CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Nelson turns blind eye to neglected defences
, August 5, 2006
New Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson has so far failed to acknowledge the deep-seated, systematic problems in the administration of Australia's Defence Force.How many reports will it take for the Howard Government to acknowledge that there are deep-seated, systematic problems in the administration of Australia's Defence Force?
New Minister Brendan Nelson faces problems on multiple fronts, but unless he grasps the fundamental issue - that the department itself needs a root-and-branch overhaul - he will simply lurch from one crisis to the next.
The latest report, showing that there are major failures in the supply of boots, clothing and uniforms for Australia's troops, comes after a long line of similar probes revealing inadequacies in the administration of defence.
The Clothing Procurement Review concluded that clothing and equipment suppliers had been exploiting Defence's lax systems to falsify their products, securing contracts that they did not deserve.
Over the past couple of years, there have been consistent media reports of faulty equipment, and of troops having to buy their own gear.
Troops serving in East Timor, the Solomons, Iraq and Afghanistan have also reported defective body armour, combat-jackets which glowed in the dark and helmets which did not fit.
Serving soldiers in East Timor even reported having to ration bullets because the supply lines were so woeful.
Of course, the latest report predictably claimed that, despite the admitted deep flaws in the procurement "process", there had been no actual problem for serving personnel.
Changes to the supervision of clothing supplies, boosting the section's status within the Defence Materiel Organisation and "more money" should fix the problem, the report concluded.
"There is no evidence in the report of inadequate equipment being given to the soldiers," Dr Nelson claimed.
Unfortunately, the Defence Minister is slipping into a well-worn groove trodden by his predecessors who all failed to tame or reform the department they were given responsibility for.
When news reports first surfaced that there were problems with uniform and boot supplies Dr Nelson said he was "advised" there were no problems for frontline troops. But he ordered a report which has now acknowledged a litany of problems.
Defence's excuse has always been that the long delays and huge cost blow-outs of its contracts occur because of the complexity of high-tech equipment such as submarines, helicopters and missiles.
The fact is all contracts in Defence appear to be flawed - even the most simple ones like putting boots on combat soldiers.
Even the latest decision to lower the admission criteria for troop intakes covers up a deeper scandal.
Dr Nelson has decided to permit former drug-users, asthmatics and young men with visible tattoos into the services in a bid to fill the gaps in recruitment.Quotas unfilled
But every year for the past decade, Defence has been paying tens of millions of dollars to advertising and recruiting companies while still virtually failing to fit the services' quotas.
Currently there is a shortfall of more than 1,000 recruits a year.
Defence has even resorted to giving away computers to high school students for considering a career in the army, navy or air force.
Dr Nelson says Australia's army needs to be increased by almost 30,000 troops by 2016 to cope with the strains caused by the increasingly unstable world and the threat of terror.
Such an increase is laudable; but, unless the basic problems in Defence are remedied, new recruits will not stay and those who do could be placing themselves in danger - not from the enemy, but from the incompetence of their own Government.