide oversight of relevant ministers, public servants and the private contractors employed by the Commonwealth is, unfortunately, currently limited. Fundamentally, the parliament lacks information. The public servants and the dedicated service men and women that we meet and take evidence from are no doubt doing all they can to provide us with full and helpful answers. However, far too often the information that the committee identifies as central to our inquiries is information either that is classified or that we are told is commercial-in-confidence.
I've spoken quite a bit about this concept of commercial-in-confidence and how many different tiers of government seem to hide behind the concept of commercial-in-confidence. When it comes to issues of national security, however, I understand that, obviously, we have an obligation to observe issues of intelligence and national security—and when we're talking about defence, the issue of commercial-in-confidence is very important. I would temper that by saying, though, that governments should not hide behind the false veil of this concept of commercial-in-confidence. I'm seeing—not so much with this government, I should hasten to add—a disturbing pattern of state and local governments seeking to hide behind what I would suggest is the very thinly-veiled concept of commercial-in-confidence. Some of us who are more cynical might say that this is purely an attempt by governments to hide the facts from the people who put them there. That is obviously of great concern. I should hasten to add that I'm not suggesting that is the case in relation to this federal government.
Currently, the unavailability of this information to parliamentarians makes meaningful scrutiny of the defence portfolio nigh impossible. A way must be found to strike this balance and restore the parliament's oversight function in this first and most important responsibility of government, which is, of course, to keep its citizens safe. This area of policy is one that is of particular concern to my electorate of Fisher and to our emerging defence industry. When I moved to the Sunshine Coast nearly three decades ago, there were only three industries in our community: tourism, retail and construction. Today, we are seeing the emergence of the defence and high-tech manufacturing sectors in centres like Caloundra and Sippy Downs, driven by the government's record investment and by my own Fisher Defence Industry Initiative.
The government's defence investment represents a major opportunity for the Sunshine Coast and for my electorate of Fisher. My constituents and I imagine that most, if not all, taxpayers would demand that this investment be appropriately scrutinised. They expect us in the parliament to ensure it is well and efficiently spent. Australians expect us to ensure that the greatest possible investment flows to the right products and to the right businesses to meet this country's strategic needs. We need this investment not only to support strong, sovereign defence capabilities but to diversify and strengthen the economies of communities like mine. That's why I passionately support the recommendations made in it.
I believe we need a new bipartisan committee dedicated to scrutiny of defence and defence investment, and provided with the necessary and appropriate levels of access to classified and commercial-in-confidence information. The Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has shown that it can be done. I believe that a new statutory joint committee on defence, similarly modelled, with a wide-ranging remit and access to classified information, with the proper safeguards, is the best way to correct the current impediment to appropriate accountability in our defence investment. Bipartisan agreement on defence matters can have significant benefits in creating a stable policy platform and a consistent, strategic approach. However, our Westminster system specifically invites and encourages the creation of eventual consensus, through what could be described as robust debate. Robust debate requires accurate and full information available to both sides, and the parliamentary committee process gives us the best chance of achieving just that.
On behalf of the House I want to thank Senator Jim Molan for chairing the committee and bringing this report forward and the deputy chair, Senator Kimberley Kitching, for her work. Like Senator Molan I would like to acknowledge the very significant contributions of our former chairs: the Assistant Minister for Home Affairs, Senator Linda Reynolds CSC; the Assistant Minister for Defence, Senator David Fawcett; and the most recent deputy, Madeleine King MP. Finally I thank the members and senators of our committee from both sides of our respective chambers for the spirit of deliberation and bipartisanship shown during the creation of this report.
I hope we've demonstrated that, when it comes to the effective oversight of Defence investment, members and senators can and will come together very effectively. There is no greater responsibility, whether on this side of the House or on that side of the House, whether you are red, blue, green, pink or brindle. It makes no difference. We are here to serve the people of the Australian Commonwealth. I have absolutely no doubt that the vast bulk if not all people who sit in this place hold this as their most important and sacrosanct responsibility. We need to have the ability to ask questions and receive answers from those who appear before this committee in a full and frank manner whilst having some protections around security issues. Those protections can be well administered and well catered for through appropriate legislation just as we have done with our Intelligence and Security Committee. It's through those mechanisms that we will help deliver a safer and more prosperous Commonwealth, and I commend the report to the House.
Federation Chamber adjourned at 12:52