Richard Marles says ‘hard decisions’ needed in defence budget

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The Australian government is preparing to make “hard decisions” and has flagged some defence projects may be cut in next month’s budget.

At a speech at the Sydney Institute on Thursday night, Defence Minister Richard Marles reflected on the overspending of the defence budget and said there were discussions happening about how to return spending to target.

Last year’s intergenerational report revealed defence was one of the five biggest pressures on the budget over the long term, and Mr Marles on Thursday confirmed that defence spending was on track to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2033-34.

He said while the sweet spot was about 20 per cent overprogramming, the consequence of the former government pushing that out to 30 or 40 per cent had been “devastating for defence morale”.

“It does mean taking some programs and not going ahead with them. It means reprofiling some. it means delaying others, rescoping them,” he said.

“Unless we do that, the numbers don’t add up.

“Doing that is something which I actually think builds morale because people now know that what’s going on is real.

“This is not make-believe money or make-believe announcements or hoopla – it’s actually fair dinkum.

“And while there are difficult decisions that you need to digest, at least there is a sense that what’s happening is fair dinkum and real.”

He said the government was committed to return overprogramming back towards 20 per cent.

Improving culture has been a focal point of Mr Marles’ rhetoric in recent months after reports emerged in February he had hauled in ADF chief Angus Campbell and departmental secretary Greg Moriarty for a tense, closed-door meeting.

At the time, Mr Marles conceded there were serious issues around culture that needed challenging.

Mr Marles said he had received positive responses from within defence about the budget because “it means that people are going to work each and every day with a sense of purpose about what they’re doing”.

On Thursday, Mr Marles denied that over the medium to long term he was looking to downgrade army and upgrade naval and air defence forces, saying the focus is on “projection”.

“What we will see is a much more mobile army, an army that we can move around our region,” he said.

“We don’t see that the future is about fighting a land war on the Australian continent. We do see that we need with our army is to be making our contribution to regional security, so in that sense, we’re enhancing army’s ability.”

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