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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 2007


Mr HALVERSON(4.49) —In these uncertain economic times, with the unwanted characteristics of high interest rates, enormous overseas deficits, appalling terms of trade and falling living standards, the personnel of our regular and reserve forces continue to leave their respective services at alarming rates. Frequently they resort to the only courses open to them: Resignation or refusing to re-engage as their current commitments expire. Pay, allowances and conditions of service are the principal causes of dissatisfaction. Whilst the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill is a first step, much remains to be done.

On the latest figures available, more than 1,000 service personnel left the armed forces in January 1987. Those resignations occurred at a time when quite extravagant measures have been adopted by the Government to bring the military profile to a much higher level in the public's perception. The latest statistics released by the Department of Defence show that 1,068 officers and those of other ranks left during January 1987, considerably more than the 444 who left in December 1986. Officer resignations more than tripled over the previous period. When one considers that the cost of training even junior officers probably runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars and the cost of training a Royal Australian Air Force fighter pilot exceeds $1m, the loss in monetary terms alone must be well in excess of $160m annually.

Of the 143 officers who left in January, only seven had reached retirement age. The overwhelming majority of officers leaving the Services came from the hard core of experience-those of the middle ranks, the experienced professionals, who are mature, dedicated but increasingly unhappy when they are subject to the inexplicable reductions in flying hours, sailing time, exercises and firing programs. Their frustration is understandable. No amount of Government posturing and massive amounts of high level media advertising, done at great expense and using such high profile personalities as the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley), will remedy what are now very serious personnel deficiencies.

Armed forces strength is now below 70,000 personnel, hovering at the lowest levels since the Vietnam War. The overall slight increases in the January number can be attributed to the usual larger than normal enlistments covering the annual intake of officer cadets and apprentices. We are spread too thinly to cover their wide-ranging commitments, commitments which expand under the Minister's tutelage. Worse, there is an increasing tendency to increase expenditure on the high technology end of the spectrum whilst ignoring the growing needs of an increasingly restive service community long denied adequate salaries and allowances, aggravated by poor conditions of service and with virtually no prospect of early improvement. It is no wonder they continue to leave in the numbers that they do.

Unacceptable features remain in the reserves. During this Government's period in office which should, thankfully, be well and truly over shortly, numbers in our reserve units have fallen by 10,000 personnel. Leadership, that essential ingredient in any military organisation, remains at a high level. But the frustrations of managing forces constantly depleted in numbers and constantly frustrated by inadequate equipment and facilities, looms as a large intractable problem. The position cannot be expected to improve until the flow of funds increases, new equipment and state of the arts technology is introduced and proper incentives are established so that individuals who wish to serve are proud to do so, are respected by the community they serve and are rewarded adequately and properly for the tasks that they perform.

The Opposition is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate today on the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill 1987. I will now concentrate some of my remarks on the new provisions for peacetime call-out of the reserve forces; that is, in situations other than a declared defence emergency. On 22 May 1985 I referred to the need for urgent action to be taken on this very matter. I did so in the context of a discussion on a matter of public importance on the alarming rundown by the Government of the manpower, morale and effectiveness of the Army Reserve. At that time my colleague the honourable member for Bruce (Mr Aldred) and I, on behalf of the Opposition, highlighted the disgraceful manner in which this present Government has ignored the role, requirements and importance of our reserve forces, allowing them to deteriorate into a critical and inexcusable state of neglect.

The point was made, clearly and indisputably, that the Government had exhibited a very real lack of concern for the future defence and security of Australia and Australians by failing to take any positive action to rectify the immediate problems confronting our reserve forces, such as inappropriate financial support, inadequate training facilities and opportunities, unsatisfactory recruitment and retention of personnel, and lack of sense of purpose-all factors contributing to a significant and intolerable decline in Reserve forces morale. One obvious and relatively easy to implement solution which was suggested for the Minister's consideration was:

The intelligent reform of amending legislative restrictions on call-out of the Reserve for full time service . . . Serving members of the Reserve believe they should, and would, be called for service if required in circumstances short of war or declared emergency. Their employers also believe the Reserve is a meaningful part of our defence, and they too expect their employees, who are reservists, to be called for when needed.

At no cost to the taxpayer, section 50 (a) (1) of the Defence Act can simply be amended to provide for the call-out of Reserve forces, or any part of them, for continuous full time military services in situations other than war or defence emergency.

It has certainly taken the Minister some time to hear the bugle in regard to this relatively simple but nonetheless significant amendment to the existing provisions of the Act. But it is better that he should hear the bugle late rather than never. In his second reading speech, the Minister informed the House:

The future holds very challenging prospects for the Army Reserve.

He went on to describe its role of:

real responsibility in defence of the north, a major part in maintaining expansion capabilities in tank warfare and artillery, and continued emphasis on integration and affiliation of Reserve and Regular units to enable the development of skills and knowledge-the future shape of the Army Reserve will, I believe, give its members an abiding sense of purpose.

