Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (16:07): I thank the opposition for bringing this important matter forward. I believe that this parliament owes and has a twofold obligation to our service personnel. The first is that we should never put them in harm's way without very good reason. I believe that the government has failed this test. The second is, if they are deployed, pay them what they are worth, equip them properly and ensure they are covered by appropriate legal protections—in other words, the other half of that twofold obligation is to look after them, both when they are on deployment and when they return.
In the same month as this government deployed special operations forces, Air Force personnel and support personnel into one of the most violent places on earth, we had this insulting pay offer, and then the government had the nerve to turn around and blame its budget position. This is a government that has spent the last 12 months stamping around the place cutting taxes. Does that sink in for you, just for a moment—that you have the nerve to blame the budget for this humiliating position that you have put serving ADF personnel and their families in, after you have been going around cutting taxes and doing everything you can to worsen the Australian budget position?
There are no shortage of photo opportunities for the Prime Minister, the defence minister or anybody else who wants to get the photo opp surrounded by people in uniform or flashy military hardware. It is no problem at all to get a coalition spokesperson or the Prime Minister to turn up to those photo opps. What we are noticing—and this is a pattern of behaviour that the former government is guilty of as well—is that they are stepping up for these flashy hardware announcements, where cost is no problem: $40 billion worth of new submarines and $12 billion for Joint Strike Fighter aircraft that cannot be put to air, and another $12 billion to keep them maintained into the indefinite future. There is no problem at all in forking out gargantuan amounts of money to American defence contractors. But when it comes to the human beings who keep this machine in motion—who this parliament, unfortunately, does not have the ability to exercise any decision about whether we deploy them and to where, because that decision is still held in the Prime Minister's office—this government, after splashing billions of dollars around the place, taking the photo opportunities, surrounding themselves with people in uniform, makes this insulting below-inflation pay offer.
These are people who cannot go on strike. They cannot take industrial action. They do not have a union organiser at the other end of a phone line. They have to be very careful about what they say about their employer, the ADF, and I guess all of us, in the public domain. Contrary to what Senator Back said, it is worth taking a look at people in this place, who also work long hours and who are very committed to their work. But, let's face it, having spent a very brief period of time in Afghanistan a couple of years ago as a guest of the ADF on the ADF exchange program, our job is nowhere near as arduous, hazardous, risky and downright stressful as the job of the people that we send forward into theatres of war. Yet our pay has gone up by more than 140 per cent over the last two decades. In exchange, we offer those service personnel and their families effectively half of what they were expecting. As the Acting CDF on the day said, this is basically half of what was expected. They do need to be very careful about what they say in the public domain, but the fact is that this government has touched off uproar. I think it is more than optics to say that in the same month as you deploy them into a conflict zone you are offering this insulting pay offer.
I hope the government is ashamed of itself and I hope it goes back to take a look at how much damage it has done to the budget position before it comes back in here again moaning about a budget emergency that is largely of its own making. If you are so concerned about the Commonwealth's budget position that you would do this to the ADF, then maybe let's have a more intelligent conversation about the taxes that you have been cutting at the top end of town because you do not have the spine to stand up to those special interests, so you are taking money out of the pockets of people who cannot even call a press conference and explain what their grievance is. It is the kind of vast absence of courage and heart and compassion that this government has shown to people right across the Public Service and right across our society, not least our service personnel.