The rise (and fall) of Defence Force pay

13 Nov 2014

From The Sydney Morning Herald Comment by John Warhurst. He is emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

The first thing to say about the furore over the 1.5 per cent pay rise (each year over three years) given to the Australian Defence Force is that ADF pay is set in a special way, quite different from the rest of the public service. The second thing is that the wider ADF is quite impotent to do anything about an adverse pay outcome because it is locked in politically and structurally.

ADF pay is set by the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal. The government in conjunction with the Chief of the Defence Force makes a joint submission to the tribunal, which then makes an “independent” decision to either accept or reject it. As others have said it is a crazy system and needs to change.

The tribunal itself is put in an impossible position. It could have rejected the proposal put to it, but with the existing pay deal about to run out and with back pay not an option, the situation was dire. Even some critics of the decision, such as the RSL president Rear Admiral Ken Doolan, have stated that the tribunal had no choice but to rubber-stamp the agreement.

But other critics, such as Neil James of the Australian Defence Force Association, hoped the tribunal would reject the meagre pay rise. Many voices representing the defence force interest have spoken out against it. These also include the Defence Force Welfare Association.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has called on the government and the tribunal to revisit the decision, but the government is unmoved. It says that there is no money in the budget for a higher pay offer and blames Labor for economic mismanagement. What’s more, the Prime Minister has even said no federal public servant should expect a pay rise greater than that given to the defence forces.

Palmer United Party Senator Jacquie Lambie has not only promised to vote against all government legislation until the rise is upgraded but called on defence personnel to turn their backs on government speakers on Remembrance Day. Not surprisingly the RSL was outraged by this suggestion.

This bizarre pay decision has happened when otherwise the star of the defence forces seems in the ascendant.

First, the ADF has been in almost constant overseas combat operations for a decade or more and is currently deployed against Islamic State. These operations have been widely praised in the Australian community and have brought the members of the defence forces considerable honour. This recognition has come in the form of the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, and some civilian honours including Young Australian of the Year.

Secondly, the Coalition government is in office and the conventional wisdom is that it, rather than Labor, best represents the defence forces.

Within the Coalition parties, former defence force members are growing in numbers and influence. For instance, a former army officer, Stuart Robert, an ADFA graduate, is the Assistant Defence Minister. He was the public face of the government in stamping out any suggestion that the decision could be revisited.

Thirdly, former Chiefs of the Defence Force are very highly placed in Australian society. They occupy the positions of Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, and NSW Governor, David Hurley. At the state level, Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, is a former major. They must be grinding their teeth in private. In fact, Newman, who can speak out, has taken on the federal government and said that the defence force deserved at least a CPI pay increase.

Finally, we are just beginning the massive commemoration of World War I. Effectively this means a huge focus on the defence forces and on their courage, valour and sacrifice on behalf of the Australian community. Already there has been criticism that the large amount of money spent on these commemorations would have been better spent on those former defence force members suffering in civilian life from service-related illnesses.

Yet having said all this, the controversy may not have a big political impact at the next election; at least not on its own. How can this be?
Defence personnel, more than any other sector in the community, are rusted-on Coalition voters. Most are politically and culturally averse to Labor and to its allies such as the trade union movement. It will take a lot to turn them into swinging voters.

Already there has been speculation that Labor will benefit at the next election. The Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Gai Brodtmann, MP for Canberra, has produced the numbers and called on Coalition MPs to stand up for ADF members in their electorates. That is good short-term politics. Allan Thomas, the national president of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans’ Association, hopes that some Coalition MPs will lose their seats over the issue. But Thomas and his association are minor players.

My Australian National University colleague, Professor Ian McAllister, is right to point out that the issue will probably be largely forgotten by the 2016 election. For that not to be the case a lot more than party politics would need to change. Voters make up their minds not just on personal financial self-interest but on wider policy and cultural issues. VC winner Ben Roberts-Smith has already said as much. ADF members generally remain political allies of the Coalition when it comes to the ballot box.

Change will come only if the big and generally pro-Coalition pressure groups, like the RSL, not just “remain very disappointed with the government’s decision” (which is actually code for “we are still inside the government’s tent”) but start campaigning actively and publicly against the Coalition government. That is unlikely to happen.