He spoke of much more relevant and responsible roles, including the identification and allocation of specific regional wartime tasks to particular reserve units for peacetime training, all of which would make them a much more efficient and effective force in times of war. Again, he emphasised that that increased responsibility and newly defined role would give the Reserve an increased sense of purpose which would foster morale. All this is most admirable. The initiative is long overdue. But simply by defining new areas of responsibility and by providing expanded, exciting and challenging roles for the Reserve, we cannot hope to provide solutions to many of the problems now facing this vital part of our overall defence capability. The fact is that unless the Government is ready, willing and able to back up its rhetoric with the wherewithal to ensure a well trained and properly equipped and maintained Reserve, the current problems of low morale, which are manifested in unsatisfactorily low retention and recruitment rates, will remain unresolved.

Unless the Government is prepared to provide adequate resources and facilities to enable the Reserve to carry out its additional responsibilities-and this is subject to some conjecture, as this Government has not seen fit in the past to offer anything but unsympathetic and unrealistic consideration of the needs and problems facing this critical component of Australia's defences-then we are, in essence, wasting our time today. There is little point in passing legislation providing for the call-out of reserve forces in additional situations to those covered by the existing Act if there are no reserve forces left to respond or, if those that are left are underfinanced and, therefore, undertrained and underequipped.

The proposed Opposition amendment which provides for a State to request assistance for the defence forces in dealing with a proclaimed national disaster is necessary to clarify the situation regarding those Defence Force units which include personnel from both Regular and Reserve forces. Without this amendment, the position of integrated units is unclear. This may lead to unnecessary confusion in times of civil emergency. In circumstances of proclaimed natural disaster, it would appear reasonable not to differentiate between the duties, responsibilities and availability of Regular and Reserve personnel serving in integrated units. If such units are able to render appropriate assistance in an emergency natural disaster-because of their specialised training, skills or equipment, for example-there should be no impediment in the call-out legislation which may prevent them from so doing.

Although there are some misgivings about the ability and sincerity of the Government to ensure these new legislative provisions are adequately, appropriately and speedily implemented, the coalition welcomes the measures relating to call-out provisions of the Army Reserve forces. A similar reform was included in our coalition defence policy in 1984, and continues to receive our support. We will, therefore, not be opposing its introduction. However, we will monitor closely the manner in which the Government provides the additional roles and responsibilities of the Reserve forces so that the objectives of the legislation are effectively and efficiently achieved and do become realities rather than remain, through a lack of government commitment or funding, just another `would be if it could be' good idea.

Earlier in this debate the Leader of the National Party of Australia (Mr Sinclair) mentioned the Regular Defence Force Welfare Association and the extraordinary attempts that some of its members make to keep both sides of this House informed on defence issues. We welcome the amendments to the Defence Forces Retirement and Death Benefits Act 1973 included in this Bill, in particular the amendments to the definition of `widow' as shown at clause 37 (1) of the Bill. However, the opportunity should not be lost to correct an even longer standing wrong suffered by widows of those regular servicemen who married after separation from the Defence Force and before the DFRDB Act of 1973 was enacted. Corrective action would simply involve the repeal of section 65 (4) of the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Act and its replacement by the definition of `widow' as included in section 3 of the DFRDB Act 1973, as amended by the Bill, thus eliminating a long-standing anomaly. Section 65 (4) of the DFRB Act 1948-72 provides:

When a male pensioner marries after his retirement, pension shall not, upon the death of the pensioner, be payable to the widow or in respect of any child of the marriage.

It is likely that the above provision was included in the DFRB Act 1948 because the same provision is included in the Commonwealth Superannuation Act 1922. However, it was not realised that totally different conditions of service applied to contributors under these schemes. With the exception of invalidity, a public servant could not qualify for a pension before age 60, whereas in the Defence Force `other ranks' could qualify for a pension at the earlier age of 40 and service officers at the age of 45. At these ages many members of the Defence Force would have been contemplating marriage. Statistically, a reasonable proportion of Australians marry between the ages of 40 and 50. Indeed some service members purposely put off marriage until they retire because of the strains service life places on marriage and children's education.

Apart from these moral and social considerations, members of the Defence Force contributed under the DFRB Act to the fund at one rate, be they single or married, throughout their service life. Thus when contributors retired and became pensioners, irrespective of their marital state, they were entitled to whatever benefits the Act provided at the same pension purchase price. Thus, if a married serviceman died after he retired and became a pensioner, his widow would receive a pension during her life. However, the widow of a DFRB pensioner who had married after the pensioner retired from the service would receive no pension, even though her husband would have contributed the same amount as a member who married while in the service. The Government is well aware of this iniquitous situation. In 1985 the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence (Mr John Brown) advised that section 65 (4) of the DFRB Act 1948 was under review within the Department of Defence. However, completion of the review was delayed by the requirement to address the impact of the Sex Discrimination Act on the DFRB and superannuation schemes. The Government has indicated its sympathy to those widows of DFRB pensioners who are not eligible to receive the widow's pension because of section 65 (4). Meanwhile, many widows of DFRB pensioners are denied pensions their late husbands paid for. The Opposition asks the Government to pursue the policy review as a priority, and we trust that any decision reached will be favourable to those deserving widows.