Concerns the Defence Department is now too poor to defend the nation may be alleviated at the news it has found an estimated $400,000 to attend a glamorous human resources conference.

Crikey has discovered that 127 Defence staff — including an impressive 64 from the Air Force — are pressing the flesh at the “HRIZON — New World Thinking” conference, which finishes in Melbourne tomorrow.

Delegates are listening to HR whizzes Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple) and Olympic champion Cathy Freeman, after whooping it up at a gala dinner on Wednesday (we hear Jessica Mauboy sang up a storm and the “wine flowed freely”). HR does not come cheap; registration for the conference costs about $2000 a pop.

Defence’s multiflanked invasion of the conference has raised eyebrows in the sector, with some private-sector attendees wondering why so many bureaucrats need attend, and asking how the department is justifying the cost from its not insignificant $28.445 billion annual budget.

Defence buffs have been crying poor as the Gillard government trims the budget from 1.8% of GDP to 1.56%. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has raised concerns that Australia will be caught short by the cuts, and vowed to increase the Defence budget by 3% a year in real terms (if he wins, and when he feels he has the money to do so).

Crikey has attempted to work out how much taxpayers are stumping up for the junket from the notoriously secretive Defence media bunker, to no avail. According to this list of attendees, there are at least 127 Defence staff attending (some insiders say it’s more like 150 as not all those going have listed their workplace):

  • Defence Department: 36
  • Defence Materiel Organisation: 26
  • RAAF: 64
  • Army: 1

As to the cost, this was Defence’s response to Crikey:

“The decision to send ADF personnel and Defence employees to this conference has been managed by individual Groups and Services within Defence. Associated costs will be drawn from those Groups and Services’ existing budgets. As nominations have not been centrally administered, and costs are being borne by the individual Groups and Services, no whole of Defence information is available.”

Perhaps those who could provide the information were all busy at the conference?

So Crikey set about estimating the cost. Based on information supplied by the ATO (also attending the conference), the cost for registration was $1943 per person, while accommodation and flights came out at $1422 per interstate person. Based on an estimation that 110 of the 127 staff are coming from interstate (well, Defence won’t tell us) that gives a total cost for Defence of $403,054. If Defence gets back to us with their figure, we’ll let you know.

While these costs may seem high to those slogging it out in HR in the private sector, the conference is seen as legitimate and important — it’s a global affair hosted by the Australian Human Resources Institute, and hasn’t been held in Australia for 20 years.

Greg Bamber, expert in human resources and employment relations at Monash University’s management department, defended Defence’s blanket attendance. “Sending Defence people to participate in it is a better investment in people than sending them off to Iraq or Afghanistan,” Bamber told Crikey. “Melbourne is much more congenial destination than Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Bamber added the conference was world class, featured people from 44 countries, and would be beneficial for those attending.

But Kelly Magowan, a Melbourne-based private-sector career consultant, queried the value of a networking event “if everyone there is from the same department”.

“It’s a very expensive team-building exercise … I’m not sure how much the organisation’s going to benefit from all these people attending,” Magowan told Crikey. She says most corporate firms would consider sending one or a few delegates, who would then return and brief remaining staff. Conversely, there was a trend for government departments to flood such conferences.

Corporates would also generally insist staff keen to go to conferences submit a business case outlining whether they were going to network, glean information, or seek motivation. “I’d love to see the business cases from all these people,” Magowan said of the Defence attendees.

Janine Walker, from the Griffith Business School’s department of employment relations and human resources, says 127 people seems “highly excessive” and is “pretty unlikely” to offer value for money for Defence.

“Conferences like this are an opportunity to network with other people like yourself, make contacts for your next job and hear some of the international superstar speakers who will be charging large fees to promote their latest book. Attendees are not likely to learn anything amazing or very new but attendance is often seen more as a reward than an opportunity to learn much,” she said.

“There will be lots of suppliers pitching their wares — IT systems, coaching and consulting — to lots of people who are too junior in their organisation to make decisions about purchasing them. These conferences are a modern version of the old ‘works picnic’. The staff attending from Defence probably ticked this conference in the development column of their last performance review.”