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Wednesday, 11 August 1999
Page: 8359

Mr PRICE (9:49 AM) —We are debating today an omnibus defence legislation bill, the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 . These things usually do not attract a great deal of attention in the parliament, but it is fair to say that defence matters enjoy bipartisan support. I think that was the case when we were in government and it is usually the case today. But I think at no time has that bipartisanship been more stretched than it is today.

We might very well ask: should the House pass the bill—as it will—who is going to implement it? Who will be the Secretary to the Department of Defence to implement it? Currently there is a court case. I do not want to transgress in that regard other than to say that our shadow minister, Mr Martin, has indicated—as has the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate—that basically ministers should work with permanent heads that they can work with. No execution has been more appallingly botched than that. Clearly, it is unlikely to be the current permanent head. The putative permanent head may or may not accept the position, and the new position of junior secretary in Acquisitions and Logistics has already declined the position. I think I can safely say that the serving men and women—whether they are of other ranks or officers—must be completely appalled about the current situation, and it reflects a far deeper malaise of morale.

Governments and the nation have always expected a lot of our defence forces, and they give generously whenever they are called upon to act for the nation. Whether it is in wartime or whether it is in peacekeeping, we have a lot to be proud of. But this government has placed extra impositions on the Defence Force. That is quite legitimate to do, but the real question in my mind is whether or not, with these extra requests, the government is asking the impossible of our defence forces.

I will just highlight one aspect of the bill in relation to the reserves. This bill makes it easier for senior officers who have fulfilled their contractual obligations in the full-time Army to go to the reserves. At no time have we more required the concept of the two-Army policy to be working and in place. We have already asked for an extra degree of readiness by an extra brigade, anticipating what may or may not be required in our region or indeed in our world. I do not quibble with that. The opposition does not quibble with that. But it means that we have a greater reliance on the reserves.

The Chief of Army in his address to the National Press Club spoke highly of the reserves, but singled out only one element of the reserves to prove his case, and that was the doctors we have sent. I have seen them operating in Rwanda and Bougainville and I think they have done a marvellous job. But here's the rub. This is the one group in the reserves where we pay enormous practice payments. In other words—and it is not unreasonable as far as the doctors are concerned—if they are in private practice, their practices should not suffer because of their service, admittedly on short tours to Rwanda or to Bougainville, which have been the two recent cases.

We are paying a huge amount of money to get these doctors. Again, I do not argue with that. But for ordinary reservists who may be self-employed or who may be working for a small or medium business, where are the practice payments? The days when private enterprise could afford to have people away on military duty and not suffer as a consequence have gone. Only big business and Public Service departments—I do not want to get into the fact that you have changed the award system so that that is not recognised for service—can afford to have reservists within their ranks. I am not saying that the other groups do not want to serve or that they are somehow unpatriotic. I am saying that the circumstances of today's business are such that they cannot afford to do it.

I am someone who has always admired the reserves. I sincerely support this provision in the bill. It does not address the current situation which is crippling the reserves and which I think will be subject to a report to the Prime Minister to be released on a date unknown. It does not answer a whole other series of questions about service in the Defence Force. Increasingly, the service is going to have to more carefully follow community standards. That is, we are going to see far greater mobility, particularly with specialists within the defence forces, where they have periods of full-time service, where they have periods of reserve service and where they may very well opt out and be skilled in the interests of the ADF outside the services altogether. These things are not disputed within the ADF but they are not being reflected in this bill. There is no leadership being shown in this bill.

Another issue about the reserves is that this government is looking to make greater deployments than we hitherto had contemplated. Again, it is not something I necessarily disagree with. But you cannot deploy reservists; they must volunteer. Can anyone imagine what it must be like if you want to deploy a reserve platoon or a reserve company and you all take a vote to work out whether some will go and some will not go? The reality has been that with reservists usually only specialists, as mentioned, have been deployed in peacekeeping overseas. If the reserves are to fulfil the need and the potential we see for them today, then clearly we need to be able to call them out. That has been one of the recommendations that neither government has picked up from the joint committee. But if it was important then, I say to the House that it is even more important now.

