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Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 2155


Mr BEAZLEY (Minister for Defence)(11.23) —I thank those who have participated in the debate and welcome to debates on defence the new Opposition spokesman on defence, the honourable member for Hume (Mr Fife) who, on the change of government, I followed in the aviation portfolio. Unfortunately for him, there will not be an opportunity for him to follow me in the defence portfolio because we will not be losing the election. There was some doubt about that some time ago but after the events of last night I do not think there can be too much doubt about it, at least in the foreseeable future.

I think the Opposition's amendment slightly contradicts some of the aspiration that it will seek to make through amendments of the Defence Housing Authority Bill at the Committee stage. I will deal with that matter a little later. Understandably, the Opposition's participants, and indeed the Government's participants, in this debate have broadened, as they can in the second reading phase of a debate, the issues slightly beyond those questions that are contained directly in the Bill to more general propositions concerning personnel questions in the defence forces and broader aspects of defence as well. Certainly, the honourable member for McPherson (Mr White), the previous speaker, did that as did the one or two speakers I was able to hear on the broadcast system and while I was in the House.

I want to make a couple of points about their contributions; the first one relates to the affordability of the policy because that issue directly impacts on whether we will be able to achieve objectives in relation to the $705m program we have got going for housing. I want to say this about it: We devised the White Paper time schedules basically to ensure that they could be implemented in a situation in which we anticipated very little real growth, if any growth at all, in the defence vote for about a decade.

We on this side of the House are thoroughly apprised of the fact that there is now a call on outlays of such dimensions, and contradictory calls on the revenue base of such dimensions, that any politician who meanders around this place saying that his plans in any area of expenditure are predicated on real growth is completely irresponsible. Any honourable member on either side of the House who suggests that more money ought to be spent on this or that must always accompany such a statement with a financial caveat stating exactly what she or he intends to see dropped in order to pay for it. We are still getting wish lists from the Opposition but we are not getting an appropriate and equivalent set of cuts, not just on taxation but on outlays with which the Opposition is beginning to deal.

For example, it was interesting to hear one Opposition member ask a question the other day on massively increasing the spouse rebate. In the circumstances in which the Opposition finds itself-it is talking about huge tax cuts-that question must qualify for the loony question of the week. We will see what happens in Question Time today when all the loonies will be cut loose as the Opposition tries to work itself out. That prize may be taken off the honourable member but at the moment he stands with the loony question of the week prize.

The point is this: I am at least as aware as any Minister that there are vulnerabilities to the possibility of cuts in my portfolio. I would be a dopey Minister not to be aware of this. The way I approach this matter is to protect what is necessary, to establish efficiencies where possible and to ensure that defence is adequately provided for even in tough times.

The decisions that we have been taking in the factories are causing enormous pain in a number of areas and, quite surprisingly, very little appears in the media, given the extent of the pain being caused. The redundancies have been massive and much greater in proportional terms than those in just about any other sector of industry. It has not had much publicity. The savings in this forthcoming Budget year will be equivalent to somewhere between 1 1/2 and 2 per cent real growth.

Defence is presented with a global budget; it is not like other areas of the Budget where there is only a very limited intervention by Cabinet which says yes or no about whether one can have that item of equipment or yes or no about whether one can have those personnel numbers. Defence, unlike other portfolios, is not micro-managed by the Cabinet; one gets global amounts. The fact is that by efficiencies one can inject into one's situation circumstances in which one can do without an element of real growth. In other portfolios it does not matter much one way or the other; the money is likely to be taken away. In defence that means a very great deal indeed because moneys saved can be transferred to equipment, personnel or whatever. Money saved in other portfolios simply tends immediately to come off the obligation on the Government for outlays and that particular department does not necessarily see a cent of it. So those efficiencies are meaningful and they create circumstances in which one can eliminate a requirement for 1 1/2 to 2 per cent real growth which has real meaning in the defence area.

This leads me directly to home ownership. Even though for some time we have had to operate in straitened circumstances in the defence portfolio, there have been quite massive increases in those restraint circumstances in respect of the funds which we allocate to defence housing. Nobody can look at our record of a 19 per cent increase in outlays last year, for example, and compare that with a situation in which for three years defence funding was frozen under our opponents and suggest that there is any comparison at all in the record which behoves, in any way favourably, the protestations of the Opposition on this issue. I am glad to say that the previous speaker was appropriately humble when it came to considering his own record.

