‘Masters at avoiding scrutiny’: Defence withholds innovation review from govt

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The Department of Defence is withholding a review of Australia’s defence innovation system that cost $2.2 million from the Albanese government and the general public, despite its findings being clearly “of the public interest”.

The review includes scrutiny of more than $1.5 billion in grants programs and is understood to be critical of the current innovation system.

The Department of Defence last week released a version of the review in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. It is so heavily redacted that it includes no meaningful findings or recommendations.

Image: Defence/Annika Smit

An unredacted version has not been provided to the current government because it was commissioned by the former Coalition government in 2021.

The secrecy has been blasted by former Senator Rex Patrick, who says there is a clear public interest in understanding the status of the grant programs and wider innovation system, which is not delivering acceptable returns for the government or local industry.

“This is typical Defence,” he told InnovationAus.com.

“When the term FOI is used in [Defence’s] Russell offices, there’s an immediate order for black paint and a paint roller.”

The review was commissioned in September 2021 by then-Defence Industry minister Melissa Price and cost $2.2 million. It was handed to the former government by the end of 2021 but never publicly mentioned again by the Coalition.

The three-month review was Conducted by former Rio Tinto Australia managing director David Peever and was slated as a “comprehensive review of Defence innovation, science and technology” that would deliver frank findings.

It included an examination of around $1.5 billion in Defence innovation funding programs which have struggled to turn research and development into sovereign capabilities or exports, as well as Defence contracting and research commercialisation.

“The fact of the matter is the minister would not have ordered the review unless she wanted to know what was going on,” Mr Patrick said.

“She’s ordered the review because she’s got a sense that either something’s not working or she’s trying to check to make sure that we’re getting value for money. They are questions that are of public interest. And the answers should be made public, and the Department should be held to account for it.”

A spokesperson for current Defence Industry minister Pat Conroy confirmed the full review has not been provided to the new government.

“The Defence Innovation Review was commissioned by the previous government and handed to the previous Minister for Defence Industry in December 2021. The full, unredacted version of the Review has not been provided to the current Government,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.

The Department of Defence has previously said the Albanese government “does not have access to the Peever Review” because it was commissioned by its predecessors.

Mr Patrick, a former South Australian independent senator has pursued information on the impact of the government’s defence industry programs through both the Parliament and FOI, with mixed results.

He said a culture of secrecy within the Department of Defence shields it from scrutiny.

“They are masters at avoiding scrutiny by claiming secrecy just because there’s an aroma of ‘Defence’ about it.”

On the Defence Innovation Review, the widespread redaction of the public version stops the Department from being held to account for the massive investments in programs like the $730 million Next Generation Technologies Fund and $800 million Defence Innovation Hub.

Mr Patrick, who uncovered alarmingly low rates of translation from the programs, said the overall returns on the investments aren’t good enough. He lays the blame on Defence rather than the industry and researchers vying for the funding.

“Defence doesn’t approach innovation from an Australian capability viewpoint… Otherwise they would identify a pathway before they started,” he said.

“It’s almost like they are ticking an industry box: they are funding industry to do stuff, but they don’t know how to turn what industry does into something deployed on a ship, plane or tank… That’s the problem.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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