Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Friday, 20 February 1987
Page: 446

Mr SINCLAIR (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(11.20) —While welcoming the fact that the Government is preserving the defence co-operation program, elements of this statement cause us grave concern. There is no doubt that it indicates, perhaps better than anything, the Alice in Wonderland approach to defence and foreign affairs which this Labor Government has pursued and which, sadly, is even more evident in regard to the South West Pacific area. Despite the fact that Australia has a specific responsibility to play an active role in the region, Labor's reaction hitherto has been indifferent, apathetic and shortsighted, to say the least. Its responses indicate a total lack of concern about the Soviet presence in the region and a benign acceptance that the increasing involvement in the South Pacific of the Soviet Union-albeit predominantly in the fishing industry-will not in any way affect our interests.

Australia's security is inextricably tied up with the future of the islands on our doorstep. But at the moment Soviet commercial interests continue to extend throughout the region. The Soviets are building a presence on our doorstep which even this myopic Government can no longer ignore. Events are taking place with dramatic speed. There should not be one iota of confusion about Soviet intentions. To make things absolutely clear, it is worth referring to a statement made by Mikhail Gorbachev on 28 July 1986 in Vladivostok. The General-Secretary made the Soviet position resoundingly clear by saying that his country is determined to extend its power in the Pacific. He said:

The Soviet Union's policy towards Asia and the Pacific region is an integral part of the general platform of the CPSU's international activity worked out by the April plenary meeting and the 27th Congress. But a platform is not a chart that can be applied to any situation. Rather, it is a set of principles and a method based on experience.

Given the continued involvement of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Vietnam and the build-up of its forces in the North Pacific, one can only be apprehensive as the present directions of Soviet policy are further pursued. Intrinsic to this statement are all the platitudes which cloak Soviet opportunism. In the face of it, what do we get from the Hawke Government? In light of Soviet expansion in the South Pacific, one would have thought that Australia's strategic responsibilities within the region were unmistakeably clear. The seemingly impossible has happened. We now have the beginnings of super-power confrontation in our part of the world. Unfortunately, the Government's benign approach denies a realistic understanding of the fact that circumstances are changing and that Australia cannot just ignore those developments. Paul Dibb, in his Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities last year, wrote:

In South East Asia and the South Pacific, which is Australia's area of primary strategic interest, defence policy has an important role to play in support of our more substantial foreign policy and economic concerns. In this region our fundamental national security interest is to maintain the benign strategic environment that currently prevails, free from unwelcome external pressures. However, defence activities in this wider region should not determine our force structure, as they do in our area of direct military interest.

In other words, Dibb is saying that we are not going to have a force structure developed around being able to protect any of these changing strategic situations as they impinge on Australia's interests, but we are still going to have those interests and let all those events pass us by. With the unwelcome external influences already there, how can an area be of primary strategic interest and yet not be an area of direct military interest? That in itself is a fundamental conflict of Dibb. We are awaiting with some interest the presence of the Government's White Paper. I will be very interested to see the extent to which the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) has decided that the original programs recommended by Dibb are far too remote from the realities of the situation that surrounds us.

Dibb certainly highlights the importance of the South Pacific, but he offers nothing but a circumscription of Australia's ability to play a constructive part in maintaining the region's security. Unlike Labor, the coalition does not draw imaginary lines between Australia's national and strategic interests-they are one and the same. Without the benign strategic environment that Mr Dibb talks about, Australia's national interest will not only be brought into question; it will be placed under threat. Taking a more realistic and constructive line, the former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Peter Henderson, recently rewrote Mr Dibb's statement to say:

In the South Pacific, which is Australia's area of primary strategic interest, defence policy has an important role to play in support of our more substantial foreign policy and economic concerns.

In broadest terms, what Australia must hope to achieve in the South Pacific is the establishment and development of a sense of community, of our all belonging to a group of countries which, while differing in size, resources and population, have a commonly held set of basic values and aspirations.

Nothing could be further from the sense of this statement than what is happening in the South Pacific at the moment. There is no need for Australia to dominate or to play politics with its neighbours. But it can do a whole lot more than this Government is doing to develop mutual help and frank consultation between our independent minded neighbours. In other words, we need positive action to be taken towards the practicalities of applying Australia's defence policy to the support of our wider objectives. As I said in this House on 14 December 1982 of the coalition-I stress that-in government:

We seek to provide what help we can to improve the independent capabilities of our neighbours to safeguard their own security and, particularly in the South West Pacific where military potential is bound to be limited, we try to support efforts to promote a sense of regional interest and co-operation resistant to external interference. This activity commands priority in our policy not simply as a goodwill gesture at the expense of Australia's own defence effort; it is direct investment in the security and the stability of the region and is of significant importance to our own security.

The paper handed down by the Minister today restricts that involvement in this region in a way that, as in so many other areas of the Minister's commitment to defence, is reducing Australia's ability to deter aggression at a time when locally based instability sources-which relate to the situation in some of the islands and the problems of succession or Soviet interference-are greater than they have been before. Of course, Australian units have traditionally helped with civil works and emergency relief, and they must continue to do so, as they have in Vanuatu and the Cook Islands only recently. But an embracing defence policy should have far more constructive foreign policy options than just giving assistance during cyclones. The fact that not enough has been done is reflected in the serious developments presently occurring in the region.

