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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 2013


Mr WEBSTER(5.25) —The Defence Legislation Amendment Bill before us today deals with a number of matters ranging from the call-out of reserves to the winding up of the Services Canteen Trust Fund. It deals, for example, with enlistment, discipline and retirement matters. I wish to comment on two items in particular: The sections dealing with the call-out of reserves and the sections dealing with the Defence Force retirement and death benefits legislation.

The Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) made use of his second reading speech on this Bill to correct a basic deficiency in the recently tabled defence White Paper. That deficiency was its failure to deal seriously with the question of our reserve forces, military surge capacity, and mobilisation. There are only five or six references to reserve forces in the White Paper. Two of those-paragraphs 7.8 and 7.9-simply reiterate the brief comments in paragraphs 4.106 and 4.107. This Bill and the Minister's second reading speech are an initial but inadequate step to make up for the White Paper's deficiency.

Let me comment on what the Bill does and its achievements before I comment on its shortcomings. For several years now the need for legal provision for the calling out of our reserves in situations other than a defence emergency or war have been recognised. The Minister is therefore to be commended for having obtained Cabinet action on the matter.

A few years ago Professor T. B. Millar-who had chaired the Committee of Inquiry into the Citizen Military Forces, and who is one of Australia's most respected defence and foreign affairs analysts-identified three reasons why such a call-out provision was required. The honour- able member for Herbert (Mr Lindsay) mentioned Professor T. B. Millar, but he did not mention the fact that he was very concerned about a particular call-out area which I will mention shortly. One reason Professor Millar gave was that there could arise a low level situation such as a terrorist attack, where reservists are at hand rather than regular forces. Another, and more important reason, he suggested, was that the Government might feel that the temper of an international situation was getting more troubled and that the country needed to augment the standards of training of the reserves quietly and without signalling the kind of urgent apprehension characterised by a defence emer- gency.

This Bill is designed to allow a call-out in either of these two situations. Unfortunately, however, the Bill stops short of acknowledging legislatively the other reason Professor Millar and, I think, most Australians, recognise as legitimate for a call-out-natural disaster. As the member for the Federal seat of Macquarie, in the beautiful Blue Mountains, which regularly suffers bushfires and floods, I can assure the House that my constituents are well aware of the value such a call-out could be in extreme natural emergencies. We have had great help from the armed forces in the past.

As the Minister notes in his speech, the Bill will only allow a call-out in the context of direct national defence in responding to an external threat to Australia's security. As the Bill includes safeguards against abuse of call-out powers by the Government in civil disputes, I find it unnecessary for the Government to exclude call-out of reserves for natural disasters. I ask the Minister to consider a further amendment in this regard.

As I have said, the Minister used his second reading speech on this Bill to discuss generally the Government's view on the future of our reserve forces. Firstly, the Minister suggests:

It has been under the Hawke Government that there has been a fundamental change in our conception of the role of the Reserve, reflected in such measures in recent years as integration and affiliation in the Army of Regular and Reserve Units, creation of Regional Surveillance Units in remote areas, and proposals for greater involvement of Reserves in a range of tasks including Northern Defence.

He refers specifically to the North West Mobile Force-Norforce-and the Pilbara Regiment. I believe, as the honourable member for Herbert said, that the Minister can be justifiably proud of his ministerial performance as Defence Minister. Most recognise him as one of the country's best Defence Ministers, especially given the financial constraints he has faced as a Cabinet member. But I would respectfully remind the Minister that it was a Liberal Defence Minister, Sir James Killen, under a Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who established Norforce and the Pilbara Regiment and laid the foundations for the measures he refers to.

