Earlier this year I made a submission and gave evidence to the annual review of Defence activities conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. In essence, I argued that parliamentary oversight of the Department of Defence needed to be strengthened by both improving the transparency of Defence reporting to parliament and deepening the engagement of parliamentarians with defence issues.
Last week the committee tabled its report in parliament, and happily agreed with the majority of my evidence. Two of its four main recommendations were drawn from my submission.
The first recommendation directs Defence to improve its public reporting on performance by developing a more precise performance reporting methodology than the current, and ridiculous, 'three tick reporting' it uses. The Committee recommended that future Defence annual reports detail specific performance targets, how performance is assessed in relation to these targets, and (if necessary) the specific reason why targets were not achieved. It suggests the Department undergo periodic review by independent experts in a process similar to the Quadrennial Defence Review used by the US military.
It also directs Defence to include more reporting on operational readiness in its public annual report. This point is particularly important.
As my submission indicated, Navy's amphibious fleet recorded two ticks for performance during 2010-2011, meaning 'targets mostly met and any issues are being managed'. But two of the three ships had actually been put on an extensive operational pause following a fire, and during a large part of that period Navy had no amphibious capability at all. I outlined how our allies are able to offer more detailed public reporting on readiness without compromising operational security.
Defence's response rather blandly stated that readiness details were sensitive and should remain classified, and that its annual reporting complies with governmental guidelines.
The parliamentary committee agreed with me that Defence annual reporting 'does not provide sufficient detail on performance or on the readiness of the ADF', agreed that Defence reporting is overly optimistic, and shared my concerns about the 'three tick' system Defence uses to assess its own performance.
The second recommendation concerned the ADF Parliamentary Program, a highly successful initiative that has allowed 34% of the current parliament to gain experience in placements with the Australian Defence Force. I argued that the tactical emphasis of this program needed to be broadened to include exposure to more strategic defence issues. The committee has recommended that the program be extended into other areas, including the Department of Defence's strategic policy areas and the Defence Materiel Organisation. At this point I should apologise to the 44th parliament — instead of jet rides at RAAF Williamtown you might be headed across the lake to study spread sheets at DMO. But this is important if we are to increase knowledge of strategic defence issues amongst parliamentarians.
Finally, I had asked the Committee to recommend defence 'review the effectiveness of its operations and strategy in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq, and Afghanistan'. In response, Defence outlined that it conducts regular campaign assessments in Headquarters Joint Operations Command, including a quarterly assessment of Operation Slipper (ADF operations in Afghanistan) but that this is 'primarily focused on Uruzgan province'.
In response to my call for a public review of operations and strategy, Defence argued 'public reviews such as those recommended would carry the risk of providing potential adversaries with information of the ADF's strengths and weaknesses without necessarily providing further information of value', and pointed to the Defence Minister's updates to parliament on Afghanistan. But a quarterly update is not the same as a strategic review, and the operational security excuse looks tired and implausible.
Australia is now the only member of the five-eyes community not to have conducted a public review of operations and strategy in Afghanistan.
We've spent billions of dollars on military operations in the past decade, lost over 40 military personnel and had hundreds more wounded. Surely it's important to review whether we could have done better. The committee chose not to recommend defence review its operations and strategy of the past decade. Here's hoping the next parliament might reconsider that.