National

Coalition's $1 billion Defence estate hole revealed

There are fears lives could be endangered because Australia's military bases are falling into disrepair. Documents show more than $1 billion of work to the defence estate is needed but not funded by the Abbott government.  

Defence Department documents dated October 20 said the $1.058 billion of unfunded maintenance in the next three years was probably understated because of limitations in infrastructure appraisal.

More bad news for fresh Defence Minister Kevin Andrews is that the bill was expected to grow as more projects were delayed and new buildings erected.

Documents outlining the nasty budgetary headache for the Coalition were obtained by Fairfax under freedom of information law.  

They show the government's funding shortfall for the defence estate sitting at $13 million this financial year but blowing out by $582 million and $463 million in the following two years.

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It will put intense pressure on the government to sell off parts of the 3 million hectare estate boasting 25,000 buildings, as recommended by the National Commission of Audit in the first half of 2014.

Professionals Australia ACT director David Smith said continued deterioration and safety and environmental risks would be the result of underfunding of this magnitude.

"It is difficult to believe that they take their workplace health and safety responsibilities seriously," Mr Smith said. 

"We will lose capability and we may lose or endanger lives."

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His organisation represents engineers, scientists and technical staff across the federal public service. 

Long delays to fix problems were highlighted in early December when the Defence Department sought tender applications to fix potentially dangerous fuel stations two years after it started rectifying the problem of rundown fuel installations across the estate

Mr Smith said engineering work was underresourced and lacked sufficient influence as a result of years of neglect, outsourcing and "a higher level aversion to accountability".

"Defence is being gamed by not investing in appropriate levels of expertise and oversight," he said. 

The Defence documents said funding was used to fix capability and workplace safety risks as a priority and that "opportunity funding" was directed to the estate "when available". 

Legacy problems throughout the huge Defence estate is a big financial challenge for the department which was already spending about $2 billion on estate maintenance in this and the following two financial years.

The Commission of Audit said in the past two decades Defence's capital funding had been primarily directed to military equipment rather than facilities, with average capital reinvestment in the estate falling by about a third.

Shadow assistant defence minister David Feeney said so-called super bases to consolidate Australian Defence Force members in fewer, larger facilities had been successful.  

"The challenge for the Abbott government is to continue that success, and not forget that a wider defence estate footprint also needs to be sustained to support the work of ADF reserves and cadets," Mr Feeney said.

Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Darren Chester said it was a shame the unions didn't speak up when the Labor government previously reduced defence funding.

 "The Coalition remains committed to increasing defence expenditure to 2 per cent of GDP and we are working with Defence to address estate maintenance issues," he said. 

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