An old digger joke begins “what do you call a politician who promises to improve defence force conditions of service” — with the rejoinder being “the Opposition”.
Recent remarks by the Prime Minister, Minister for Defence Personnel and Shadow Defence Spokesman on the matter of “reviewing” defence force remuneration will therefore be greeted with some justified scepticism across the ADF.
The 1991 Force Structure Review slashed ADF numbers by some 28 per cent so funds could be freed to buy equipment as yet another block obsolescence crisis loomed but the then government was not willing to invest adequately in defence. Throughout the 1990s numbers were further reduced by most base area-type support functions being farmed out to civil contractors.
Exacerbated by the marked increase in operations since the late 1990s this sharp decline in overall ADF numbers has had three broad effects:
- there are far fewer sailors, soldiers and airmen available to undertake or support operations;
- much less of a surge capacity within the total force to flexibly handle sudden crises or long commitments; and
- far fewer opportunities for respite postings between deployments (and the preparation for them).
In addition, continued shortfalls in meeting recruiting targets over recent years mean that even these reduced personnel levels are not being met. The ADF will probably only meet 75-80 per cent of its recruiting targets this year.
As for retaining existing personnel, the 2004 exit survey of those leaving, and the attitude surveys of those remaining, clearly indicate our Service personnel feel increasingly stretched by the current operational tempo.
They feel especially frustrated by having to cope with insufficient numbers of personnel in their units, old or not enough equipment, reduced opportunities for career development training, problems with maintaining experience and safety levels and, last but not least, unreasonable strains on their family life through long hours, frequent and long separations and a myriad of associated complications.
Minister Hill’s comment that he thought those joining the navy “did so to serve at sea” glosses over the reality that they mostly do — but not year in year out, for years on end. Especially with insufficient breaks between deployments for rest, retraining and career development and — when they are no longer in their late teens and early twenties and mainly single — reasonable time with their families.
To deter or fight wars effectively the defence force of any democracy needs to reflect its parent society as closely as possible.
Short of conflict on the scale of the World Wars the ADF will never completely reflect wider Australian society for a host of demographic, socio-economic and cultural reasons. For example, ADF members are disproportionately in the 18-30 year old cohort. As a proportion of the population this cohort will decline until 2017 before increasing again. ADF recruiters therefore have to compete with all other industries for a diminishing pool of labour.
Other social changes also have an impact. Over the last ten years, for example, the number of 20-24-year olds undertaking education has increased from 27 to 37 per cent.
Australia is now well past the era when magistrates offered first offenders the choice of joining the ADF or going to prison.
We are, in fact, well into an era where the defence force has to reject many applicants because of insufficient education levels or psychological problems. In the latter case, this may manifest itself in unstable work histories or criminal records, often a result of drug use, or general instabilities resulting from wider societal problems such as inter-generational unemployment or traumatic family breakdown.
Even despite the ADF’s relatively limited size over 40 per cent of the annual defence budget is recurrent personnel costs.
Increasing ADF salaries to reflect community norms would necessitate an increase in the overall defence budget.
We cannot again slash operating costs and capital investment in new equipment to meet the wages bill, as continually happened throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s.
Those short-sighted and temporary fixes are integral causes of our current inter-related problems of recruiting shortfalls, retention strains, hollow units, operational stretch and block obsolescence.
So what can be done?
A good first step would be to stop ignoring the problem by just relying on the grin-and-bear-it professionalism of our Service personnel.
The profession of arms is unique in industrial terms and this needs statutory and policy recognition rather than lip service.
Second, stop blaming the recruiters, tweak the recruiting contract to improve its responsiveness to Service needs (both regular and reserve), and staff all uniformed recruiting positions.
Third, to better attract “Generation Y” recruits introduce legislation whereby HECS and TAFE fees are waived after six years full-time and ten years part-time ADF service (with the latter able to be satisfied during and after tertiary studies).
Finally, reinforce the independence of the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal so matters requiring review cannot be delayed by the department simply declining to present a case due to overall defence budgetary limitations (as happened for a decade with the principal allowance paid to most personnel).
The Armed Forces Federation, as the ADF’s representative professional association, should also be permanently accredited to the tribunal (as happens with police associations in a similar “no strike” industry).
Fixing the personnel and other problems requires a substantial and sustained increase in the overall defence budget.
The ADF cannot manage its tasks with its nominally 54,000 and fewer than 20,000 generally inaccessible reserves.
Its authorised strength must be increased and it must be allowed to compete more effectively for the people available.