At a time when John Halfpenny's Pacific trade union forum moves closer and closer to abetting the Soviet thrust into the South Pacific, the question now is whether Australia can fix the damage that has been already done to our strategic interests in the South Pacific in recent years. Part of that damage has been caused by the vacillating and contradictory policies of this Government, and the failure of this Government to assert enough influence on the Government of New Zealand at a time when it has changed the whole strategic environment by its withdrawal from ANZUS. On the one hand we have the Foreign Minister freely admitting that the political systems of the region could easily be penetrated by the Soviets and on the other we have the lunacy of Labor's promotion of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty protocols.

Over the past few years, while the Soviet Union's commercial agents and powerful Pacific fleet have busily gone about building up their presence in our neighbouring region, the left wing anti-nuclear, anti-American factions of the Australian Labor Party in this Parliament and in this Government have contented themselves with pushing this Government into sponsoring the farce that is the Treaty of Rarotonga.

There are reservations on this side of the House that we believe need to be put into that Treaty. The concept of trying to prevent nuclear war is not the same as the signature to the protocols of this agreement. We seek to restrict the involvement of other countries in destroying the democratic and economic opportunities of the island states of the South Pacific, the countries of South East Asia that surround us and, of course, Papua New Guinea. In our view the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty under its present protocols will deny the Americans the ability to involve themselves, as they have been. It is going to be a further constraint, at a time when New Zealand has withdrawn from ANZUS, and it is not going to enhance the overall strategic capability of Australia to try to ensure that this part of the world is not placed under the same threats as it seems so many other parts of the world are today.

In our view the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has been too clever by far in encouraging island governments to subscribe to the present South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone protocols as they are now drafted. Quite plainly, the protocols are not what they purport to be, being more symbolic than substantial. If anything, all the protocols have managed to do is to provoke unparalleled controversy between the 13 forum nations, mainly because of their conflicting aspirations of banning nuclear weapons from the South Pacific while still holding out limited access to visiting allied shipping. While the Treaty might legally allow transit of allied shipping, it will really be read politically. As such it represents a slap in the face for the United States and it gives the Soviets a cheap propaganda ploy to exert further influence in an area which is of prime strategic concern to Australia.

There is no doubt that this is just another one of those treaties in which the Australian Government believes it is necessary to hedge its bets with those peaceniks within its ranks who really do not understand that unilateral disarmament is not a way to secure Australia and is not a way to ensure that no child or citizen of this country is going to be insulated from the threats that could emerge unless adequate action is taken.

As far as the statement is concerned-and there is not enough time to go over it in detail-it is worth commenting that, in addition to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, Australia has watered down a joint declaration of principles that was drawn up by Papua New Guinea aimed at strengthening the tenuous bilateral relationships between our two countries. We all know that relations with Papua New Guinea have deteriorated significantly thanks to the lack of care by the Foreign Minister and thanks to the failure of this Government to maintain the firm financial arrangements entered into. One cannot divorce the problem of maintaining defence security from the problem of ensuring that the country's economic and political stability is satisfactorily attended to. The arbitrary withdrawal, without consultation, of financial help to Papua New Guinea is yet another illustration of the high-handed approach not peculiarly to foreign affairs or defence matters but to the way in which farmers, small businessmen and other Australians are today treated with absolute contempt.

Libyan trained Kanaks are also proving a problem for stability in New Caledonia. The French presence there is such that France is now the second largest military power in the region after Australia. We are all aware of the deterioration in relations between France and the Government of Australia simply because of the intransigence of this Government and the failure of the Labor Government to comprehend that it is necessary to work with countries in this region and elsewhere to try to develop a cohesive policy against external threat instead of trying to divorce reality by following some sort of philosophic ideological line as portrayed particularly by those radical trendy lefties that so dominate so much of the foreign policy attitudes of this Government.

I am concerned that in recent statements the retiring Chief of the Defence Force seems to ignore the development of the Soviet threat. To my mind, it is important that we understand that the developments in Vietnam do not pose an immediate threat to Australia, but when they are taken in conjunction with the changing situation in New Caledonia, the problems there still are in Vanuatu and the difficulties there are in other island countries in this region we cannot be complacent that there is going to be an ability for the United States to assist us. Therefore, it is particularly important that our defence co-operation program be used to help to bolster the defences of all this region, and in the categories that have been identified in this statement there are a number of particular areas that worry me.

The patrol boats are certainly far more capable than I had originally expected them to be. But I am told that the island nations will find it difficult to maintain them. While they are too sophisticated in that sense, they are still inadequate to catch tuna fishing boats that might enter into the 200-mile fishing zones. At a time when the Soviets are also in that zone I would suggest that it is important that there be some co-operative effort to ensure that there is a supplementary capability, perhaps in conjunction with other countries in this region, so that if a more capable patrol is required it can be done not just by the island nations. I thought that might have been something the Minister could have addressed in the statement.

The deployment of our long range maritime aircraft is welcome, but without airborne early warning aircraft their operations must be restricted to the ability to detect surface or underwater intrusion into the area. We need to understand that what has happened in New Zealand means that there is a significant reduction generally in the capabilities of that country. Indeed, it is interesting that New Zealand, without American intelligence and defence co-operation, was only recently unable to identify a submarine which surfaced off the Cook Islands. I am afraid that that augurs things to come.

Much more needs to be said about defence than this statement contains. Many aspects of our trading relations, our political relations and our defence relations with the countries that are the prime subject of this statement are absolutely critical to Australia's future security. I fear that the general rundown in defence numbers, both in uniformed and in general force capability in this region, does not augur well for Australia's future. I commend the Minister for having presented this statement to the House but I say to him that I am afraid a lot more needs to be done before those of us on this side of the House feel happy about the general strategic uncertainties that face Australia in the South Pacific and in South East Asia.