Proposals to increase parliamentary scrutiny of Defence: a quick guide

11 August 2023

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Nicole Brangwin
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security


Over the last few years, government policy documents on defence strategy, planning and reviews have warned Australia’s strategic and defence environment is deteriorating, justifying significant expenditure on weapons, equipment and capability enablers. However, the role of the Australian Parliament to scrutinise government decisions on expenditure and related defence activities can be challenging. This is due to the complexity of issues within the Defence portfolio – significant budget allocations, a large multi-disciplinary uniformed and civilian workforce, procurement cycles that span decades, technologically advanced equipment, and operations ranging from combat and peacekeeping to humanitarian and disaster relief. To add to this complexity, Defence operates in a secretive environment, which can lead to publicly available information being heavily redacted and restricted public discourse and debate due to operational security (p. 14) and commercial-in-confidence considerations (pp. 2–3; 10). Additionally there is a broad understanding of bipartisanship on defence-related matters (p. 8) among the major parties in Parliament. Consequently, defence is often a low-priority (p. 13) topic during election campaigns and an area of interest for only a small number of parliamentarians in the Australian Parliament.

These factors can constrain the ability of parliamentarians to conduct reasonable scrutiny of the Defence organisation in the parliamentary setting. While there are great opportunities for parliamentarians with no military background to better understand how the military operates, such as the annual Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program, the diversity of issues relating to Defence, as well as the sensitive nature of Defence-related information, can make it difficult for parliamentarians to adequately comprehend, let alone scrutinise, key issues as they arise.

Former Australian Army officer and national security expert James Brown noted in his 2016 Quarterly Essay, Firing line: Australia’s path to war, that very few politicians, particularly prime ministers and members of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, ‘come to the role with an understanding of military matters, and other than on the job there are few places they can acquire this knowledge’. Brown highlighted that ‘Australian politicians are less likely to have had experience in the military, or working on military issues, than their counterparts in other countries’. Typically the proportion of parliamentarians with military service experience is low. In the current 47th Parliament, 19 out of 227 parliamentarians have some level of military service experience. While military experience is not critical to parliamentary oversight of the Defence organisation, it allows at least some degree of intuitive understanding of national defence and a certain level of insight into and knowledge of the language and terminology used by Defence (p. 169). Former senator, John Hogg, described the Senate Estimates experience with Department of Defence officials:

Answers to questions can be very evasive by placing the slightest variation on the meaning and interpretation of whole or parts of the question asked so as to render the question useless. Refuge can be sought in the smallest of technicalities (p. 170).

While there is the potential for issues to get lost in translation, Senate Estimates committee hearings allow more focused lines of questioning to government senators and department officials and participation is open to all senators. The parliamentary chambers also provide opportunities to question government policy and decision-making through questions on notice, question time and responses to ministerial statements. However, the latter is often restricted by time and can limit the number of respondents.

Current committee oversight of Defence

The structure of the Australian parliamentary committee system provides several avenues for scrutiny of Defence activities, but these are spread across a variety of committees with different functions, roles and membership. For instance:

The coverage of inquiries across so many different committees makes it difficult for parliamentarians to comprehensively scrutinise government policy and decision-making in relation to the performance and activities of the Defence organisation. As suggested by James Brown, ‘when so much defence decision-making is based on classified assessments and considerations routinely unavailable to members of the opposition, there is a role for a body that can equip parliamentarians to discuss national security policy’.

A Joint Defence Committee of Parliament?

Recent high-profile matters (such as the outcome of Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation case and Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines) have renewed calls for greater parliamentary scrutiny of Defence. Proposals include the establishment of a parliamentary committee with the authority to consider sensitive matters within the Defence organisation that is modelled on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) or the influential US Armed Services committees (Senate and House).

Committee recommendations

Over the years, several parliamentary committees have recommended the establishment of a more powerful Defence committee to provide greater scrutiny by the Australian Parliament.

The November 2018 report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) Inquiry into the benefits and risks of a bipartisan Australian defence agreement, as a basis of planning for, and funding of, Australian defence capability recommended a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Defence be established by legislation that is similar in function to the PJCIS. The new committee would have the power to consider ‘any aspect of Defence planning, strategy development, administration and expenditure’ and be permitted access to classified information to allow the committee to undertake its role. The report recommended the committee members be nominated by the prime minister and the government leader in the Senate and then appointed via a resolution in the House and Senate respectively. The government would hold the majority of the 15 member seats on the committee.