So there are a lot of questions we need to ask about where the reserves are going to fit in. For too long we have talked about one army, meaning both the reserves and the regulars working together. We have seen, I am happy to acknowledge, a great deal of further investment put into the reserves. But it is also true that to get them up to a state of readiness would take about 12 months. For example, if there was a situation in our region where we wanted to bring the reserves up to that state of readiness to make way for regular troops, or indeed deploy them, notwithstanding the difficulties, then that 12 months is too great a time. So you have that sort of situation occurring. There are a whole range of leave and entitlement provisions which are impacting on reserves, not the least of which is the latest FBT.

The other aspect of the bill that I wanted to talk about today was the issue of testing for drugs or urinalysis amongst ADF personnel. As much as I think there is a need to move some of the conditions of service closer to community standards, there will be some significant differences between our community and the people who serve the nation in the defence forces. Here clearly is one.

I fully support the proposition that we should have routine testing. Indeed, if anything highlights the difference between the defence forces and the community, this proposition does. Could you imagine, Mr Speaker, in terms of your responsibility to this House, bringing forward a proposal that all people who work for your department and the House should be routinely tested for drugs? There would be absolute outrage, I suspect. I do not want to make presumptions about your decision making or how you view the matter, but I venture the opinion that there would be outrage. Yet both sides of parliament were able to get up this morning and fully support this as being in the national interest. The defence forces are essentially in the business of killing, and we need to minimise any risk of accidental death while they handle sophisticated equipment or, indeed, do the very basic grunt work that may be associated with drugs. As the member for Gilmore acknowledged, we on this side had started to introduce this measure. Indeed, it was the objections of HREOC and the Ombudsman that led to it being brought forward by way of legislation.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I have talked about morale within the defence forces and, this being an omnibus bill, there are a number of other issues that I want to draw to your attention. Who would want to dispute the proposition that we have a defence efficiency program said to lead to a billion dollars worth of savings which would all be placed into the sharp end of the business? But there does not seem to be any evidence that that is actually happening. It is one thing to be making savings; it is another to be able to see them being put into the sharp end. It would be very helpful if the minister or the parliamentary secretary, in winding up this piece of legislation, indicated to us how the review is going, what stage it has reached and how much money has been saved. Perhaps we could even be given a tangible list of the results. There is a healthy suspicion within the defence forces that the savings are illusory and that the sharp end of the business is not in fact receiving the real dividends anticipated in this whole process.

One might also ask where the money is coming from to put this 2nd Brigade into a heightened state of readiness. We used to be criticised for a lack of a 5th Battalion and, allegedly, for hollowness within our Army. You might argue, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there was some truth to that allegation. I might say that hollowness is not an issue if you are not really facing a threat or do not foresee a deployment. But we cannot argue that case: you won't win any prizes for guessing that this extra brigade was put into a heightened state of readiness and the transport catamaran was leased on the basis that they may be required in East Timor.

What price has the Army paid for this increased state of readiness? Is everything else exactly the same? Has nothing changed? Or are there units in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria or New South Wales that have suffered in their capability in order to get this up? Is that a reasonable supposition? I do not know the answer to that—basically because you do not get any answers out of the current Minister for Defence. Not providing answers to an opposition may be a relatively unimportant matter in the government's eyes, but the nation is deserving of answers to these questions. The nation, which places great faith in our defence forces, would be horrified to learn that answers are not being given. There may be a very satisfactory explanation. Perhaps my good friend the member for Hinkler will get up and enlighten me on the current situation—and I would be most grateful if he did—although I make the point that this is the minister's responsibility. Indeed, no greater contempt could have been shown for the parliamentary process and, indirectly, the people of Australia than in the responses we received from the Minister for Defence yesterday and his failure to even provide his junior minister to defend the charges within the matter of public importance proposed by the opposition. For serving men and women—in Queensland, Darwin or wherever they are located—yesterday must have been one of those appalling days when they just shook their heads and wondered whether it was all worth while.

In conclusion, I support this omnibus bill. I reiterate—more in sorrow than in anger—that we have enjoyed a traditional bipartisan approach to defence matters in this House and in this parliament, but I think that is really being tested. I sincerely hope that, in the interests of serving men and women, we can resolve the current difficulties before the court. One wonders whether, if it is appropriate for the secretary to go, it might not also be appropriate for the minister to go, but clearly something needs to be done to try to restore some leadership at the ministerial level within Defence.