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ADF families must be considered in the big shift north

Posted By on May 30, 2024 @ 15:00

The government risks exacerbating Defence workforce challenges, particularly retention, if it does not adequately engage with the needs of the families of soldiers who will soon be relocating to northern Australia. But if the families are consulted and happily settled, they can bring expertise in key industries such as health and education that the region urgently needs.

As part of the federal government’s new strategic focus on northern Australia announced in September 2023, an additional 500 military personnel will relocate to Townsville from the start of 2025. However, with Defence Families of Australia, the official advisory body representing the interests of Australian Defence Force families, operating in a limited caretaker capacity since August 2023, there are concerns that important perspectives from military families may be overlooked during this relocation process.

Defence families must be considered as key stakeholders in the smooth running of the ADF, as they play an important role in the retention of armed forces personnel. The stereotype of military spouses as ‘silent, self-sacrificing’ [1] partners no longer holds true—‑they increasingly expect their needs to be addressed to help ease the disruptions caused by frequent relocations. Military organisations don’t yet fully accommodate these needs, but the shift north provides an opportunity to change.

Housing is a critical factor in an ADF family’s satisfaction with service life. The property’s location dictates school zoning, affecting educational choices for children. It may also influence a range of lifestyle or financial choices, such as whether the family can own a pet or whether the spouse can run a business from home.

As with many regional centres, housing availability in Townsville is at a premium, with the vacancy rate at 1 percent in the first quarter of 2024 while the number of residential building approvals has declined. The complexity of the challenge has been recognised [2], and the Department of Defence is in consultation with Defence Housing Australia and the Queensland Government to identify strategies [3], but detailed solutions are yet to be announced.

In addition to suitable housing, employment opportunities and strong social connections must also be considered in ensuring the wellbeing of Defence families, research [4] suggests.

Defence partners struggle to sustain employment because of the frequent relocations and additional caring responsibilities. Potential employers may be wary of them, too.

The 2019 ADF Families survey found that partner employment was a key concern for families, and almost two-thirds of partners reported that it was difficult or very difficult to reestablish employment following relocation. Although it is encouraging that Townsville’s unemployment rate, at 2.7 percent in October 2023, is one of the lowest in Queensland, there have been reports of employers not viewing Defence partners’ skills and experience as an asset, instead perceiving their mobility as a risk to business continuity.

Defence families will need support in establishing strong social connections or risk being viewed as a drain on resources. The imminent arrival of the soldiers and their families has marked Townsville as the new Army capital, but they need to be welcomed by a community that understands the requirements of service. Any tension with local stakeholders about the impact on housing, healthcare and education and other services need to be resolved.

To ensure that Defence families are happily settled and welcomed in Townsville, it is important to highlight the key contributions they will make to the community. For example, many Defence partners work in health, education or other industries that regional areas need to boost. The north will benefit from the influx of new skilled professionals, and the ADF will benefit from a stable workforce and an improved social licence in the region.

The government’s big shift north requires more than additional Defence personnel to succeed. The families arriving with the soldiers are key stakeholders in this complex relocation, and they must be engaged in the decision-making process.

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URLs in this post:

[1] silent, self-sacrificing’: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0095327X211029318

[2] recognised: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/transcripts/2023-09-28/press-conference-lavarack-barracks-townsville-qld

[3] to identify strategies: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:7199262301231669248/

[4] research: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21635781.2024.2342259?src=exp-la

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