The federal government has denied it is asking the Australian Defence Force to take a pay cut, as the Defence Minister clashed with the Opposition over the issue on Wednesday.
Defence Minister David Johnstone's assertion to a Senate Estimates Committee in Canberra that the below-inflation 1.5 per cent pay offer was "not a real pay cut", provoked the scorn of his Labor opposite number.
Later in the hearing the Chief of the Defence Force said he and his staff had tried to be as fair as possible when selecting which of the diggers' service conditions should be axed to meet the government's hardline public sector wage policies.
The controversy over the pay and conditions of Australia's 57,000 sailors, soldiers and Air Force personnel has been raging for two weeks since their boss Air Chief Marshal Mark broke the news they would be expected to manage with a pay increase of just 1.5 per cent a year for the next three years.
More than 11,000 ADF personnel or their families reacted by contacting their advocacy group, the Defence Welfare Association, with most expressing their unhappiness at the deal.
The Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal, which must approve the offer before it can be implemented, has reserved its decision.
At Senate Estimates on Wednesday, Senator Johnston exchanged barbs with Labor Defence spokesman Stephen Conroy after the opposition frontbencher asked the minister if he supported the offer. Replying in the affirmative,
Senator Johnston added"This is not a real pay cut."
Senator Conroy: "Falling below inflation is the economic definition of a real pay cut, I don't think anyone else in Australia would agree with your assessment."
Senator Johnston pointed out that the last ADF wage deal, under Labor in 2011 was below the then rate of inflation.
"Previous ADF decisions in the former government's time were also below inflation," the minister said.
Senator Conroy shot back, pointing out Senator Johnston's assistant minister Stuart Robert said in 2011 that 3 per cent was not enough.
"But the now Assistant Minister strongly criticised the government for that and strongly criticised the government for the 3 per cent pay increase," Senator Conroy said.
"He's sought to retro-fit his views but he was very critical of the government for the 3 per cent increase."
Senator Johnston then went on to blame Labor's management of the nation's budget deficit for the low pay offer.
"It may have been the fact that the previous government was left with $20 billion in the bank and that it could have affored to be more generous with Defence Force personnel, but of course this government has been left with $120 billion in accumulated deficits on a trajectory to about $650 billion worth of debt and accordingly we're not in a position to consider pay increases," the minister said.
Later in the hearing, the Chief of the Defence Force explained why he had decided to trade away the "recreational leave" provisions, widely seen as unevenly enjoyed across the military, to secure the proposed pay rise.
"Rather than have something that was inequitable across the organisation, I elected to look at that and to convert that to … salary across the ADF. It took away the discretionary inequitability of what was there, acknowledging that our workforce still gets a lot of leave throughout the year," Air Chief Marshall Binskin said.