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The chief of the Australian Defence Force has “wisely” walked back his comments after sensationally accusing Jacqui Lambie of “maliciously” misrepresenting the pay packages of senior brass.

General Angus Campbell lashed the Tasmanian senator during an estimates hearing on Wednesday morning, saying she should be “ashamed” of herself.

Senator Lambie is now calling on the ADF chief to issue an apology over the escalation that came when she was questioning him over claims their private vehicle allowance had been increased.

Senator Lambie said it came at the same time as the “Diggers were given a pay cut”, referring to a recent decision to increase wages by 11.2 per cent over three years, which the senator said would not keep up with the cost of living.

“There is no additional money being received. An allowance has been pushed into the salary,” General Campbell replied.

“It is very simple, very clear, and you are maliciously attempting to drive a wedge between senior command and Australian naval sailors, aviators, soldiers, across the force.

“And I see it constantly from you and I think it is deeply undermining of the cohesion of the force. And quite frankly, Senator, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Senator Lambie hit back: “So you’re getting the same pay rise as what the Diggers are getting?”

Defence officials said the assessment was correct.

In a statement, the Tasmanian Senator said General Campbell’s outburst had caught her by surprise.

“It is my job, and the job of all Senators to hold all public officials to account for taxpayer money,” she said later in the day.

“It is very obvious to me and not just from today’s encounter, that the Chief of Defence believes that there is one rule for senior command and another rule for diggers.”

Senator Lambie has written to the Deputy Prime Minister seeking a withdrawal of the comments and an apology from General Campbell.

General Campbell later withdrew his comments, which committee chairman Raff Ciccone was “very wise”, but stopped short of apologising to Senator Lambie over his outburst.

Errors found in data about minister’s jet setting

A blunder has led to the Defence Force conceding it misreported how much ministers may have spent jet setting on its VIP planes.

Prior to December last year, governments routinely tabled the published data of taxpayer funded military flights, including passenger manifests.

But a Morrison-government era decision to undertake a review and cease the publication of the data amid concerns it could establish a pattern of life led to the “unintended consequence” errors in the most recently compiled reports.

Chief of Air Force Rob Chipman told the committee it stopped doing its usual checks and balances – such as checking with the Governor-General’s office and the Prime Minister and Defence Minister’s offices.

“They would manually check that the manifests we had on our records were a true and correct representation of the flights that occurred,” he said.

“It was routine for there to be changes. It was routine, for example, for there to be passengers that had been requested to fly on a particular VIP mission, who didn’t turn up on the day and so we will be making adjustments on a weekly basis.”

Asked why it stopped checking the data, the chief repeated it was an “unintended consequence”.

The questioning comes in the backdrop of pressure piling on Defence Minister Richard Marles to reveal the details of his use of the jets after spending $3.6m on VIP flights since April of last year.

Mr Marles has repeatedly said the flights complied with the guidelines.

The new format of the published flight data does not include manifests and instead just attributes domestic and international hours flown and the costs associated.

Mr Chipman admitted there was some concern some flights taken by previous Coalition ministers may have been misappropriated to Labor’s frontbench.

But he could not say whether all of the reported figures for the government would go up or down.

“There will be some ministers where there are additional costs that they will incur because they have undertaken flights that were not represented in the schedules published on the 18th of August,” he said.

Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty said he hoped the department would be able to “make any necessary corrections to published data very shortly.”

“We are very committed to making sure that the accuracy of the data we do publish and Air Force is working through going back to manual manifest to validate data,” he said.

Defence struggling to retain staff

Relaxed fitness standards could make the Defence Force more appealing as the department conceded it was “struggling” to meet recruitment targets.

The Australian Defence Force has revealed more staff have left the force than have been recruited since the beginning of the financial year to October 1.

As of June 30, there were 58,642 permanent ADF staff. Three months later in October, there was a shortfall of about 1400 staff.

Greens senator David Shoebridge said if the trend continued, it would be “disastrous” for defence.

“We are not achieving our recruitment targets,” chief of personnel Lieutenant General Natasha Fox admitted in senate estimates on Wednesday.

A new recruitment agency, Adecco, has been brought on-board to help address the shrink but Lieutenant General Fox said the ADF was still running about 800 people below its target.

She said new models of recruiting people to join the ADF included taking the new mobile career centre out into regional communities.

“We are removing disadvantage or elements where there are barriers to service,” she said.

A one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting, including the fitness requirement, has been relaxed for certain roles such as in the cyber force.

“That does not remove the requirement at this point in time to pass a fitness test in the Australian Defence Force, but we’re reducing the requirement for different levels based on roles and where it is safe to do so,” she said.

The ADF is also now paying for specialist reports if a potential recruit has certain medical conditions.

It comes after the department’s annual report revealed the ADF shrank by 1161 personnel in 2022-23 and fell more than 3400 short of its workforce target.

Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty acknowledged the ADF was having difficulty attracting and retaining personnel.

“It is important that we recognise the scale of the challenges we face in an environment where there is very high employment in this country,” he said.

“A number of the people, cohorts that might traditionally look to the ADF for a career, are finding employment elsewhere, and a number of people are separating because they’re finding excellent opportunities in the private sector.”

Asked by Liberal senator Simon Birmingham if the growth targets were realistic, chief financial officer Steven Groves said the ADF was “certainly hoping” they were.

“It’s pretty concerning … the response I get is that we are hopeful,” Senator Birmingham replied.

Labor frontbencher Jenny McAllister, who appeared at the committee for Defence Minister Richard Marles, insisted the government’s approach was realistic.

“We entirely agree that a realistic approach, based on facts, is the way that we ought to approach this,” she said.

“It is a stark contrast to the very many commitments made under the previous government which were not met.”

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