A breath of fresh air in Canberra

It is probably the kiss of political death to promote and celebrate the work of a Labor Government backbencher.

After all promotion in the party might be partly due to competence but factional allegiance is more significant. Having too high a profile is probably not an advantage either. But nevertheless…

Julian Hill is the MHR for Bruce in Victoria who the blog has known him since Hill was a Port Phillip City Councillor and Mayor in the early 2000s.

As Chair of two Joint Parliamentary Committees he has this year produced two important reports – one which negotiated an impossible constraint by the Government on going to war and the other into the mess which is Government procurement.

Most recently the blog and fellow veteran John Phillips gave evidence at the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) which released the final report from its Inquiry into international armed conflict decision making earlier this year.

The Inquiry was offered a real shit sandwich by the Albanese Government. It was asked to look into how Australia goes to war after the Defence Minister had already ruled out any change to the current system of the executive making the decision without reference to Parliament.

So as far as the Albanese Government goes we can have as many Vietnams, Iraqs, Afghanistans as we like in the future but Parliament gets no say in whether it happens or not. Given these successive disasters one would have thought any sensible government would at least have waited until the inquiry finished and they had a chance to look at the results.

But not this one which is not only terrified about being accused of being soft on security but is also terrified of introducing a more rational and equitable tax system.

The usual suspects on the side of the status quo included the Defence Department. As the blog asked in its verbal evidence – why should we take any notice of an organisation which is unable to provide troops with the equipment they need on time and on budget along with the equipment being operationally effective?

Witnesses got a pretty good go although the Liberal members went after supporters of change – except for the veterans giving evidence who didn’t get questioned by them at all. Some might think this was basic courtesy others might regard it as typical of how war hungry Coalition governments regard veterans.

Hill and the Committee worked the tightrope in all of this extremely well and reporting for the Committee he said: “The power to declare war and send military personnel into conflict is arguably the most significant and serious institutional power, and the gravest decision a government can make.

“Through this inquiry, the Committee has carefully and seriously considered fundamental questions regarding decision-making in relation to international armed conflict and parliamentary oversight, both preceding and during the commitment of the Australian Defence Force.

“The Committee has concluded there is a clear need to improve the transparency and accountability of government decision-making in relation to armed conflict. Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy is likely to be kept healthy, effective, and well-adapted by making sensible changes that respect our well-established institutions and conventions.”

The Committee’s recommended that “decisions regarding armed conflict are fundamentally a prerogative of the Executive” but also pointedly “acknowledging the key role of Parliament in considering such decisions, and the value of improving the transparency and accountability of such decision-making in the pursuit of national interests.”

It also recommended that when we go to war a written statement should be published and tabled in the Parliament setting out the objectives of major military operations, the orders made and legal basis; Parliament should be “recalled as soon as possible to be advised and facilitate a debate in Parliament at the earliest opportunity following a ministerial statement, based on the 2010 Gillard model, including a statement of compliance with international law and advice as to the legality of an operation.”

It also suggested that Standing Resolutions of both Houses of Parliament to establish expectations of Executive Government in relation to accountability for decisions in relation to international armed conflict, including regular Statements and Updates from the Prime Minister and Minister for Defence be established.

Another recommendation provided for ongoing information about conduct and progress subject to certain security requirements. In other words, hope like hell that some insider produces a latter-day Pentagon Papers.

But all in all – given the shit sandwich handed to them Hill and the Committee did about as well as anyone could expect.

Hill is also Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and this month it produced a report on Commonwealth procurement.

If a war inquiry is a shit sandwich procurement is a major sewerage disaster you are forced to swim in. The report confronted head on the endemic scandals in the area.

Hill’s foreword to the report said: “Procurement is big business and commits the Australian Government and taxpayers to tens of billions of dollars every year. Procurement accounted for more than $80 billion in committed value in 2021-22, with the Government awarding more than 90,000 contracts to more than 12,000 businesses for a hugely diverse range of goods and services.

“The five biggest consulting firms (Accenture, KPMG, Deloitte, PWC and Ernst & Young) secured nearly $2 billion in government contracts in the 2021-22 financial year, comprising more than $1.6 billion in new contracts as well as more than $300 million in contract variations or extensions.

“In four of the five reports by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) considered in this inquiry, there was noncompliance with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules (CPRs). Especially significant were consistent failures to demonstrate value for money, conduct procurements in line with ethical requirements or keep adequate records, and substandard contract management.

“Put plainly, the Commonwealth has serious commitment issues. AusTender is no AusTinder and it needs reform. Public servants need to get far more comfortable and skilled with playing the field and sharpening their pencils on suppliers, even if this leads to difficult conversations and rejection…..The rules are not onerous. Simply put, the guiding principle is that agencies should be able to demonstrate that they have achieved value for money for the taxpayer, by following the CPRs which are set by the Department of Finance.”

All well and good but the bullet points ending the Foreword may be more forthright than any previous Joint Standing Committee report. Hill writes that the Committee recommendations: (exclamation points are in the text) include: Panels have become an uncompetitive rort and it needs to stop! Better match-making by Tarting up AusTender! Take a broader view of what you do! Value for money, always, no exceptions! Take a good hard look at yourself! One in, all in (every government entity has to increase procurement controls! It’s time to re-professional! (skill up the APS) Finance needs to lead!

Hill is also a prominent supporter of Julian Assange recently telling The Age: “I stand by my previous comments that none should judge Mr Assange if he cuts a deal to get the hell out of there. In the meantime, I urge UK and US authorities to take concerns about Julian’s health more seriously and move him out of maximum-security prison as a sign off good faith.”

Ah that there aren’t more like him.