Good morning everyone.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today here, the Turrbul and Jagera People, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
I also pay my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have served, and continue to serve our nation with great distinction, particularly those who join us today.
I want to acknowledge and thank the current and ex-serving personnel who join us today – thank you for your service.
And I wish to acknowledge the families of serving personnel and veterans and thank them for their service in supporting our ADF.
When someone signs up for the defence force, they do not do so in isolation – their families serve alongside them all the way, often making many sacrifices themselves.
It’s an honour to join you for this inaugural Defence People Symposium here in Brisbane, with the theme “Harnessing the best of Australia’s talent, together”.
It is a privilege to be here with you today, amongst the people of Defence – veterans, members of the Australian Defence Force, Defence public servants, and representatives from defence industry.
In particular, I want to thank Justine Greig, the Deputy Secretary of the Defence People Group, and Major General Natasha Fox, the Deputy Chief of Army, for hosting this Symposium.
I’d also like to acknowledge and thank our many esteemed speakers – especially our international guests – that are taking part in this important event.
To all attendees – more than 1,000 of you either here in person or attending virtually – thank you for your time and your commitment to coming together to work on how we can harness the best of Australia’s talent.
It was just over one month ago that the Australian people went to the polls and elected a new Government under the leadership of Anthony Albanese.
At the beginning of June, I had the honour to be sworn in as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel.
It was a profound moment personally and professionally.
I accept the responsibility of working to ensure we have the people we need in Defence, get the best out of our people in Defence, and ensure that they have a positive transition from Defence whenever and however that moment may come, as well as supporting our veterans once they have left Defence.
I do not take that responsibility lightly, because our people are the most important sovereign capability we have.
I can assure you I will work every day to fiercely advocate for veterans, defence personnel and their families.
Yes, I’ve heard the calls for my role to be within the Cabinet. But what is more important than what table I sit at, is that I am focused, and the Albanese Government is focused, on policies and initiatives that will see a better future for defence personnel, veterans, and their families.
And of course, I’ll be working very closely with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, on all these matters.
What is really important is the outcomes and I look forward to working with all of you to ensure we achieve those better outcomes together.
I can’t do it alone and I am buoyed by my conversations to-date with Defence leadership about our shared commitment to achieving these outcomes for the benefit of our people and in the interests of our nation.
In recent weeks, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence has articulated a number of the Government’s Defence priorities.
We are revitalising our historically deep engagement in the region, especially in the Pacific and in South-East Asia, by entering into a new era of collaboration with our regional partners and neighbours.
Already, Prime Minister Albanese, Deputy Prime Minister Marles and Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, have been traversing the globe rebuilding and strengthening relationships.
As we know, our region faces strategic circumstances which are as complex as they have been since the end of the Second World War.
In such an environment, diplomacy matters – diplomacy is about people.
Another priority for the Albanese Government is defence industry.
We want to lift the profile of Australia’s defence industry on the world stage – to give it the strategic rationale which has been lacking over the last decade.
We recognise that Australia is home to some of the world’s most innovative and technologically advanced capability solutions – many, but not all of which, are used by the Australian Defence Force and exported for use by overseas customers.
We’ll work with our AUKUS partners and others to seize these opportunities.
Our Government will be focused on strengthening our sovereign capabilities, bolstering our manufacturing, and creating new local jobs – again, that’s about people.
And our commitment to these objectives will be articulated in a new Defence Industry Development Strategy.
In doing these things, we invest in our self-reliance and sovereign defence industrial base upon which those in uniform rely.
And it is our responsibility in Government to ensure those in uniform have access to the kit they need, when they need it.
Because our greatest capability in defence is our people.
As much as we must grow our unmanned capabilities, and develop the use of cutting edge AI, none of it works without people. And nor, should I say, would we want it to.
As recently retired Australian Major General Mick Ryan wrote in his book, War Transformed:
“People are the foundation of every military capability. They are also at the heart of every form of military advantage.”
He is right.
People are at the core of defence diplomacy and defence strategy.
They are at the centre of acquiring, building, sustaining, operating, supplying and commanding defence capabilities.
And they are central to that noblest of missions: defending our nation and its interests to advance Australia’s security and prosperity.
So, as we expand our fleets of ships, submarines and aircraft we too must expand our personnel to operate, sustain, supply and plan.
The alternative is merely acquiring very expensive and impressive museum pieces.
Just as the first responsibility of any national government is to look after its people, so must we be focused on our people.
Not just because they matter to our ability to bring the effects we may need in our national interest – and they do – but also because our people are also our fellow Australians, our brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.
And, they matter in the Australian Defence Force, in the Defence Department, in defence industry.
And they matter in our veteran community and defence families.
Importantly, if we demonstrate our care and empathy to those in service, to those that have served, and to their families who are supporting them during or post service, then we send a simple, but profound message:
Your service matters, you matter, your contribution and sacrifice is valued – not just by your unit, or your service, or by Defence, but by your family, your friends, your Government and our nation.
There is also no better message to send to future generations of potential Defence members.
And just to be clear – because haters gonna hate – none of this is about diminishing capability, rigour, standards or the necessary culture to allow Defence to do what it needs to do, when we need it to do it in the most harshest of circumstances.
So I’m proud the Government has already committed an additional $200 plus million dollars in funding to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to provide an additional 500 staff to work through a backlog of now around 60,000 claims – not just from veterans but from many actively serving ADF members as well.
