CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Defence - incompetence and bungles galore
, May 13, 2006
The Defence Department has been a running sore which has finished off the political careers of four ministers: John Moore, Ian McLachlan, Peter Reith and Robert Hill.If the Private Kovco debacle does nothing else, it should concentrate the collective mind of the Howard Government on the biggest administrative black hole of its 10 years of government - defence.
The series of bungles has highlighted once again that the defence bureaucracy is prone, not only to accidents and mistakes, but to a culture of cover-ups of accidents and mistakes.
New Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, courtesy of advice from his department, gave three different versions of how Private Kovco had died, and then berated the media for daring to speculate about the cause of the soldier's death.
Then, of course, the Army brought back the wrong body to Kovco's family, using an unsupervised private funeral director from the United States.
The Army and the funeral director blamed each other for the fiasco.
Now the Defence Department is warning that it will take six months to conduct an inquiry into the cause of Private Kovco's death - an extraordinary delay which will surely compound the family's grief.Mistakes
The Government must have known from the outset that the first Australian casualty from Iraq - whatever the cause of death - would have attracted considerable media attention, but the mistakes should not have been made under any circumstances.
But in some ways the Kovco mishap should not come as a surprise at all. Australia's defence bureaucracy is a constant source of bungled contracts, misinformation and incompetence.
The Howard Government says it is deeply committed to defence, but it has not had the wherewithal to get on top of a bloated and arrogant bureaucracy.
In the lead-up to his taking power in 1994, John Howard maintained that defence would be a major priority of his Government.
"National security and the defence of Australia is the first responsibility of government," he said in his "Getting the Big Things Right" speech. "Australia must be prepared to use all means in our power to pursue our interests and defend our values against these threats."
Since then, as Prime Minister, Mr Howard has repeatedly boasted of his Government's commitment to defence and to defence spending, which has been protected from the cutbacks inflicted on other departments.
But the reality is that the Government has fallen far short of the mark.
According to Fairfax newspaper journalist Tim Colebatch, defence spending has actually fallen
under the Howard Government as a share of the nation's output (gross domestic product, or GDP).
"On the budget's numbers, it has shrunk from 1.94 per cent of GDP under Labor to 1.61 per cent now," he wrote in an article earlier this year.
"The Bureau of Statistics measures it differently, but reports a similar trend: defence spending has fallen from 2.05 to 1.83 per cent of GDP," Mr Colebatch wrote. (Sydney Morning Herald
, February 24, 2006).
The Australian National Audit Office has repeatedly reported on defence financial mismanagement with cost over-runs, waste, and missing equipment running into hundreds of millions of dollars.Poor equipment
Despite extraordinary money spent on advertising and other inducements, defence recruitment cannot get enough young men and women into uniform, and there have been reports of poor equipment and even uniforms.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has noted that defence spending is being frittered away and that there is a gradual falling away in capital investment.
Project delays are routine; money allocated for projects lies idle while personnel costs inexplicably gallop away.
The chaos inside defence means that the front line is not getting the new equipment it needs to protect Australia's national security interests.
It has been estimated that not one of the biggest 20 defence projects that were planned at the time the Howard Government came to office have been delivered.
Several have been cancelled and the remaining projects have overshot their deadlines, sometimes by years.
There have been defence efficiency reviews, defence reform programs, a Defence White Paper, and other clean-up projects which have amounted to very little.
The department has been a running political sore which has finished off the political careers of four ministers: John Moore, Ian McLachlan, Peter Reith and Robert Hill.
It is high time the Government took its commitment to defence seriously.