Our final program revealed exclusively how there were massive cost blow-outs on the top secret Jindalee Over-the-Horizon project (JORN). This was confirmed by Telstra's recent massive $400 million write-down on its JORN losses. We also raised serious concerns about how the Defence Department's budget has been quarantined from budget cuts in the face of its outrageous waste of public money. How could $1 million be spent on unused plastic dessert glasses still sitting in warehouses? (Our web site producer knows that one only too well since she had to try and find a million bucks worth for us to film! Forget it, it was impossible!) How come $30 million extra had to be spent on fixing new, rusty ships? And why are our $5 billion Collins Class submarines late, well over-budget and unlikely to be operational for years beyond their original delivery date?
Featuring hard hitting interviews with the Chief of the Defence Force, the Defence Minister, Telstra and the Australian Submarine Corporation, our story revealed that literally billions of dollars have been wasted through mismanagement of major defence projects. The blame has fallen to a culture of secrecy and arrogant disdain for financial accountability among some people within the Defence Department.
It drove us nuts trying to keep this story to 40 minutes because there was so much interesting stuff out there that we couldn't put in the program. Have a look for yourself...
Useful Research material used in the Defence Story
Defence boffins aren't known for giving up their secrets. So the idea of doing a story on two of the most secret projects in Australia's Defence Department (JORN and the Collins Subs) met with one of those sympathetic laughs from most of the people we rang up about it — meaning they thought we had Buckley's.
Then we had a lucky break...we discovered the wealth of information that gets tendered to Parliamentary Committees as evidence, which is then declassified and made publicly available.
In a Federal Joint Committee of Public Accounts Submissions document we found everything we wanted to know. Confidential submissions made to the Parliamentary Committee by insiders detailed how things had gone horribly wrong. Any member of the public is entitled to demand access to these documents for free by dialling the switch for Federal Parliament and asking for the relevant person in charge of that Committee. The lovely folk there will post Committee documents to you if you ask nicely! This submissions document had been sitting around for weeks but no one in the parliamentary press gallery or anyone else had asked for it.
Some of the gems this document revealed were:
"Why then did we end up with the least competent contractor, in GEC Marconi, working with the local telephone company to build Australia's most demanding defence project ever, and possibly its most valuable in a capability sense?" The answer he said, "is to be found in the careless procurement policy advice to the Government".
Armed with this sensational document we began trawling through the transcripts of the hearings of the Public Accounts Committee to see what had been said in the face of Committee questioning. Amazingly, a lot of the main players had given evidence and this was declassified — again for public perusal. We downloaded it off the Internet because of the wonderful Hansard Committee service that's available on the Net through the Australian Parliament Site. It was clear to us by this stage that our story should be taking a close look at the competence of the British subcontractor on JORN, GEC Marconi — and what a story that was!
If ever we hit a story that we just didn't have enough time to tell — this was one. A check on Lexis Nexis (an international news and legal publications database that's horrendously expensive for anything other than a quick check on a subject to see what's been written), revealed lots of criticisms of GEC Marconi's competence on other defence projects in the United Kingdom.
So, twisting the boss's arm (there's a lot of that 'round here), we hired one of Britain's top investigative journalists, Duncan Campbell. He went through news and parliamentary archives in the UK to see if we could find out more about the British company our government had entrusted with one of our most important defence projects. Duncan found a treasure trove of stories about appalling mismanagement by GEC Marconi on a host of projects.
His report to us found:
"Between 1980 and 1990, and especially in the lead up years to the JORN procurement decision there was no worse aspect of UK defence procurement failure than radar and air defence and no company substantially involved other than GEC Marconi. More than 5 billion pounds was wasted on projects that flopped. The dominant aspect of the major defence failures — Nimrod, Foxhunter, BATES and ICCS — was the failure to comprehend or manage the delivery and integration of real time software systems."
Our personal favourite was about how Marconi Avionics failed to deliver on the Foxhunter radar for the frontline NATO Tornado air defence fighter. As a result Tornado fighters had to take off with lumps of concrete ballast in their nose to balance the aircraft for the missing radar for about half a decade until the problem was fixed!!! Or maybe it was the story of the Marconi Tigerfish wire-guided torpedo for the British Navy. It turned out that Tigerfish was so unreliable that during the Falklands/Malvinas War when the Commander of HMS Conqueror was ordered to sink the Belgrano, he used torpedos made in the Second World War in preference to Tigerfish! It turned out the British Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had savaged Marconi several times. A Tory member of the Committee, Michael Latham MP, described the Tigerfish saga as "an absolutely appalling record" and the torpedo itself as "a useless weapon". The PAC denounced arrangements whereby the British Ministry of Defence paid for all Marconi's mistakes, including issuing contracts to "partly to remedy defects related to earlier contracts."
When we applied what we knew about Marconi to what had happened in Australia with JORN (not to mention the other international sub-contractor defence giants and some of our other defence projects), we realised we were looking at a systemic series of failures by our top Defence bureaucrats.
Despite the warnings of Australia's original procurement project team on the original Over-the-Horizon-Radar proposal in the early 80s, Australia's Defence planners went with an overseas sub-contractor with a proven track-record for hugely expensive failures. There were thousands of pages of documents from overseas parliamentary committees, parliamentary hearings, newspapers and magazines which allowed us to draw the conclusions we drew for our program. And the whole sequence on Marconi only ran about twenty seconds!!! Who knows, maybe one day we'll write the book...