Providing for the defence of its citizens is one of the key functions of any national government. Through the 2016 Defence White Paper (White Paper), the Australian Government has embarked on a vitally important $200 billion upgrade of Australia’s defence capability. This includes the largest upgrade to naval capability since World War II and the further development of Australia’s sovereign defence industrial capacity.
The success of this ambitious defence capability planning, acquisition and sustainment program will require major policy and funding commitments from successive governments across electoral cycles over several decades.
This inquiry examined the concept of bipartisanship and how the Australian Parliament can better support the long‑term planning, delivery and sustainment of Australia’s defence capability.
The case for change
In its Review of the Defence Annual Report 2015-16, the Defence Sub‑Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (Committee) highlighted the significant challenges it faced in effectively monitoring the Department of Defence’s (Defence) implementation of the key reforms arising from the First Principles Review and the progress of the major capability projects outlined in the White Paper.
The key challenge the Committee identified was accessing the information required to adequately assess how Defence is measuring, monitoring and addressing the implementation of these projects and reforms, and the strategic assessments that underpin key Defence decisions. As discussed in chapter 3 and identified by the White Paper, the Committee acknowledges that Australia faces complex security challenges and greater uncertainty in our strategic outlook.
The Committee heard that information on Defence strategy and Defence internal processes is either highly classified, or commercial-in-confidence. As a result, this information is not available to Australian citizens and tax-payers, or their elected representatives in the Parliament and its committees. The Committee notes that this same challenge in accessing classified Defence information was identified by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) in its recent report on Defence Sustainment Expenditure.
The Australian Constitution gives the Parliament power to make laws for the defence of the Commonwealth and the States. As outlined in chapter 2, since the earliest days of the Australian Federation and the introduction of the Defence Act 1903, the Parliament has gradually ceded authority to the Executive Government to administer Australia’s defence.
The Committee agrees that decisions about Defence are rightly the prerogative of the Executive Government of the day. The Committee also agrees that Defence information is highly sensitive and should be appropriately classified to protect Australia’s national interest. The Committee recognises the importance of keeping information on Defence strategy classified, and details of Defence’s contractual agreements with industry partners confidential.
However, the Committee considers that a high security classification or commercial-in-confidence shouldn’t be used as a veil to prevent or obstruct parliamentary scrutiny of Defence strategy, capability planning, investment decisions and expenditure. Parliamentary accountability is central to the effective operation of Australia’s system of responsible government. The Committee is concerned by the limited visibility that the Parliament currently has over the Defence portfolio, which is one of Australia’s largest and most important areas of government expenditure.
To address this issue, the Committee advocates for the establishment of a statutory Joint Parliamentary Committee on Defence to improve engagement between the Parliament and Defence to better support Australia’s long-term capability investment plans and the implementation of reform programs. The proposed committee follows a proven model that allows access to highly sensitive information to enable the committee to fulfil its functions, in a way that is acceptable to the Parliament, the Executive and Australia’s allies and security partners.
Benefits of parliamentary engagement
This inquiry began with an examination of overseas models of agreements or processes that support long-term defence capability planning in Denmark, Sweden and the United States. The Committee heard that these agreements and process have a number of benefits, particularly:
providing stability and certainty for Defence budgets and long-term capability and force structure planning;
educating legislators about defence issues to facilitate better‑informed discussion and debate; and
facilitating the ‘depoliticisation’ of defence and security issues through broad political agreement on long-term defence and security policy.
The Committee agreed that a bipartisan approach had considerable merit for further consideration in the Australian Parliament. However, the Committee found that the international agreements and processes examined in chapter 4 are products of their specific constitutional frameworks and political environments which would not be appropriate to introduce without adaptation in Australia. The Committee concluded that in Australia’s system of responsible government, where the executive is drawn from the legislature, a different approach is required.
The Parliament could provide long-term stability for Defence policy and funding through agreeing to a bipartisan position on key issues. Agreement across the Parliament could provide greater certainty for Defence and industry partners beyond the three-year electoral cycle and for the forward estimates.
