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No House? Two-party Senate squeeze on cross-bench locks in Defence spending debacle

by Rex Patrick | Jul 8, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

On the last day of sitting before the winter parliamentary break, the Albanese Government, who’ve had bills delayed and amended, for the first time in the 47th Parliament had a piece of legislation voted down in the Senate. It’s an outcome that does not serve Australians well. Rex Patrick reports.

Comedy in the Senate

Last Thursday in the Senate, Greens’ Senator David Shoebridge rose from his seat and gave an impromptu speech on Defence. Anyone watching might reasonably have thought he was engaging in a moment of comedy, but he wasn’t; the topic was deadly serious.

It’s hard to know where you end the list of defence procurement disasters which have happened because, whether it’s Labor in government or the Coalition in government, whether it’s Labor in opposition or Coalition in opposition, the usual practice is that the club doesn’t hold Defence to account.“

The club just signs off on whatever new funding fantasy Defence comes up with and pretends that Defence can achieve it.

Dumb Ways to Buy: Defence “shambles” unveiled – former submariner and senator Rex Patrick

Zero, zero, zero

Shoebridge then made some blunt observations on submarine procurement.

Two decades of this nonsense on submarines has given us a $20 billion hole. I’m trying to think how many submarines we got in the last 20 years – oh, zero. We’ve given $5 billion to the French for no subs, $5 billion to the US for no subs, $5 billion to the UK for no subs and $5 billion trying to keep the Collins class going for another ten years under an experimental project. How many new subs have we got? Zero

He moved on to frigates.

I think we were meant to get nine frigates for $45 billion. Now it looks like we’re going to get six frigates, and guess what the price tag will be? It’s $45 billion and counting.

Let’s be clear: the $45 billion on the Hunter frigates is to date the single largest procurement contract ever signed by the Commonwealth, and it’s a disaster zone. How many Hunter frigates do we have? You’ll be pleased to know we have the same number of Hunter frigates in service as we have new submarines. Zero.

He finally turned to the Navy’s Offshore Patrol Vessels.

Guess how many offshore patrol vessels are currently in commission after having spent more than $1 billion on the project? The exact same number of offshore patrol vessels are in commission as new subs and new Hunter frigates: zero.”

A recent surface fleet review found that the Offshore Patrol vessel is too big to do patrol boat work and too small to put in any kind of conflict zone. At Estimates last month the Chief of Navy conceded the project was “… not an efficient use of resources …”.

A mess that needs fixing

Defence, by far, has the most public money committed to projects. If you wanted only one agency of government to spend money wisely, it would be Defence.

Money committed to Projects by Agency (Source: Austender)

Money committed to Projects by Agency (Source: Austender)

But they don’t spend it wisely. Defence procurement is an absolute mess.

The starting point for that mess is Admirals, Air Marshalls and Generals with little project and risk management experience making purchasing recommendations to Cabinet ministers with no experience in project and risk management.

Senator Shoebridge rightly pinged the timidity of successive governments, cabinets and ministers when it comes to defence:

They pretend they’re tough on Defence until somebody strides into the room with a little bit of gold braid on their shoulder, and then there’s this obscene subservience from both the Labor party and the coalition: ‘Oh, Sir! Oh, Madam! How much money can we give you? Does it go ‘whoosh’? Will it go ‘bang’ at some point? Oh, that’s great! You can have the money.

Oversight vacuum

And that leads us to the failed Bill last Thursday.

Defence has little oversight. Whenever they turn up to Senate Estimates or the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Accounts and Auditing, and the subject matter strays into areas of embarrassment, Defence pleads “it’s classified, we can’t talk about it.”

In late May, the Government introduced a Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Joint Committee on Defence) Bill 2024 that would establish a parliamentary committee that would meet in secret (by default) and have the power to inquire into just about any aspect of Defence.

The Committee, as prescribed in the Government’s Bill, was to consist of 13 Senators and MPs: seven Government members and six non-government members.

The Liberals and Nationals went into a cataclysmic spasm. This would allow the Prime Minister to appoint a cross-bencher or two. OMG!

We have 14 cross benchers in the House (out of 151 MPs – 9%) and 20 cross benchers in the Senate (out of 76 senators – 26%). Having their representation on the Committee is appropriate, particularly given that most Defence projects are so long they extend across parliamentary terms and indeed several changes of government. Both Labor and the Coalition are to blame for the many screw-ups and are hesitant to engage in vigorous scrutinise.

So, Senator Birmingham moved an amendment to restrict the membership to seven government members and six opposition members. That amendment went down, and the Government and cross-bench voted against his changes. This put a nail in the Bill’s coffin, ensuring the Coalition would eventually vote against it.

Two-party squeeze

Senator Shoebridge, rightly suspicious of the wording of Labor’s Bill, sought to amend it from seven Government members and six non-government members (which could easily just mean opposition members) to seven government members, four opposition members and two cross-benchers, one from the House and one from the Senate. That option was not supported by Labor or Liberal and was voted down.

That left the original wording of the Bill without Liberal or cross-bench support.

The Bill went then went down in flames. It was Labor’s first comprehensive legislative failure in this Parliament.

There were some happy winners though; Defence’s bloated and complacent bureaucratic leadership.  For them it’s business as usual; billions of taxpayers’ dollars to splurge with little scrutiny and even less accountability. There were, no doubt, a few bottles of (contractor supplied) champagne popping at Defence central on Russell Hill. They had dodged a bullet.

Politics, as it so often does, got in the way of a good outcome for the Australia public.

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader -

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