Speak to Assistant Defence Minister Stuart Robert about the new ADF gap year program he launched on Monday, and he’ll tell you about a moment many years ago on the beautiful Charles Bridge in Prague. It was Christmas and he was on a holiday, travelling through Europe and walking along the Vltava (Moldau) River past the baroque statues that line the bridge. Suddenly, Robert heard an unmistakably Australian accent declaiming poetry.
“It was Byron, I think”, he says, “or maybe Keats. This young bloke had taken a year off before uni to wander around Europe and he’d ended up on that bridge reciting verse.” Robert pauses for a second and thinks, before quickly adding, “Now don’t get me wrong”. He insists he has nothing, absolutely nothing, against either Keats or taking a year off to wander around Europe, although he didn’t do either of these things himself. His pace of life moved much faster.
By the time Robert was 17 he was an officer cadet at the Defence Academy; he later completed two masters degrees (in IT and an MBA) part-time during postings in infantry, intelligence and later with the peace monitoring force in Bougainville. Then he left the army, founded a successful recruitment firm, before finally entering federal Parliament. He held onto the Coalition’s safe Gold Coast seat of Fadden, despite the Rudd-slide of 2007. He’s also made no secret of his desperate desire to focus on defence since entering Parliament and is enthusiastically embracing the chance Tony Abbott’s given him as the deputy in Defence.
If there’s a key to understanding Robert it’s in his unabashed enthusiasm as he expounds his vision for the services. Although he’s careful not to tread on the toes of his senior Minister David Johnston, he proselytises about how simple changes can invigorate the forces.
“At the election last year we promised we’d quickly introduce three measures that were vital for forces”, says Robert. “This makes it three out of three. Forty per cent of the people who signed up for the gap year program were women and 74 per cent of all recruits continued in service. It was our most effective recruitment tool.” Robert just wanted to offer choice. “If someone wants to have a break after school – before they get down to uni or something else – why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to spend a year in the military rather than going around Europe reciting poetry.”
The minister’s quite right, but there’s also a slight fudge going on here, too. The essential difference after Monday’s announcement is that it re-brands and unifies things that could already be done. It was previously possible to enlist for a year – it’s just that now there’s an officially recognised way of doing this again.
The Howard government introduced the gap year but then, bizarrely, Labor dispensed with the scheme. It’s fair to say some in the regular forces have always been sceptical about it. They don’t believe one year is enough to "make" a service person and get back an adequate return on the investment. The government’s drive to reopen the scheme hasn’t been prescriptive. It allowed the forces to devise their own plan and that’s probably why there are still gaps.
The navy claims it’s currently got too much of a training backlog to ramp the program up again at the moment, although ironically it’s the senior service that’s having the most difficulty finding people to fill its billets. And this is the key to any intellectually rigorous examination of this program. It’s not that there’s anything disingenuous about what the three services are doing: but this doesn’t mean they’re enthusiastically adopting the spirit of the government’s reform.
The point is that society is moving on. I glance down as I’m writing, and notice an advert on the back page of a magazine. It’s for a prominent and well-regarded MBA school. This offers to churn out full-time MBAs in a year (or two part-time) and with an executive MBA after 18 weekend residential modules over 18 months. Young people’s time-lines are speeding up and Robert’s own career provides an example of this. He’s simply dragging the services along in an effort to keep up.
The question is: is this enough? Despite all we hear and experience about changing career patterns there hasn’t been any real desire among any of the services to accept that it may be necessary to alter structures or the way things are done. Just because certain methods have worked in the past (or still can with a little bit of glue here and tape there) doesn’t mean that these are necessarily the best way of doing things today.
There have, for example, only been slight alterations in the model for enlistment and training in the past half-century, despite increasing evidence that other, better ways may exist. Take the army, for example. Neither the current chief nor the previous one is a product of the four-year officer training cycle. Both men have brought much more to their role as a result of greater diversity of experience. Even just 20 years ago barely over a third of high school graduates had a degree. Today more than half go on to tertiary training. The military system hasn’t adapted to recognise this yet.
It remains based on a hierarchical, pyramid structure at a time when work is pushing responsibility downwards and embracing the idea of greater responsibility and shorter periods working in particular jobs. Robert has been very effective in implementing change so far but that’s because he’s just been doing things the services want. The real challenge will come when he tries to push a cause they’re not ready to accept.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.