Senate debates

Thursday, 15 November 2018


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee; Report

4:04 pm

Photo of Jim MolanJim Molan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the report of the committee Contestability and consensus – a bipartisan approach to more effective parliamentary engagement with Defenceand move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

I was recently appointed chair of the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. In order to reflect initial aim, conclusions and recommendations of the inquiry into the benefits and risks of a bipartisan Australian Defence agreement, we decided to title this report Contestability and consensusa bipartisan approach to more effective parliamentary engagement with Defence. At the outset, I would like to emphasise that this is a bipartisan report that has support across the entire committee, amongst those members who have deliberated carefully on the issues, and I believe the report has arrived at the right place.

The inquiry was undertaken by the Defence Subcommittee to consider whether Australia's defence capability planning could be strengthened through a formal bipartisan agreement similar to arrangements that apply in some other countries—the idea being that a bipartisan agreement might take the heat and political opportunism out of the political discourse on defence planning and, in particular, defence acquisitions, with resultant benefits to long-term defence capability planning. The committee considered the bipartisan arrangements and processes that apply in Denmark, Sweden and the USA. The committee found that the international models offered some useful insights for Australia but that none of them were readily adaptable to Australia's constitutional arrangements and political culture. During the deliberations, we concluded that a bipartisan agreement was unrealistic.

The inquiry also caused the Defence Subcommittee to reflect on its experience in undertaking reviews of the Defence annual report. The review of the Defence annual report 2015-16 highlighted the challenges the subcommittee faces in seeking to oversee Defence's implementation of the internal reforms arising from the First principles review and the progress of the $200 billion investment in new defence capability outlined in the 2016 defence white paper. To put it as blatantly as possible, most of the assessments that inform and guide defence planning are classified and therefore currently unavailable to parliamentary committees. This makes meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of the decisions and the actions that flow from them absolutely impossible. I am told that this experience is common to other parliamentary committees scrutinising defence projects; notably, the Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit and the Public Works Committee.

This committee recognises that the 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 acquisitions that flow 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 committee is proposing a way to reconcile parliament's right to know what is done with the money it appropriates on behalf of the Australian people with the need for the protection of classified information. The subcommittee's most important recommendation is to establish a new statutory parliamentary committee with an exclusive focus on defence. This new committee, with a legislated mandate to review defence strategy, planning and investment decisions and with the power 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 classified areas of defence policy and reach agreement on solutions that transcend party lines to advance the interests of all Australians.

We know this model works and that it can adequately safeguard classified information. It is routinely demonstrated by the PJCIS. In its recent inquiry into the government's proposed foreign interference laws, the PJCIS provided a forum where senior government and opposition members and senators, informed by the relevant classified information, engaged in robust private debate on the appropriateness of these laws and arrived at a public position on the final forms the laws should take. In the PJCIS, parliamentarians can thrash out ideas to reach an agreed position in the national interest, and it works. Defence is as important and needs the same approach where strategy, capability planning, investment decisions and proposed expenditure can be subject to an informed debate in private to arrive at an agreed public position—thus 'contestability and consensus' in the title. This is a significant reform, but the government and parliament must recognise that the prevalence of highly classified information in the Defence portfolio requires an appropriate response to restore parliament's capacity to fulfil its accountability functions. Otherwise, let's not pretend we have the function.

Finally, while I have only recently taken over as chair of the Defence Subcommittee, I have been a member of this committee for part of the inquiry. I would like to thank the government, opposition members and senators and my deputy chair, Senator Kimberley Kitching, who have contributed to this inquiry and supported its conclusions and recommendations. I would also like to acknowledge the major contribution of the former chair, Senator Linda Reynolds CSC, and that of her deputy, Ms Madeleine King MP. I commend the report.

4:10 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to take note of the report, and I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.