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Friday, 20 February 1987
Page: 444

Mr LANGMORE(11.05) —The speech that we have just been listening to really was a cabaret act. It would have been a joke had it not been about such a serious subject. It is not really worth going through in detail. But the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman) did say that if we are serious about defence expenditure we should double it. Therefore, he is proposing an addition of $7 billion to government outlays. This is in the same week as his Party has proposed tax cuts estimated to cost $14 billion. So he is proposing today a $21 billion increase in the deficit in a year when the deficit is only about $1.5 billion. It is just empty rhetoric-verbiage of no value whatsoever. Also, what he said was irrelevant to the subject of the debate.

The statement that we are debating is really a very important statement and I warmly welcome it. We are talking about Australian defence co-operation in the South Pacific, in case those listening to the debate have lost track of it. The statement that the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) made is an effective response to a perceived need. Since independence most Pacific island states have begun to feel a little more vulnerable. The super-powers are taking more interest in the region. There has been intrusion by fishing trawlers from Asia into the exclusive economic zones of Pacific island states. In some of those countries uncertainty has been created by internal conflict within ANZUS. Some Pacific island leaders would like to support New Zealand; others would like to support the United States of America. They feel more vulnerable because there has been some conflict between those two countries. Also, all of the Pacific island countries are in a difficult economic situation. Most of them have declining, low or negative growth rates. Therefore, they find it difficult to fund their defence. They have small budgets anyway; they are all microstates, after all. But, in addition, their economic situation has been deteriorating.

Australia has a significant interest in the area. We have a long-standing historic and shared economic interest in the region. But we also now share a strong social interest because of the movements in migration in the region. Of course, we have always shared a strategic interest in the region through trade and investment. In fact, we have a very positive trade balance with the Pacific island countries. We have a substantial aid program with them, which is to our advantage because all of that aid and much more is spent in Australia.

The statement is a very practical one. There are four parts to it. It moves to help island countries upgrade their national maritime surveillance systems by the provision of patrol boats, naval advisory assistance and training. This will help those Pacific island states to enforce their exclusive economic zones. It will involve the provision of advice, equipment and training in maritime surveillance management techniques. That is the first of the four initiatives.

The second initiative is deployment of Royal Australian Air Force long range maritime patrol aircraft to the region. There are already some such deployments-five a year on average. That number will be increased to 10 a year. Each of those deployments is for about five days. They will be concentrated from now on in the times of the year and in the areas where intrusion of foreign fishing vessels is most likely. That is very important because fishing is the major economic resource that those countries have. It is essential that they be able to protect their exclusive economic zones so that they can maximise the benefit that they receive from the fish in their regions. We will co-operate with New Zealand in making those RAAF deployments because New Zealand takes part in that kind of activity.

Thirdly, we will be increasing the number of Royal Australian Navy ship deployments to the island countries. For example, it is expected this year that 17 ships will visit the region, calling at 12 island countries and their ports.

Fourthly, defence co-operation activities will involve providing technical support to island defence and security forces. That comes in various ways-for example, hydraulic survey and charting and deployment of an engineer construction troup to South Pacific countries for several months a year.

There are substantial benefits to those countries from this upgraded activity. Firstly, it will increase their economic self-sufficiency. Those countries are preoccupied with improving their capacity for economic development. As I began by saying, all of them have experienced very difficult economic circumstances. The price of copra, which is one of their main commodity exports, has slumped in the same way as Australian commodity export prices have slumped in the past couple of years; we therefore know what they are experiencing. Tuna prices are low, too.

Four of the Pacific island countries have experienced hurricanes in the last 12 months-the Solomon Islands and Fiji in 1986 and the Cook Islands and Vanuatu already this year. All four of those hurricanes have done enormous damage and added to the major economic and fiscal problems that those countries experience. For example, the Solomon Islands are trying to cope with steep falls in copra, timber, fish and vegetable oil prices. Vanuatu has had to devalue because of the seriousness of its economic crisis. The only country in the region that is managing to cope well at present is Fiji because it has had a strong influx of tourists and a near record sugar crop-it has very good sugar support arrangements-and it also exports gold. So, from three sources not so readily available to other countries, it has managed to maintain its economic position quite well. Australia supports all of those countries through a generous aid program. I think aid this year totals about $58m, which is a very substantial contribution. But that alone is not enough to support the economies of those countries. It is far more important that they build up their own capacity for self-sufficiency. That becomes particularly important in a period when not only are commodity prices low but also the outlook for commodity prices continues to be poor. The importance of this statement is partly that it will enable those countries to protect their exclusive economic zones by controlling the influx of foreign shipping trawlers. Australia's development assistance and trade investment will play the major role, but our defence support can also be very useful.