Alongside the removal of the Australian Public Service Staffing cap, these additional staff will have the opportunity for not only secure employment, but they will be trained and retained to build a better body of experience to deal more quickly with the complexities of the cases that come to DVA.
We’ve also committed to establishing more Veterans and Families Hubs around the country to support veterans and their families to better access the services and supports they need, in areas that are convenient to them.
Of course, there will be more to do following the outcomes of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
That is a task we will work on together, and I want to thank you all and your teams for the work you have been putting in to right wrongs and to support the Royal Commission in its work.
We supported the establishment of this Royal Commission because we are committed to better outcomes for people.
But I also want to acknowledge that the majority of people in service have an amazing and, dare I say it, an exciting time. They love their time in service, as well they should.
The majority also transition to civilian life very successfully, taking the skills and experience acquired in service to benefit our nation in a myriad of different ways, including in defence industry, ex-service organisations, as advocates, and even at the DVA.
And we want to improve this too.
That’s why we’re committed to delivering a comprehensive veteran’s employment program to support personnel as they transition to civilian life and improve the knowledge of business of how employing a veteran can benefit them.
As we look to the future, our strategic circumstances have necessitated a greater investment in Defence and an increase in the number of people working across the defence enterprise.
We face a number of challenges ahead.
By 2039-40, our aim is to increase Defence’s total permanent workforce to more than 100,000 personnel – that’s an increase of 18,500 people on the baseline growth outlined in the 2020 Force Structure Plan.
We’re aiming to elevate Australian Defence Force personnel numbers to about 80,000, and to double the staff at the Australian Signals Directorate, with 1,900 more people.
And then there is our new Nuclear propelled submarine endeavour.
This is truly a nation building opportunity. Not just in the Defence capability that these submarines will provide us, but in the transformation of our industrial base and the skills, experience and people required for the ongoing support and sustainment of these great vessels and their crews.
For kids just starting out in high school today, they have the opportunity now to look at nuclear physics, nuclear engineering, technical trades that were not previously sought in Australia before.
We will be growing in our crews, in our command, in our logistics and in our support industries new skills and opportunities for decades to come.
This is truly exciting and we need to share that excitement with potential recruits and with our children – just as we do for the opportunities that tackling climate change and developments in renewable energy will bring to our nation as well.
So while in some ways our challenges may appear daunting, especially with such a low unemployment rate, a recent lack of migration, and an apparent all-out war across industries for talent – and these are daunting challenges – let us also be present to the exciting opportunity that growing and developing our people presents as well.
To give but one example, of the $6.25 billion dollars awarded to Indigenous businesses as part of Commonwealth contracts, $3.24 billion dollars – over half – has been for Defence-related work.
The defence enterprise is an ecosystem requiring many skills and professions.
Those working in policy, strategy, intelligence, business operations, procurement, testing, assurance, marketing, science, engineering, human resources, legal practice, logistics, communication and much more.
Anyone intent on serving their community can find a meaningful career in the Defence sector.
Importantly, through legislative reform and institutional change over many years, barriers have been removed and new opportunities created, especially for women.
Over the five years from 2017 to 2022, women in senior ADF officer roles and in the senior executive public service positions have increased by 4.6 per cent and 15 per cent respectively.
Women now make up just under 17 per cent and 49 per cent of senior ADF and public service roles respectively.
There is more to do, but trends are heading in a positive direction.
During the same period, permanent female ADF members have increased by 3.7 per cent, now accounting for just over 20 per cent of all ADF permanent members.
And as of May this year, women now comprise more than 46 per cent of ongoing Defence public servants, 23 per cent of ADF members deployed on overseas operations, and 30 per cent of those on domestic operations.
Importantly, we must also keep the good people we already have in Defence as well.
That’s why the Government is committed to working with families of personnel on deployment cycles, on housing and other family supports.
We don’t intend to dictate what this looks like – rather work closely with those with lived experience.
While people put their hands up to protect our nation, we must ensure they’re looked after as well.
Whether it’s attracting or retaining personnel in the ADF, flexibility will be critical to the future.
Flexibility in adopting the suite of full-time, part-time and casual service arrangements.
Flexibility to move across and between ADF, civilian and industry roles.
And flexibility with the length of postings, deployments and secondments nationally and internationally, including associated defence housing and support for families.
For many of our service personnel, defence is a way of life, not just a career – a way of life involving the whole family and a lifestyle embraced by the family.
People build institutions, institutions shape people, and people reform institutions.
Defence is no exception, as its long history attests to.
We often talk about sovereign capability in terms of defence industry and defence hardware capability.
But it is our people who are our greatest sovereign capability.
People working across our defence enterprise today…
Those who will join us in years to come…
The families that support them and make sacrifices of their own…
And the veterans whose service and past experiences we need to better leverage and learn from for the times ahead – and for many of which they will be able to continue to serve our nation in civilian life out of uniform, whether through the APS, defence industry or many other endeavours.
When it comes to people as a sovereign capability, we can’t escape building this capability here at home.
There is so much great work going on. We have an ADF of which our nation is rightly proud, and there is more to do.
I look forward to working together with you for an even better future for our Defence people, in and out of uniform.
It is my honour to now formally declare this inaugural Defence People Symposium open.