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Mr Spender —And qualified.


Mr BEAZLEY —He qualified his position. Not all Opposition participants in this debate could have that same assessment applied to them. The reason why there are 15,000 substandard houses, 7,000 of which simply have to be got rid of because it is not worth doing anything about them, is in no small measure due to that three-year period in which very little was done. He also mentioned in his contribution the standard of housing being provided in those new areas. In fact, one of the pleasing features of current requests that are coming in for postings to those areas is that there is an understanding that the standard of housing in those new areas-Tindal in the Northern Territory and the submarine base in Perth in particular-is very good and volunteers are being attracted to them in numbers which are greater than we expected.

Many factors are entailed in the above average wastage rates in the Services at the moment. Many of those factors relate to the purposes for which the Government would seek to utilise the defence forces and the lack of clarity of such purposes for some considerable time. Since the White Paper has been brought down that can no longer be said to be the case. There are two developments which have become obvious over the last two or three months which are very encouraging in that regard. The first is that the Army now happens to be oversubscribed. It now has nine personnel above its required level. That has been due in large measure to a sudden drop in the wastage rates over the last month or so.


Mr Spender —Nine!


Mr BEAZLEY —Most of the time it operates with four or five hundred under that level. That is the normal circumstance all the time, irrespective of what is happening. It now happens to be nine over that level, when normally it would be several hundred under that level. I will no doubt have to explain that to the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) at some point. That is nevertheless an encouraging development. There may be many factors involved and the situation may change. But the estimates that we had on wastage rates have clearly been overdrawn in the case of that particular service.

I want very quickly to assure members of the defence forces who have an interest in this debate that this simply represents one of the number of initiatives that the Government has taken to improve the situation with regard to their conditions. There is no doubt that there must be a responsibility on government to ensure, particularly in peacetime when the situation is not urgent, that a peacetime career in the armed forces does not damage the lifestyle of the person who chooses it. Housing is quite critical in that area. We believe that a greater degree of protection can be afforded the housing program and a greater degree of sensitivity and expertise applied to it if it is taken out of the normal departmental framework and placed in the hands of an authority which has a substantial private component on its board. In regard to the bureaucratic politics of the defence vote, as we sit down and look on an annual basis at the global amount which is given to defence and all the chiefs and others are consulted on where the cuts should be made, far too often in the past this has been an area in which it has been determined that those cuts should fall. When one has bureaucratic players, and there is an assigned amount, with a guaranteed revenue base, which this Authority will have, a totally different situation emerges. The bureaucratic politics of the situation becomes a fixed point, not a fluid point. Being a fixed point, the capacity for it to be trimmed disappears, so that percentage of the defence budget is not available for manipulation in the way in which it was in the past.

Service personnel can look forward over the years, as the Government gradually addresses that program, to their housing conditions being ameliorated. I have noticed a change when I have gone around the bases. Whenever I visit the bases I always make a point of trying to talk to the senior service personnel-senior other ranks-and to the wives, because from both of them one gets shirt fronted, the real situation tends to emerge, and one gets a bit of an understanding about how people really feel. The complaint has changed from being a complaint about nothing being done to a complaint relating to speed and access. Now, on all the bases, service personnel can see houses being built and houses being refurbished. One could not have spent $66m last year and $45m the year before without it actually having some obvious physical impact. They are big sums of money. We will spend more than that, in even tougher circumstances, in the coming year. I have said to them, `You can see the houses going up. Only a few of you are able to move into them now, but over the years, when about $250m to $300m of that $750m program is in place, I expect you will start to see a fairly substantial decline in complaints'. The focus then will be on the quality of the housing and the flexibility and management of the housing.

The Housing Authority will have a very important and substantial role to play in this area. A great deal is expected of it. We have good, knowledgeable people on the Authority. They will significantly expand the expertise of the Department and the Services, in which it cannot be said a large amount of expertise in this area, understandably, resides. I think that in the long haul this absolutely critical area of service conditions will move from being what is now a very negative factor in regard to retention and recruitment to being a very positive factor.

Amendment negatived.

Original question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.