Secondly, however, the Minister must know that the generally optimistic picture he presents in his speech of the role and morale of the reserves is unfounded. We have an inadequately trained, exercised and equipped Reserve Force whose morale could not be lower. The blame for that state of affairs rests solely with the Government. For example, Air Force reservists receive training mainly on less complicated aircraft because of inadequate training time allocated and because the active Air Force is not allocated enough flying hours for its own aircrews. The Australian people might be interested to know just how significant that problem might be if we turned to our Air Force-with the responsibility for our first and second layers of defence as outlined by the White Paper-in a crisis. The Air Force has a standing force of 0.08 crews per aircraft. It could drag together perhaps 4.5 crews per aircraft in an emergency but in doing so would leave serious gaps elsewhere in the Air Force. Qantas Airways Ltd by comparison has in recent years maintained around 13 crews per aircraft. That is worth thinking about.

Thirdly, the Bill and the Minister's speech beg the question as to whether an opportunity has been ignored to examine and implement the significant changes in Reserve recruitment, training and roles which are needed for military self-reliance based on layered defence and deterrence. In the case of the Army, we have been told by defence analysts that it would take something like 2 1/2 to five years active preparation time to expand the present regular Army and our inadequately trained Reserve to a well trained 150,000-man Army and between four and eight years defence preparation time for it to be expanded to a well trained 250,000-man Army. An Army of at least 150,000 and possibly 250,000 might well be required even to cope with an intensive campaign of small scale raids. Of interest in this regard is that one study of warning times preceding all conflicts since 1939 found that the average warning time from the first indication of impending war to the firing of the first shot has been 14.3 months. For smaller conflicts of the sort more representative of what Australia plans for, the time from the first perception of threat to outbreak of conflict averaged only 10.6 months.

Let us compare our mobilisation capacity with the capacities of the Swiss. Switzerland, with a population of only 7 million, has an armed force of 625,000, only 2 per cent of whom are on active duty at any one time. The remaining 98 per cent can be mobilised within 48 hours.

Several years ago Dr Ross Babbage published a book on Australia's defence which got to the heart of this issue. The Minister and his advisers would be familiar with the work and with his ongoing research, which is all the more worrying to me, and I am sure to many Australians, given his failure to address the points that were made in that work. It is of central importance to boost the dimensions of the Defence Force that can be mobilised within a short period, such as four to six weeks.

Given the rising costs of professional personnel, it is imperative that the proportion of the total defence budget allocated to personnel be expended in such a manner that it can produce a larger and more effective mobilised force-that is, lower costs per mobilised unit. Australia should examine well trained, part time or latent forces. Latent, non-active or part time forces are commonplace in other Western nations, including the United States of America. They can give more force units for the same cost as an all active force structure, or the same number of force units to be maintained at a lower cost. Overseas evidence suggests that both the readiness and exercise results of well trained latent forces matched those of standing regular forces.

Fourthly, the Minister knows that the reason the White Paper treats the role and capacities of our reserves superficially, and the reason this Bill stops short of real changes, is that there has been insufficient planning to allow policy development in this area. Paul Dibb served us well by publicising this problem. His report indicated that attention to the means of delivery support for forces in the north was lacking. He revealed that the Department of Defence was unable to quantify sustainability due to deficient databases. He exposed our lack of practical understanding of the expansion of defence capabilities.

When the Minister talks of the role of the reserves, he is turning hopes into assumptions. He knows the manpower, mobilisation and logistics sums just do not add up, and so do reservists. This is why they are not overjoyed at the prospects of what the Minister calls `exciting and challenging new roles'. Indeed, the Minister's speech and this Bill can only further disturb reservists, who fear that if they were obliged to fulfil their responsibilities in crises they would be ill-prepared and lack the support that they needed.

Too many young men died needlessly in the Second World War because they and their country had not been prepared for the battlefield. I ask the Minister whether he has considered whether he would like to carry the guilt of needless losses in any future conflict arising out of a commitment to the battlefield of ill-prepared and unsupported reservists.

Time constraints force me to move on to my other area of comment on this Bill, that is changes to the Defence Force retirement and death benefits legislation. The Opposition has indicated its broad support for the amendments proposed in this Bill affecting both enlistment, retirement and death benefits for service men and women.

