Given his low opinion poll rating and the stirring in the Malcolm Turnbull camp, Tony Abbott is now becoming a little more watchful about what is going on behind his back.
Not yet on his radar will be the remarkable Senate estimates exercise being undertaken by WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, step by step trying to extract the truth from our Defence chiefs about the largest purchase in our history: the Joint Strike Fighter.
Ludlam has already uncovered that the Prime Minister has stretched the truth on one matter and then on another. The Defence chiefs asked for more time when Ludlam got close to showing that the Prime Minister had mislead the parliament. There is a lot more questioning to come. Ludlam has done his homework.
During his interrogation of the Defence chiefs, Ludlam referred to the Prime Minister’s statement that the purchase of the JSF aircraft does not involve any "new spending" by taxpayers. At that time Abbott went on: "I want to stress that this is money that has been put aside by government over the past decade or so to ensure that this purchase can responsibly be made."
However Ludlam’s close questioning of the Defence chiefs showed that the JSF money had not been set aside by past governments, except that there was an appropriation which can be reviewed each year by any government -- exactly what the Abbott government has done in education and health.
Parliament will not declare Tony Abbott as misleading the nation in this area but nevertheless a lot of Australians would have been misled. The simple truth is that the JSF purchase will take large chunks of future money from other parts of government. Ludlam uncovered that there is no secret pool that has been set aside.
But on another matter, in stating that the JSF would give Australia air superiority in the region, the Prime Minister was clearly at odds with the head of the US Air Combat Command, General Michael Hostage, who says that on its own the JSF does not deliver air superiority (Misguided Abbott strikes out on the JSF, April 28).
When Ludlam raised the statements by the American general, the Australian Defence chiefs quickly said they wanted time to review the transcript. Of course everyone in the estimates committee hearing knew the Defence chiefs had already reviewed the US general’s transcript many times. The Australian Defence chiefs were simply buying time. Here is a link to the full Hostage transcript so readers can make up their own mind.
Ludlam extracted from the Defence chiefs that only two JSF aircraft have actually been bought. In 2016, the chiefs envisage making a commitment for another 10 which will be delivered two years later. So we still have time to expose a JSF mistake.
More aircraft come after that, but the Defence chiefs don’t expect the aircraft to be fully operational until 2020 (let’s hope there is no conflict in the next six years). Rival fifth generation aircraft are being developed by the Russians, Indians and by the Chinese. Australian Defence chiefs told Ludlam that they believe (hope?) that special radar technologies in the JSF will not be matched by Russia and China in the next couple of decades.
Our chiefs had better be right because the actual Chinese and Russian aircraft clearly appear far superior to the JSF. From the Ludlam interrogation it would seem that we are in fact buying radar technologies.
What is disturbing is that the Defence chiefs kept comparing the fifth generation JSF to fourth generation aircraft like Hornets. Few doubt that the JSF is better than those aircraft but it’s whether it can match Russian and Chinese fifth generation aircraft that matters -- especially as Indonesia is buying those aircraft.
It is really encouraging to see an Australian senator asking national security questions that I suspect cabinet has never thought about.