The most recent naval shipbuilding inquiry report (May 2022) recommended the establishment of a Joint Select Committee on AUKUS ‘to examine in detail the progress of the nuclear submarine acquisition and other related matters’ including the diplomatic, financial and strategic implications of AUKUS arrangements. The Albanese Government’s response noted the inquiry’s recommendations, which were to be considered by the Defence strategic review (DSR). The public version of the DSR was released on 24 April 2023, but did not include any references to Parliament or the establishment of a committee.

The March 2023 report of the Inquiry into international armed conflict decision making by the JSCFADT made a similar recommendation to establish an 11-member (6 government and 5 non-government) Joint Statutory Committee on Defence via legislation. The committee’s functions would permit oversight and scrutiny of a range of matters within the Defence portfolio, such as annual reports; high level policy documents (for example, white papers, strategies and plans); capability development, acquisition and sustainment; personnel and veterans; matters referred by the minister or the Parliament; and war or warlike operations. While there would be restrictions on the committee’s access to certain classified material, and veto power by the defence minister, the committee could request and receive classified information.

Proposed legislation

Senator David Fawcett’s Private Senator’s Bill, Defence Capability Assurance and Oversight Bill 2023, proposes the creation of a Defence Capability Assurance Agency (DCAA), an Inspector-General of Defence Capability Assurance (IGDCA) and a new Parliamentary Joint Committee on Defence. With regard to the latter, the Explanatory Memorandum states the proposed legislation:

… creates a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Defence (PJCD) which would have amongst other tasks, oversight of the DCAA. A PJCD was a recommendation of a bi-partisan report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) in November 2018. Established along similar lines to the PJCIS, the PJCD would have the span of functions outlined in the November 2018 report as well as specific oversight over capability acquisition, which would include Australia’s involvement in AUKUS, and the operation of the DCAA and the IGDCA.

Clause 98 of the Bill would require security clearances for PJCD staff and at least one supporting staff for each committee member. The proposed legislation would not require committee members to hold a security clearance.

The Bill proposes strong measures to allay concerns about the PJCD’s capacity to appropriately handle sensitive information. The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills raised concerns about these measures following its consideration of the Bill on 14 June 2023 (see Scrutiny Digest 6 of 2023). The Scrutiny of Bills Committee assessed that some of the offence provisions in Division 4 might raise concerns ‘in relation to significant penalties which have not been justified within the explanatory memorandum’. The penalties proposed in the Bill are similar to PJCIS-related offences in Part 2 of the Intelligence Service Act 2001. The Bill proposes penalties ranging from 6 months to 5 years in prison for offences relating to the security of information provided to the committee, as well as witness protection, attendance at committee hearings and knowingly providing false or misleading information to the committee. The proposed PJCD would report to Parliament on its activities via an annual report.

Government response to JSCFADT recommendation

As noted above, the March 2023 report of the Inquiry into international armed conflict decision making by the JSCFADT included under Recommendation 6 the establishment of a Joint Statutory Committee on Defence (pp. xv–xvi).

On 8 August 2023 the Albanese Government accepted this recommendation and agreed to ‘the establishment of a new Joint Statutory Committee on Defence, with further work to be undertaken to determine implementation details’. The Government response to Recommendation 6 noted:

… that this would be a significant change to existing arrangements and, therefore, that further work will be required to determine the precise scope, powers and functions of the proposed committee, particularly to avoid the potential for duplication and/or overlapping responsibilities with existing committees.

The Government will conduct further work in a timely manner to determine the scope of the proposed committee and its appropriate powers and functions.

While the Government has accepted the JSCFADT recommendation, the wording of Recommendation 6 is lengthy and descriptive. The outcome of further work on this matter will determine whether enacting legislation mirrors that description of a Joint Statutory Committee on Defence.


Given the models proposed for a dedicated parliamentary committee on defence, the Government will likely consider whether a more powerful defence committee in the Australian Parliament should replace the defence aspects of the Joint and Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committees, potentially streamlining reporting obligations by the Defence organisation. Senate Estimates processes would most likely remain unaffected.

The potential gains might be that such a committee has the potential to examine key issues more effectively as members, staff and the secretariat supporting the committee would have a greater understanding of Defence and the broader strategic factors that impact activities. Access to classified information and briefings, to some extent, would allow for a better-informed committee, resulting in a greater level of scrutiny and contestability. The potential downsides could see similar tensions to those experienced by the PJCIS about membership options for crossbench parliamentarians and the potential for criticisms that the major parties limit robust public debate through bipartisan agreements and in-camera briefings.

Given Australia’s deteriorating strategic circumstances and significant partnership arrangements under AUKUS, there is an even greater focus on Defence capabilities. As such, parliamentary scrutiny is vital to ensuring oversight of government decisions and constructive contestability of the long-term trajectory of Defence capabilities being pursued in Australia’s national interests.


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