I want to raise one further amendment to the DFRDB legislation which I suggested to the Minister in private correspondence many months ago and which he has apparently chosen to reject. For 18 months now I have been corresponding with the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence (Mr John Brown) and the Minister himself, on the question of commutation of retirement pay. In particular I have argued, and they have accepted, that under the DFRDB legislation personnel having more than 20 years service have their entitlement to retirement pay secured only by good health. I am talking in terms of the commutation rights. A serving member unfortunate enough to suffer illness or injury that subsequently results in an entitlement to an invalidity benefit claim A or B under the legislation is deprived of any entitlement to a lump sum payment of any nature. I first raised this issue in December 1985. Six months later the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence wrote and confessed, to my amazement:

I am not yet in a position to comment on the discharge policies of the Air Force or to compare them with the policies of the Army or Navy.

I put it to the House that such a statement reflects either departmental or ministerial incompetence, or a totally inadequate information system on policy and regulations in the Services. The Minister also wrote:

Let me assure you that the Invalidity Benefits policy is under consideration. You will appreciate that the complex nature of this area and the extreme sensitivity of members to any suggestion that the commutation provisions will be varied makes an early resolution of the matters you have raised unlikely.

Over the next six months I continued to pursue this issue. I had a private member's Bill drafted to address the relevant sections of the DFRDB legislation. The intention of the amendments was to provide a lump sum payment by way of commutation or other means when a member has completed 20 or more years effective service or has completed not less than 15 years effective service immediately before attaining retiring age for rank, and has lost his opportunity to obtain a lump sum payment by way of commutation of retirement pay as a result of a serious illness or injury resulting in a class A or B invalidity benefit being awarded. A lump sum payment or commutation equal to that to which the member would have been entitled, had he been able to retire in good health, I considered to be fair and reasonable.

I sent a copy of that Bill, along with copies of my correspondence with the Parliamentary Draftsman, to the Minister. I asked him to consider the proposed amendments, along with others we have here before us today but which were being finalised at the time. The Minister wrote to me in January and concluded his letter by saying:

The DFRDB scheme is a complex package of entitlements and as I have indicated, changes such as those proposed require careful policy consideration.

Thank you for your interest in this matter and your suggestion concerning commutation rights of invalidity retirees. The matter is under consideration. However as you will appreciate there are some complex issues involved and an early result is not likely.

Of course, that was the response I had received six months earlier. Now, three months further on, the Minister brings in a Bill which has ignored both the issue and my suggestions. I can only stress to the Minister the apprehension which exists on this matter at the Richmond air base in my electorate, where I believe the plane of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has just touched down safely. I am sure he will be given excellent care and attention.

Airmen are of the view that increasingly rigorous and sophisticated medical checkups are designed to save the Government money by robbing them of commutation. I know, and I understand the Minister knows, of one highly respected warrant officer who refused directions to take a medical examination required by RAAF regulations prior to retirement last December. To the warrant officer's surprise, the regulation and direction were simply not enforced.

Because the majority of airmen require their commutation to re-establish themselves into civilian life-to put a roof over their head-any threat to commutation is seen as a major cause for concern and is most certainly a factor affecting morale. Extreme anxiety is rising among RAAF personnel who feel their future plans are threatened should they suffer the misfortune of becoming incapacitated. This is an especially real fear for floor personnel who are constantly being placed in risk situations. As a result, many experienced airmen not wishing to risk illness or incapacity and the subsequent loss of entitlement to commutation are resigning at their first opportunity. The consequence for the RAAF is the loss of highly trained and productive personnel and unnecessary cost and unproductivity whilst engaged in training replacements. More significantly, we now have the real danger of servicemen concealing illness at the risk of safe operations in order that their future retirement commutation be secured.

I ask the Minister to go back to the file on this issue and consider including the amendments I proposed on commutation entitlements in this Bill. I ask him also to examine the suggestion I relayed to him a few months ago that the cost to the Government of the changes I proposed would have been the equivalent of half the cost of training an RAAF pilot based on 1984-85 invalidity benefit recipient figures.