Continued cuts to the Defence budget will impact on the ability of the Army Reserve to train and retain soldiers, reservists have told Crikey.
They are concerned the organisation will feel the brunt of the government’s defence reforms, which aim to deliver $20 billion in savings by 2019 and were endorsed by Defence Minister John Faulkner yesterday.
While reports today focus on reservists being denied payment for marching in ANZAC Day parades this year, head of the Defence Reserve Association (DRA) Jim Barry is more concerned about the impact cuts could have on units after April 25.
“ANZAC Day has an emotional side to it,” Major General Jim Barry told Crikey. “The reservist isn’t looking for money to parade on ANZAC Day.”
He says the ANZAC Day issue is a smokescreen, concealing the possibility of long-term cuts to the Army Reserve training budget.
“These training cuts started back in October and November,” Major General Barry said. “They have been cut by 20%; we have been told that.
“The reserves understand it’s a short-term hurt, but if it goes into the next financial year the Army will certainly see a reduction in the reserves. The crazy thing is we’re talking chicken feed in terms of the overall Defence budget.”
The cuts to the reserves budget have impacted on training parades, ammunition allocation and field activities, Crikey has learned. According to The Australian, training days for the reserves have been reduced to 25, well below the optimal level.
Defence confirmed to Crikey that there has been “some recent pressure” on the Army budget, which meant they had to prioritise funding for the Reserve’s contribution in current domestic and overseas operations.
“Despite these pressures, sufficient funding has been made available for units and organisations to undertake critical training and administrative activities,” a Defence spokesperson told Crikey.
Despite the efforts of Defence to try and appease personnel, serving reservists believe that the impact of continued cost-cutting is beginning to take a toll.
“It is sad because Defence forget that it serves the Australian community from which the Reserves are drawn,” one serving reservist told Crikey. “ANZAC Day was a reminder of this and the cost cutting sabre has fallen across our most sacred day.”
Another reservist confirmed to Crikey the budget cuts were already forcing some weekend warriors to leave.
“Not only have whole units drastically cut training parades and field activities,” they said, “but many specialist officers such as lawyers, doctors and dentists have ceased to attend altogether because they cannot be paid at all.”
While Major General Barry is yet to get an answer from Defence as to whether the current cuts will be retained in the next financial year, he is sure that any further budget pressure will force many reservists to leave.
“I believe that the Reserve have been doing a good job, they’ve hung on,” he said, “but if you look at the next financial year and they retain the cuts, I think then you will see reservists vote with their feet. The thing about the Reserves is that you can cut them in a flash, but to get them back it takes years, not months.”
In response to the concerns of the DRA, Defence were undaunted by the potential effect the cuts could have to their 17,000-strong Reserve force.
“Due to communication that the chain of command is having with their soldiers, at this point in time Army does not have a concern that reservists will leave as a result of perceived cut backs,” a Defence spokesperson said.
While Crikey is uncertain as to how a reservist would complain about training cuts, one serving reservist made it clear that going public was not an option. When asked to go on the record about his concerns, the reservist sharply stated that he would be “prone to being shot at dawn if detected”.
“The immortal words of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant — ‘shoot straight you bastards, don’t make a mess of it’ — spring to mind,” he told Crikey.