The second major benefit of the statement to those countries and to Australia is that it re- inforces the commitment to the Pacific patrol boat program. As the Minister outlined, Australia is contributing 12 Pacific patrol boats costing $62m-a very major aspect of defence co- operation-to those Pacific island countries. Four of those patrol boats are going to Papua New Guinea, four to Fiji and one each to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Western Samoa and the Cook Islands. The first of those patrol boats is already completed and undergoing sea trials; the rest are on the way. The importance of that program is that it enables the Pacific island states to help themselves. We are contributing not only through capital grants to the defence of those countries but also through the training of crews and through technical support in a number of ways to the operational activities of those patrol boats. We are also providing complementary activities to Australian defence forces; those Pacific island defence activities will be complementary to the sorts of activities that we are involved in.

Another great benefit of this statement is that it will contribute to reducing the danger of super- power rivalry in the region. As the Minister said in his statement, there is the potential risk that disputes between the major powers, and influences that could be harmful to our long term strategic interests, may be introduced to the region. So to the extent that Australia and New Zealand take up a supporting defence role, the opportunity for the super-powers to become involved will be reduced. That is heartily to be desired and certainly is desired by all the Pacific island countries.

The statement by the Minister is consistent with national military considerations as outlined by Paul Dibb. The honourable member for Casey (Mr Halverson), the first speaker for the Opposition, suggested that this statement is in some way inconsistent with the Dibb Review. That is not true at all. What is being proposed in the statement is that the kinds of equipment and skilled military personnel within Australia needed for its defence should also have some involvement in the wider area of direct military interest. That is exactly what Dibb recommends. This statement proposes the use of frigates, patrol boats and surveillance aircraft within our area of direct military interest in the same way as they will be used around Australia's coast. We will be protecting ourselves directly by participating in the protection of countries in the South Pacific region.

The honourable member for Casey also criticised the statement because, he said, it did not deal with the Soviet presence in Cam Ranh Bay. Quite apart from that being quite irrelevant to the statement, which is about the South Pacific, after all, what does the Opposition want the Government to do? Is the honourable member proposing that the Australian Government launch an attack on Cam Ranh Bay? That would be consistent with the excessively and provocatively aggressive stance which Opposition spokespeople have sometimes taken. I can remember attending a public meeting in the 1960s at which a Liberal leader publicly advocated a pre-emptive nuclear strike on China. Anything more damaging to the possibility of world peace is impossible to imagine. I hope that no one in the Opposition would now support that grossly and brutally aggressive stance. The sort of rhetoric that comes from the Opposition and which came from both Opposition speakers this morning, inclines one to believe that, unconsciously or semi-consciously, in some of its members' thinking that sort of thought is still present.

One aspect of our relationship with the South Pacific which it is important to touch on in this debate is the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. The Treaty has been signed by 10 South Pacific island states. It prohibits the stationing or production of nuclear weapons in the area, so-called peaceful nuclear explosions and the dumping of nuclear waste at sea. It has been criticised by some Pacific island states for not being strong enough but it has general support and it is an important constraint on what present and future governments can do in the area. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) said recently, the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty is a Treaty by the countries of the region whose calls on world support are moderate and modest and whose expectations in the Treaty are high because of their concerns about the vulnerability of their environment to nuclear damage. He said:

These concerns go to the very heart of preserving a free, independent livelihood for their people.

The Treaty is an important symbol of the commitment to peace and security in the area. Therefore, it is very disappointing that the United States has not agreed to sign the protocols. Given the opposition from the United States to such a mild treaty, the claimed commitment of the United States Administration to arms control and disarmament is hard to believe. The United States decision is antagonistic to the genuine concerns and views of the South Pacific states. It has handed another propaganda victory to the Soviet Union and China, which have already agreed to sign the protocols. The United States decision is divisive of a friendship. It makes those of us concerned with the peace and security of the region very sad.

It is a great pleasure to support this statement wholeheartedly and to say that it has the strong support of experts in the area.