Defence Force recruiting crisis: It’s time to recruit applicants who aren’t citizens

A PNG Defence Force sailor attending the Australian Navy's Recruit School. Image: Defence.

Written by

Anthony Bergin

An important policy change set out in the 2024 National Defence Strategy (NDS) has been largely overlooked. The NDS states that Defence must fundamentally transform its recruitment practices and that this requires developing options for recruiting, where appropriate, non-Australian citizens. 

Defence Minister Richard Marles was questioned on this at the National Press Club at the launch of the NDS last month. He said that “an obvious place to start looking is among our AUKUS partners”. He noted that there were more than half a million New Zealand citizens living in Australia. He referenced the UK recruiting Gurkhas and the US recruiting Micronesians. 

Whenever this option was raised in the past, the stock objection from ministers and the ADF was that we can’t enlist those who aren’t Australian citizens. I know this was the official line from personal experience. Nearly 20 years ago I publicly advocated that we start our own Melanesian foreign legion. Then, as now, the ADF was struggling to reach the numbers required to fulfil regional and global commitments.

I pointed out that we routinely recruited individual ex-military from New Zealand, Britain, Canada, South Africa, and the US, and that the UK had long recruited from former colonies such as Fiji and the West Indies. I suggested we should invite several companies of Fijians and Papua New Guineans into our army for a three to four-year period, with an offer of citizenship on completion of their service, (otherwise we would risk being accused of hiring mercenaries). 

My idea was that the force could form part of an Australian corps to the Pacific, focusing on health and engineering services as well as training local communities in technical skills.

I refreshed the idea some years later in an article in the Australian and was contacted shortly after by an ex-student of mine serving as a military officer in the Pacific. He informed me that Australian defence advisers in the region had been instructed by our Defence headquarters to explain to curious island elites that this concept wasn’t legally possible. Only Australians could join our fighting forces.

But this wasn’t correct. The Defence Department’s website makes clear now, as it has done for years, that a person who isn’t an Australian citizen can be a member of the ADF. It tells potential applicants that if a position can’t be filled by an Australian citizen, the citizenship requirement may be waived, albeit in rare circumstances. Applications may be accepted from permanent residents who can prove they’ve applied for citizenship; permanent residents who are prepared to apply for citizenship after they’ve completed 90 days of relevant Defence service; or overseas applicants with relevant military experience.

It’s true that Australian governments have maintained the view that all members of our armed forces must be Australian citizens. But that’s been a matter of policy, not law. There’s never been a requirement in the Defence Act that mandates this. 

The most straightforward way of showing that you can be a member of the ADF without citizenship is to go to section 23 of the Australian Citizenship Act. It sets out the amount of time a person must be a permanent resident to apply for citizenship (the other provisions for becoming a citizen are listed in section 21). It makes clear that a person who’s completed “relevant defence service” (at least 90 days), or a member of the family unit of such a person, can apply for citizenship.

The NDS has finally made it clear and public that Defence can recruit non-citizens. There’d be no shortage of interest. One Fijian scholar who served in the British army recently pointed out that if Australia wanted to recruit Fijians into the ADF tomorrow, “it would have no problem raising a battalion in one day”.

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape stated he’d be delighted for his citizens to serve under the Australian flag. 

“It would be a high honour for PNG soldiers to serve with the ADF. As soon as you change the laws, we will be ready. You will find our soldiers will be very loyal,” he said. 

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr also welcomed the idea of Pacific recruitment but said any of his citizens who joined would have to be guaranteed benefits following their deployment.

We’d need to be careful to ensure we didn’t treat any Pacific islander recruits like the Nepalese Gurkhas, who have been part of the British army since 1815. It was only through the heroic efforts of the UK actress Joanna Lumley that the Gurkhas finally secured residential rights in Britain.

Military service is a unique offer we can make to our neighbours that countries such as China can’t and won’t. Defence Minister Marles is spot-on that this would be an active addition to our own security by increasing our defence capability and supporting our Pacific family. 

This article was first published n The Australian on 28 May 2024.