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Tuesday, 19 August 2003
Page: 18945

Mr PRICE (6:21 PM) —Firstly, I want to make it very clear that, like all opposition members, I am supporting the government in this initiative. We welcome the initiative. We believe it to be in our own best national interest. Earlier in the debate, when I was in the House, there were a couple of issues raised to do with personnel that I thought I should deal with. Firstly, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs said that the ADF troops there now were no longer getting ration packs and were getting fresh food. I welcome that and I am pleased about that. The honourable member for Herbert seemed to think that it was okay that the Australian Federal Police and others in the Solomon Islands should be getting fresh food and the troops getting MRE meal packs, because, before they departed, the troops were told that that is what they would be getting for three weeks. That may be the case, but the honourable member for Herbert usually displays a greater keenness for the welfare of troops than that comment reflects.

The other point I would make is that there is a degree of controversy about the relative pay of the Australian Federal Police, who are receiving $170 a day in allowances and concessions, and the ADF personnel, who are receiving $55 a day. There is a difference of about $120 a day. As I understand it, the defence people are saying that, given the nature of the deployment, $55 a day is the appropriate ADF allowance. I am happy to accept that reassurance, but we do have a problem, because our troops are more likely, I think, to face a hazardous engagement. After all, that is why they were sent there in such numbers; it was not merely for display, although there is some display. They are there for real engagement, although hopefully that will not be required. We do have a problem when there is this anomaly. I do not think it is good enough for the government to dismiss it in the way that they have. We need to sit down and work out a system that appears to reflect relative justice to all those that are there. I am not saying the police do not deserve the money they are receiving. That is not my argument. My argument is that, if we have two groups of people there doing very important work, there should be a measure of wage justice. Please do not so easily explain it away.

While I am on that, can I say that the hallmark of this government is to deploy troops to situations without a defined time line for their deployment and a defined exit strategy. That causes me concern. I raise this not in a really partisan way. I raise this as someone who knows only too well that in Rwanda and Somalia people pleaded with us to stay but we said, `This is what we're sending our troops for. This is what they're expected to achieve. This is when they'll be pulling out'—and they did. I accept that there is difficulty in transitioning a situation from that heavy reliance on troops to a more normal situation. It is not easy to achieve but unless we put these time lines on we put out troops' lives at risk.

I would say that I am probably a little bit the odd one out within the Labor Party about my concerns for East Timor. I have always taken the view that the only people who can bank on future security are really the Indonesians. We need to build up the in-house capability of Timor Leste but, most particularly, push the relationship and the dialogue and the understanding. In East Timor, again our troops are going to have their allowances halved. Madam Deputy Speaker, you may say that is fair enough as the situation is very different from when they were first there and, after all, we are shortly to draw down from over 1,000 troops to a `company group' of about 383 troops—and that is going to happen. But what I do not think is clearly understood by the Australian people is that their area of responsibility is going to increase by a third. So we are reducing our troops by two-thirds but at the same time we are increasing the area of responsibility by one-third and we are cutting their pay in half. It is predicated on the assumption or belief that East Timorese are going to be able to take over some of the functions. I am not in a position to talk about that. I regret to say—and I have said it to some of my colleagues, not being one of these smart people that always have this great hindsight—that on the recent Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade trip to East Timor we did not speak with the East Timorese and we did not speak to the UN about their assessment of the ability for these functions to be taken over.

So what am I saying? I am saying that, like all Australians, I hope things go well and on track, but there are possibilities that they may not. That is a concern to me. This deployment of troops to the Solomons is very necessary. I do not argue about it, but what is the time line? We know that we are going to have an involvement in the Solomon Islands for some years, but how long are we going to have the troops there? What are the preconditions for bringing them out? When will they come out? I cannot answer those questions. If there is a government member here that can provide those answers, I would be very pleased if they would.

While I am talking about these things, I want to put on the public record that in recent times no government has asked more of the ADF in the national interest and the pursuit of government policy. I believe the ADF has responded magnificently. However, I also think that the ADF is dreadfully stretched and none more so than Army. We now have the absurd proposition where Army is saying that it is government policy not to support the 1-1-1 principle—that is, one unit deployed, one resting and one training up. That has been rejected. We have five reserve brigades and we now have a combat company out of each reserve brigade—that is one 100 people, if we are using 100 as a number; numbers are always rubbery in Army. Out of more than 3,000 troops, you get 100—a company brigade—and they are supposed to be the combat element that will provide assistance in protecting buildings and in a general protection role. Having a defined role for reserves is great, but a few years ago I was advised that the training and proficiency required for the protection role were not as high as they were for regular soldiers. That troubles me.

We are also using the five brigades to provide slots for the Army—the so-called slot theory: where there is a deficiency, you pluck someone out of the reserve and put them into full-time service to provide slots. That has proved to be useful, but at the end of the day, if you are spending nearly $1 billion—$950 million—on your army reserve, you want to get more than five companies out of it. I should also add that they are blended companies; they are not formed units. So you will not necessarily have a full platoon or a company stationed at one depot; you will have bits and pieces spread all over the place, and they will be blended to make that company. How you get training proficiency on an individual basis or with one or two people working together defies my belief; I have not seen the military theory that supports that. If you are spending $950 million on the reserves, you need to do a lot more than that.

Under the Howard government, we have never had a ministerial statement about the reserves. I have spoken in the House about—I will be guarded in my language—the change to high-readiness reserves and all that. We have not had one ministerial statement on the combat reserve. As a member of the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, I can say to the House that I have pleaded time and time again to see the sustainability model of Army, because I have significant doubts about what it is currently premised on. We are currently doing an inquiry into Australia's maritime strategy. We cannot get—but we have asked for—threat assessments. You cannot judge the strategy—not that we want to be critical—if you cannot get the threat assessments.

These are concerning things. I have said in the past that the very success of the ADF can lead to problems of complacency, of resisting the urge to change. With defeat comes the necessity to change. Our very success—and I am one to hail the success—brings with it problems with regard to properly reforming the place.

I apologise that I have strayed into broader defence issues, rather than speaking about the Solomon Islands initiative. I just remind government members that the previous government had a junior minister responsible for Pacific island affairs. I am not saying that it is the absolute panacea to all the problems, that it is the ultimate solution, but I think that it is an appropriate thing to contemplate, especially as in the Constitution the federal government was given exclusive responsibility for Pacific island affairs.

The now Minister for Foreign Affairs, when in opposition, was always accusing us of taking our eye off PNG. Ironically, I guess, the problems have developed in the South Pacific. The Solomons are considered to be a failed state. I regret to say that there are other countries which, if we do not call them failed states, are at least in a very worrying condition. Hopefully, this will be a model of regional cooperation and of Australian initiative and partnership with countries in our region that will bring long-term and sustainable—that is the key point—benefits to our region and in particular to the 500,000 people who comprise the Solomon Islands. I commend the paper to the House.