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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2535

Mr McVEIGH(8.26) —I think it is indicative of the cavalier manner in which the Labor Government treats the matter of defence to find that Order of the Day No. 10 does not even rate a mention on the blue sheet. I think it is a very cavalier approach on the part of the Government to worry about things that do not matter, but not to consider that the very important matter of defence warranted sufficient consideration even to let the people of Australia or, for example, the school-children who come in here and who are interested in the program for the day-information which they get from the blue sheet-know that the matter would be discussed. They find that the Hawke-Keating socialist Government did not think enough of the matter to put it on the blue sheet.

Mr Conquest —You are quite right, too.

Mr McVEIGH —The honourable member for Hinkler points out that once again I am immaculate in my honesty. He says that I am quite right, and I appreciate that great compliment that has been paid to me by him. We in the Opposition believe that defence is of great importance. On the whole, during the past four years the world has basked in relative peace and security. The wars which are going on in various parts of the world are more or less localised, based on either religious or philosophical grounds. Australia is indeed the lucky country when it comes to conflicts of this nature. As a multicultural nation, we have no overt hostilities occurring between our fellow countrymen. It has been said that our only problem is that we have no problems. It is for this reason that we have come to accept the fact that peace is something that we can take for granted while war is something which will not affect us directly. We cannot imagine Bondi Beach or these beautiful rolling hills of the Darling Downs as battlegrounds with death and destruction on the scale of a Beirut or Dresden. Because of this, Australians have developed a soft underbelly, as it were, when it comes to debating our defence needs and requirements.

I must express my disappointment at the lack of enthusiasm that the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities has stimulated in the country as a whole, and I hope that the White Paper will come under greater scrutiny. Last year I had the honour and privilege to be part of a parliamentary delegation to New Zealand. That delegation was exceptionally well led by the honourable member for Moore (Mr Blanchard), and the honourable member for Franklin (Mr Goodluck) was equally as good as the deputy leader. In New Zealand it was interesting to note that the New Zealanders as a whole seemed to know a lot about the Dibb report. They acknowledged its significance for the strategic defence of both New Zealand and Australia. I was amazed that a country of so few people placed such a great significance on the Dibb report which, as honourable members know, was commissioned by the Australian Government. One was a little disappointed that, in effect, a prophet was unknown in Australia but known in another country. It is necessary for us to have our priorities right.

Is this a reflection of our society and its apparent disregard for the subject of our security, or does the ordinary Australian lack the imagination to see the need for such a debate? As a Queenslander who grew up during the last great war, I share the resentment of all Queenslanders and many southerners at the purported Brisbane Line strategy that was prevalent at that time. I must say that I support the emphasis that Dibb and the White Paper place on the strategic importance of our northern and north-west borders, for this is our true first line of defence. Even though our present relationship with New Zealand is strained, I cannot envisage the Kiwi Navy invading our shoreline at Melbourne or Hobart.

Mrs Darling —Never.

Mr McVEIGH —Quite right-never. We beat New Zealand at football, but that is hardly a matter for conflict such as we are talking about here. Alas, it would be ideal if our first line of defence were away from our shores and in the open Pacific or Indian oceans, but this is just not practicable considering the areas needed to be protected. The Dibb report and the White Paper recognised this and based their strategy against these premises. Threats against Australia, either perceived or real, would appear to be low level in nature. Nevertheless, Australia must put herself in the position of defending against these low level threats. The development of our air and naval forces, surveillance and intelligence capabilities is necessary to deny an enemy the sea-air gap. This is Australia's best guarantee of safety in the event of some small force landing on our northern soils. To guard against this occurrence, the White Paper recommends a strategy of comprehensive defence in depth, consisting of a layered approach to fill this sea-air gap.

The establishment of up to three over the horizon radars in the north of Australia will help develop a national system of air defence and airspace control, which is a sound initial detection move. Enhancing our naval air capability in order to resist enemy forces and protect focal points and shipping lanes is a logical secondary level of defence. I support our air defence capabilities consisting of F18s to the north at Tindal and the bare bases at Learmonth, Derby and Cape York Peninsula. As well, I applaud the move to encourage the local shipbuilding industry by giving Australian heavy engineering firms the opportunity to play a leading role in the construction of our new submarines and long range light patrol frigates. Developing a highly mobile Army as the third line of defence is a sensible move, particularly given the highly dispersed population located in the far north. In taking a stand to protect our vulnerable north and north-west, the White Paper has put us squarely on notice to be on our guard and steadfast in our determination to protect ourselves on our front line.