As discussed in chapter 2, the Committee recognises that ‘bipartisanship’ has many different meanings and despite its frequent usage, has not been clearly and uniformly defined and understood. The Committee acknowledges concerns heard through this inquiry about a form of bipartisanship that operates as a process to restrict discussion and debate. The Committee considers that ‘true’ bipartisanship is an agreed outcome which is reached following robust, well-informed discussion and debate.
Adversarial debate and contestability
The adversarial nature of parliamentary debate provides an opportunity for government and opposition parties to ‘thrash out’ ideas in order to reach a bipartisan position on key issues. The Parliament, particularly through its committees, could support more focussed and productive robust debate either in public session, or in-camera where the subject matter relates to classified material.
The Parliament, through its committee system, is responsible for contesting the proposals and actions of the Executive. As discussed in chapter 3, under current arrangements, the Parliament’s ability to properly monitor the administration of Defence is limited by the lack of access to classified information. A Parliamentary committee with powers and safeguards to access classified information would be best placed to debate and contest proposals by the government and shadow cabinet to develop policy solutions for consideration by the Executive. Such a committee would support the Executive of the day by providing a ‘proxy’ to test and refine its legislative and policy proposals. A key question for the Committee’s consideration has been at what point of the policy development and implementation stages should this contestability and debate occur.
The role of parliamentary committees
In the Australian Parliament, ‘true’ bipartisanship, adversarial debate and contestability are most commonly demonstrated through its committee system. Parliamentary committees provide the forum for members from all sides to discuss and debate legislation and policy based on evidence collected through inquiries, and to develop recommendations that are acceptable to all sides.
The Committee considers that the Parliament, through its committees, has an important but under-exercised role to play in supporting the Executive Government to shape and implement Australia’s long-term defence policy and the implementation of capability plans.
The way forward
This report recommends the establishment of a new statutory parliamentary committee with an exclusive focus on Defence. The proposed committee would be modelled on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), which oversees Australia’s intelligence agencies and related legislation.
As outlined in chapter 6, the Committee recommends that the proposed committee have legislated, clearly articulated functions that include:
reviewing any aspect of Defence planning, strategy development, administration and expenditure referred by the responsible Minister or by a resolution of either House of the Parliament; and
initiating its own inquiries into the annual reports of Defence and its portfolio agencies (similar to the current powers of this Committee) which would enable it to investigate Defence strategy, capability planning and implementation of reforms arising from the First Principles Review.
The Committee recommends that, like the PJCIS, members of the proposed committee should be appointed by a resolution of the House or Senate on the nomination of the Prime Minister (for House members) and the Leader of the Government in the Senate (for Senate members), with a majority of government members. The Committee suggests the committee have at least 15 members in order for it to form sub-committees to perform its functions.
Most importantly, the proposed committee must have access to the classified and commercial-in-confidence information from Defence and other agencies necessary to perform its functions. The Committee recommends that this access be facilitated through the introduction of safeguards and restrictions on the disclosure of classified information, similar to those of the PJCIS.
The Committee recommends that the proposed committee assume the defence related responsibilities of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which would be re-established as the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The Committee acknowledges that a number of existing committees, including the JCPAA and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (PWC) have oversight for different aspects of the Defence portfolio. The Committee recommends that these committees retain these important functions.
However, the Committee considers that the recommended powers for the proposed committee to access classified information would assist the Parliament as a whole to better engage with Defence. The Committee recommends that where existing committees such as the JCPAA and the PWC identify issues related to Defence strategy, or find they are unable to properly perform their functions due the inaccessibility of classified information, they could refer matters to the proposed committee for inquiry and report.
Consolidating the oversight of defence-related legislation and policy into a single committee would assist the Parliament to develop a core of Members and Senators with expertise in and understanding of the Defence portfolio, as well as assisting Defence through providing a consistent pathway for reporting and engagement.
Through this new committee, the Parliament could engage in more meaningful debate and discussion, and facilitate better informed, bipartisan agreement on how to best meet Australia’s long-term strategic needs, within a framework that accommodates the requirement to maintain secrecy. The Committee considers that the establishment of a new statutory committee would assist the Australian Parliament to better engage with and support the Australian Government to develop the capabilities needed to defend Australia into the twenty-first century.