This inquiry commenced as an attempt to establish bipartisanship in defence policy and concluded that under Australia’s system of government, the only feasible way to foster bipartisanship was to establish a new and effective committee that had real powers of oversight along the lines of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS).
Up until the conclusion of the Report but before the Foreword was finally written, the inquiry was conducted by Senator Linda Reynolds. On 11 September 2018, I was appointed Chair, and although the Report remains unchanged from the previous Chair, I now take responsibility for both the Report and this Foreword.
Through its committees, the Parliament discusses and debates complex areas of policy and can reach agreement on solutions that transcend party lines to advance the interests of all Australians. As part of this process, the Defence Sub-Committee is expected to exercise, on behalf of the Parliament, appropriate oversight of the entire defence function across Australia.
This inquiry seeks to move towards bipartisanship on defence policy and so provide greater long-term stability for Defence and its industry partners in the midst of the most significant upgrade of Australia’s defences in peacetime. Our recommendation is that the admirable level of bipartisanship achieved within the PJCIS should be the objective of a revamped Defence Sub-committee.
This inquiry on bipartisanship arose from the Defence Sub-Committee’s 2017 Review of the Defence Annual Report 2015-16. That review highlighted the challenges this Sub‑Committee faces in seeking to oversight 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. We found that greater engagement between the Parliament and Defence would support the implementation of these vitally important reforms.
Through the 2016 White Paper, Defence now has a strategy and a commitment to funding. What is not clear to the Sub-Committee is whether plans are in existence and appropriate, and whether the ability to deliver on that strategy is in existence.
Through this inquiry, the Sub-Committee heard that the capability plans outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper face significant challenges. In addition to concerns about long-term funding and policy stability, we heard concerns from industry, academics and former Defence officials about the lack of transparency on defence capability planning processes and the dearth of well-informed public debate and discussion on defence issues. Because so much is classified, the Sub-Committee could not make adequate inquiries to test the evidence given.
The inquiry started with an examination of international models of bipartisan defence agreements, particularly the multi-party agreements implemented in Denmark and Sweden. The Committee found that while these models certainly provide long‑term funding stability, they were not compatible with Australia’s Westminster parliamentary model.
The Sub-Committee found that greater parliamentary engagement would support better-informed long-term bipartisanship on defence, which in turn would have significant benefits for the development of Australia’s defence capability. However, the Sub-Committee also found there are significant barriers to improving engagement, particularly the lack of available information and documentation on the implementation of key reforms.
The Sub-Committee appreciates that information relating to Defence’s implementation of these reforms and capability plans is classified, and underpinned by classified strategic assessments from Australia’s intelligence agencies. However, as with all aspects of Government policy, the Parliament has both an obligation and a right to access the information required to oversight how the Executive expends public funds.
To address these challenges, the Sub-Committee recommends establishing a new statutory parliamentary committee with an exclusive focus on Defence. This new committee, with a legislated mandate and powers to access information, would provide a vital link between Defence and the Australian people, through the Parliament.
The significant contribution that such a statutory committee can make to defence and national security policy has recently been demonstrated by the PJCIS. The recent inquiry into the Government’s proposed foreign interference laws highlight the importance of the PJCIS in providing a forum where senior government and opposition members can be fully briefed on classified information and allow for a properly informed debate on the appropriateness of these laws. In the PJCIS, parliamentarians can thrash out ideas to reach an agreed position in the national interest.
Through this new committee based on the PJCIS, parliamentarians from both sides of politics will have the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of Defence policy and the strategic assessments that underpin it, which will in turn encourage better informed political and public debate.
Defence is one of the most important priorities of any national government. Greater bipartisanship on defence, reached through debate and contest on this new committee, will help to produce better policy outcomes to develop the capability Australia needs to defend ourselves into the future. With this report, the Sub-Committee aims to start this important national discussion by recommending the establishment of a new and effective committee that has real powers of oversight along the lines of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS).
As the incoming Chair, and on behalf of the Sub-Committee, I thank Senator Linda Reynolds CSC for the work she put into this report and to the assistance that she provided to me.
Senator Jim Molan AO DSC