Dibb recommended in his report that, in order to maintain and protect our shores, a 3 per cent real growth in defence spending should be accommodated over the next five years. It will be interesting to see what is said in the statement next week. The August Budget last year allowed for only a one per cent real increase in spending, which is well below the 3 per cent suggested by Dibb in order to maintain an independent defence stance. This one per cent growth compares with the 2.9 per cent growth in the previous year's Budget and an annual average of 2.7 per cent for the Labor Government's four-year tenure. If our defence forces are to be caught in the restraint with equity net, I feel they should look hard at getting the best that their one per cent, or $25 billion, can buy. Our defence spending must be tailored to our particular needs, at the same time keeping in mind the recommendations of the various reports as to where we need the emphasis to be placed. There are obviously substantial opportunities for those in Australian industry who are willing to target new areas of growth in defence manufacture.

Because self-reliance is an important strategy, strategic requirements and economic realities will mean that local production and support capacities will be chosen very selectively. While this is not a panacea for remedying the broader ills of Australia's secondary industry, it can generate a strong demand for local production of high usage spare parts as well as local repair, modification and maintenance capabilities. I most heartily support the suggestion that most areas of future defence industry growth should be in the private sector. One of the themes running through Dibb's report is to maintain a self-reliant defence program, but just how self-reliant is self-reliant? There have been calls from a confused minority to develop an antagonistic approach towards our long term allies in order to achieve short term gains in our export area. I wish to dissociate myself from these ridiculous attempts to put our security at risk. The defence of Australian soil and Australian people is paramount and, I suggest, sacrosanct. Instead of antagonising our friends, we should be working with them to eliminate the main cause of the problem and create a favourable trade environment for the world generally.

I pause here to congratulate the Government on its decision to lift the tax impost on reservists' pay, thereby ensuring that they play a more integrated role within the regular forces. It is good to see that the Government has acknowledged that the earlier decision to tax reservists' pay was, according to the Defence Minister, not the best at the time. However, other troubles which are brewing have much more serious implications for the defence of our nation. The trouble to which I am referring is the large number of resignations of seasoned officers and experienced non-commissioned officers. The latest manpower statistics, for December, show the strength of our armed forces slumping to 69,064, the lowest ever. The number of officers who resigned in the first seven months of 1986 was nearly that of all the officers who left in the whole of the previous 12 months. It has been stated that the loss is so serious that it is cutting into the operational capability of all three Services, with the greatest impact being felt in the Royal Australian Air Force.

In my electorate of Groom I am constantly made aware of the Services' dissatisfaction with conditions of service and pay, poor housing and the uncertainty caused by the Dibb report. The Minister has moved in the right direction in the housing area by bringing in the Defence Housing Authority Bill and dealing with problems identified by Sue Hamilton in her recent Review of Effect of Service Life on Spouses. Unfortunately, these decisions were made too late for the estimated 857 officers who have voiced their displeasure with a defence career over the last year. The quote that Dibb used in his report by the American Secretary of Defense, Mr Caspar Weinberger, when coupled with this drain of experienced personnel, appears to be ominous. Mr Weinberger is reported to have said that the United States may:

. . . offer substantial amounts of economic and military assistance to our allies in time of need . . . we cannot substitute our troops or will for theirs.

The White Paper recognises this fact and strongly recommends the development of a self-reliant stand. Either we do more to retain our experienced personnel or we face the prospect of a real cut in our defence capability.

Lastly, it must be said how ridiculous it is for Caesar to be paying Caesar in the form of a fringe benefits tax. An estimated $160m of the Defence budget is expected to go back to the Federal Government through this iniquitous tax which we will repeal when the National Party becomes the Government of Australia. This tax is a waste of time and will do nothing to improve the living standards of our defence families. In conclusion, I basically agree with the main thrust of the White Paper and the premises on which it is based. In this uncertain world in which we live it is important to be seen to be able to defend ourselves. In the troubled economic times with which we are now faced it is inevitable that all sectors of the Federal bureaucracy will bear a proportion of fiscal responsibility. We must all be seen to share the responsibility of protecting ourselves by the fairest and best means possible.