Some soldiers in the Middle East Area of Operations had their allowances cut.
HMAS Parramatta in the Gulf
I'm not getting involved in the argument about how dangerous it is to be at any particular location - this is simply about the issue of what the cuts to the allowances were all about.
It's in the Canberra Times Defence Supplement . . .
“Mate, I’d tell you but you couldn’t print it.” We are standing at the butts of a firing range in the Middle East; it’s 35 degrees outside; and the soldier, who’s scheduled to go to Iraq, is blunt. He snorts dismissively at the government’s 1.5 percent pay offer. “It’s just crap.” Other diggers who’ve just arrived on deployment join in. Normally they’re reluctant to discuss controversial issues with journalists – nobody wants to risk being quoted. But in this case everyone has a view. Frustration with the government has been growing for months, and these wage negotiations have been the final straw.
In this case it’s the allowances for people deployed on operations, rather than the meagre amount contained in the overall pay offer. The problem is the way the cuts have been structured. The effect has been to slash payments for those in the Middle East; people at the sharp end of combat. This has engendered the perception that the government’s real aim was always simply to cut allowances and save money. The illogical reality becomes apparent on an induction course for service personnel being deployed to the Middle East theatre.
The soldiers fly into Al Minhad Air Base, where they learn features of the latest Improvised Explosive Devices, fire their weapons, have secret briefings about the latest mutation of the shifting nature of the insurgency . . . and have a complex lecture on the different rates of pay, depending on where people happen to be (officially) based.
The soldiers aren’t impressed. “Compare our pay to the politicians,” says one. He then quotes – verbatim – an Australian Strategic Policy Institute analysis. “Politicians got a pay rise of 31 percent in 2012. The Chief [of the Defence Force] got 27 percent. But we don’t even get to keep up with inflation. It sucks.”
Those going on to deployment in the war in Iraq are angry for another reason, too. They are over here without any idea what their conditions might be. “It’s a case of do the job and we’ll tell you what we’ll pay you for it later,” says an airman. “The war’s being going for weeks now, but there’s not been a peep on pay. Don’t get me wrong, nobody’s in it for the money, but it would be nice to know so that we can plan for Christmas.”
This technician knows he won’t be at home to celebrate with his family, but is very unhappy he has no idea how much his service will be worth. More importantly, he’s angry that the government doesn’t seem to think informing him is a priority. “They’re quick to cut pay,” he adds, “but they’re a darn sight slower when it comes to giving you something extra”.
In January, Prime Minister Tony Abbott went on Sydney radio defending the slashing of allowances for soldiers deployed overseas. “The nature of service in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East has changed. Until the end of last year a lot of our forces . . . were in the field, they were engaged in regular combat. And that’s quite different,” the PM continued, “from the kind of training and support roles that they will be in this year and subsequently”.
This was, of course, only the first blow. Adding insult to injury, the government’s now offering service personnel pay rises of just 1.5 percent per year for each of the next three years – in return for giving up ‘stand-down’ leave and other allowances. Those who’ve calculated the difference assert – the Canberra Times has been unable to confirm the allegations – that, by the time inflation at three percent is taken into account, they will actually be worse off. *See News Story to come.
What makes the situation particularly worse for those deployed overseas, though, is the way cuts have been introduced for those actually at the pointy end of war.
“There’s no logic or consistency to any of this,” says an officer who requested to remain anonymous. “It’s impossible not to conclude that the aim is simply to save money.”
As an example, he refers to sailors operating in the Gulf on HMAS Toowoomba. Prior to July 1, this operation had been tax free, but on that date it suddenly, and magically, changed to become non-warlike. Nothing else altered. In fact recently the ship was busier than ever, engaging in three contacts with suspected pirates within a week.
“The distinction Defence is drawing in many cases is completely arbitrary,” he continues. “People doing similar tasks and living in the same conditions are receiving different pay depending entirely on where they happen to be based.”
The new pay regime in the operational area – eventually intended to be a matrix of nine different levels of pay, depending on the operation and the location – has already become an administrative nightmare. Anyone travelling on duty, such as the signallers who have to shift on an almost daily basis to repair radios through the region, must submit different returns each night to allow their pay to be calculated. Any savings are being immediately consumed by the increased burden of paperwork.
The change has led to the completely bizarre situation where some people receive their money tax-free while others don’t, even though both are posted to exactly the same operation. For operational reasons the exact details can’t be disclosed, nevertheless the Canberra Times is now aware of one location where people are working side-by-side and on the same task, yet on vastly different conditions of service.
In attempting to claw back money from some service personnel, the government has inadvertently created a ridiculous situation. It’s understood that many senior officers – including the most senior if all – have vigorously protested the cuts. They’ve been, however, faced with firm edicts from a government that is both struggling to balance the budget and purchase the latest military hardware. Labor repeatedly put off decisions about modernising equipment. The coalition is determined to address such deficiencies. Nevertheless the perception has spread rapidly through the services that it is doing so at the cost of allowances to those on operations overseas.
The government has justified its move on the grounds that many of those deployed in the Middle East are no longer engaged in combat. Those now on duty correctly point out that previously only a small minority of soldiers moved “outside the wire”. Additionally, they insist the burden of being effectively locked inside a small compound for six months creates significant extra stresses of its own.
Another officer, who’s served previously in the Middle East, points out the deployment pay hasn’t been indexed. “I got $200 a day when I came here nearly ten years ago. That’s gone down in value because of inflation. Now I won’t even get that because they’re slashing my allowances. And finally they offer us a measly one point five percent pay rise over the next three years as long as we give up our leave.” He pauses, scratching his head. “I know why they’re doing it. They want to save money and they know we aren’t able to complain. We’ve got to just suck it up. Well I’m angry.”
It’s understood the Chief of the Defence Force is also unhappy about the way his pay is now fixed to the bosses of statutory authorities. This saw his pay catapulted less than a year ago, increasing to more than $800,000 a year. Now he’s being forced to justify slashing benefits to those on operations as the military becomes more aligned to the “civilian sector”. He has no choice other than follow the government’s instruction to slash pay or resign.
Although many of those currently deployed in, for example, Al Minhad Air Base are not engaged in so-called “combat operations”, others are. The pay scale does distinguish between someone loading live weapons onto a Super Hornet in 40-degree heat, and a clerk in an air-conditioned office – the person pushing the pen get’s more money. The point is that the assumptions used to calculate pay and allowances are completely arbitrary.
What sounded like a sensible way of properly remunerating those facing greater danger has become a joke. The reality has been the creation of an insupportable administrative burden that operates seemingly without any rationale. Its only effect has been to destroy the morale of those on operations.