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Thursday, 3 November 1983
Page: 2287


Mr CROSS(12.25) —My remarks will be somewhat briefer than the normal time entitlement because I wish to make room for my colleague and friend the honourable member for Kennedy (Mr Katter) to speak in this debate. First, I must direct a few remarks to the speech of the honourable member for Wentworth (Mr Coleman). The thrust of his speech, expressed on a number of occasions, was that the rhetoric had changed to some extent but that the actions of the Government were unsatisfactory. A careful examination of the 'Defence Report', which shows the various strengths and weaknesses of our Defence Force, displays that defence is very much a matter of long lead times. The equipment that one orders today comes on stream perhaps four or five years down the track and then one has it for 20, 25 or 30 years. So the Defence Force as it is structured today is very much a result of decisions made in the early 1960s. The equipment being ordered by the present Government will still be with the Defence Force at the turn of the century. So, we are asked to make a judgment of statements by two Labor Ministers after they have been in office for eight months, with all that that means.

A basic fact of life in all areas of government expenditure is the present serious situation of the Australian economy as part of the world economy. It is not suggested today by members of the Opposition, as it was in 1975, that somehow or other the Labor Government has created an economic disaster in Australia while the rest of the world is chugging along merrily. It is now recognised, because we heard it from the former Prime Minister, the former right honourable member for Wannon, that Australia is part of the world economy. So, economic recovery in this nation is absolutely vital for increased defence expenditure in future, as it is for increased expenditure in areas such as health, welfare and education. It is not untimely to point out that the Opposition, in previous debates in this Parliament, has proposed to reduce the Budget deficit by $2,000m. I put to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that some of that money would have come out of the defence budget. On the one hand the Opposition says: 'Spend less'. On the other hand it says: 'Spend more'.

What is the record of the Government? This Budget shows a 4 per cent increase in funding in real terms. Following the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the former Government upgraded its rolling program and gave the Defence Force to understand that it could look at an expansion in capital expenditure of the order of 7 per cent a year. This no doubt is the rhetoric that the honourable member for Wentworth was talking about because, while the former Minister for Defence made those statements and it was the policy of his Government, that Government did not deliver in real terms. What are the facts? The basic facts of expenditure on equipment are that the FA18, the Hornet, which last year cost $ 170m, will this year take $500m out of defence capital expenditure. That level of expenditure will continue for the next four or five years. The Hornet program will dominate the capital expenditure program of the Defence Force for the next four years. Against that background the Government has ordered two frigates for the Royal Australian Navy to be built at Williamstown Naval Dockyard.

It is rather interesting to take up government again after being in opposition for seven years and to consider some of these matters, particularly against the statements about rhetoric and performance. When the Whitlam Government was elected it was found that Williamstown Dockyard was so outmoded that it was quite incapable of playing an effective role. A program was set under way by the Labor Government of the day to modernise Williamstown Dockyard so that the destroyer replacement program might be set under way. That modernisation of Williamstown Dockyard was decided on in 1973, and 10 years later this Government has started that program. That is an indication of actually just what rhetoric and performance have meant to the parties opposite. The honourable member for Wentworth expressed his pleasure that $26m had been provided for the modernisation of Garden Island dockyard. That is another program which was held up through the whole period of the Fraser Government. As the then Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, I went to Garden Island in the early days of the Whitlam Government. The Committee was aware of the neglect of that dockyard by conservative governments over many years. That program was being prepared in the days of the Whitlam Government. Now in 1983, more than seven years down the track, that program is getting under way.

I believe the statements made by the Minister for Defence (Mr Scholes) and the Minister for Defence Support (Mr Howe) have been positive. The Ministers are doing their best and they have obtained an increase in expenditure in the very difficult circumstances that apply in Australia today. It is one thing to discuss small points; there are plenty of them and one can always find things with which one disagrees. But this is really all about defence capabilities. Within these broad parameters of defence expenditure the Government must maintain and develop capabilities appropriate to Australia's strategic situation . The Defence Force needs a range of capabilities to enable it to respond effectively to relatively low level contingencies which could develop with very little warning. This means that a substantial part of the force must remain in an advanced state of readiness. The Kangaroo 83 exercise, recently completed, demonstrated the competence and skills of the Defence Force in such a situation. It also demonstrated the extraordinarily difficult problems of transporting the Defence Force and its equipment in the north of this continent. The Force also needs to invest in a number of capabilities which are unlikely to be required in the short term but which would be essential as a basis for expansion if the strategic situation were to deteriorate.

In this regard Australia has modern equipment facilities and trained manpower, but there are areas where improvements need to be made. The major change to the force structure was the decision not to acquire an aircraft carrier. The Government concluded that an aircraft carrier of the kind we could afford and the kind of aircraft which could operate from it were not a satisfactory answer to Australia's needs in anti-submarine warfare, maritime air defence, strike, surveillance and reconnaissance. The statement by the Minister describes the very large sums allotted in this year's Budget to develop these capabilities. Our modern land-based aircraft, destroyers, guided missile frigates, helicopters and patrol boats, both in existence and planned, can meet our essential maritime needs. For example, I draw the attention of the House to recent remarks of the Chief of the Air Staff to the effect that Australia's anti-shipping strike power would be unequalled by any other nation in the region.

I also draw the attention of the House to the fact that the previous Government did not set aside future funds to cover the cost of a carrier. The honourable member for Wentworth spoke about the Melbourne being cannibalised in his electorate. That decision was made by the former Fraser Government. This Government is firmly of the view that resources which would have gone to the carrier will be better spent in other ways. The Minister for Defence Support has outlined the ways in which that expenditure will take place. It is a privilege and a pleasure to speak in this debate today. I congratulate the two Ministers on the way in which they have set about their difficult task of building on what they inherited from the previous Government. What they are doing will enable us to build in this country that defence force which is necessary for the defence of Australia and which will enable Australia to meet its international commitments within the structure of its alliances.