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Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Page: 11134

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (17:02): The 2012-13 federal budget announced reduced defence funding as a share of gross domestic product, reducing it to its lowest level in Australia in 74 years. Defence funding had not been lower than 1.6 per cent of GDP since—wait for it—the year 1938. We all know what happened in 1939. And with our service men and women still fighting the good fight in Afghanistan and maintaining other important peacekeeping missions elsewhere, now is not the time for the Australian government to be taking the axe to defence spending.

I present this speech on the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade's review of the Defence annual report 2010-11 as the member from a triservice city. Wagga Wagga is the home of the soldier: the Australian Army Recruit Training Centre puts the polish on all recruits, and Forest Hill on the eastern outskirts of the city has important strategic bases for the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Australian Navy.

The coalition has always and will continue to support in a bipartisan way our operations in the field. Our support is a given, and that is the way it should be. But the impulsive and superficially expedient nature of Labor's enormous cuts in defence has left this nation without a credible strategic plan or defence administration. The opposition cannot be party to such poor policy.

With the release of the 2009 defence white paper titled Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific century: force 2030, Labor pledged to modernise and reform our defence forces. A funding commitment of three per cent real growth, sustaining defence funding at close to 1.8 per cent GDP, was given. It also outlined a strategic reform program delivering $20 billion over 10 years, with those savings being returned, as they ought to be, to defence for funding acquisitions. Despite being afforded virtually no detail as to funding—nothing unusual there; that is the Labor way—the opposition gave the plan bipartisan support. Since then, the reality of a totally disingenuous government has kicked in. Labor has taken the portfolio in precisely the opposite direction. A total of $17 billion worth of defence funding has either been cut, indefinitely deferred, cancelled or delayed. Then, four days out from the 8 May 2012 federal budget, Labor announced $5.5 billion in cuts to the Defence portfolio, with no strategic or defence policy justification, in what was clearly about the last-minute politics of a wafer-thin surplus we all now know was never going to and will not materialise. The only glib reference to defence in the Treasurer's budget was this:

Of $33.6 billion of savings, about half are reductions in spending … deferring some defence expenditure while prioritising support for current overseas operations …

It is nothing to do with defence reform or national security.

If Labor had not been so wasteful and so reckless with the public purse, cuts in the order of what defence and so many front-line services are now being forced to endure would not be being made. Labor is guilty of unacceptable public maladministration. Australia has not been in this position—

Mr Perrett: Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not like the term 'maladministration' and I would ask that it be withdrawn. It is a serious—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Lyons ): Could the member for Riverina assist the chair.

Mr McCORMACK: To suit the chair and to suit the House, I withdraw.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Thank you.

Mr McCORMACK: Labor is guilty of unacceptable public waste of taxpayers' money. Australia has not been in this position previously, especially at a time where we have men and women in combat. What a disgrace! The local defence industry is reeling from the cuts, with projects and work at an all-time low. What, might I ask, has the government been doing for the past three years with respect to the much-vaunted new submarines? The only action Labor has consistently and rather effectively delivered in defence is capability gaps. The defence minister has even conceded that nothing will even start until after the next election. Meantime, the cost of owning the Collins class sub has hit $900 million a year for virtually no capability. Repackaging the announcement of the 12 new submarines at a media conference three years after it was actually announced in the white paper is no substitute for providing real capability and strategic direction in defence. As usual, it is all talk and no action from this inept Labor government, which is more interested in spin than substance and more interested in diatribe than actual defence delivery.

Labor has also ignored its own defence capability plan by acquiring HMAS Choules and the Skandi Bergen, which are not outlined in the DCP but are needed because the minister failed with respect to amphibious lift capability and we had none; deferring the Joint Strike Fighter because that is what the US had done, which is remarkable given that the United States of America has more than 2,000 air-combat-capable aircraft including 190 F22s; and announcing the purchase of battlefield airlifters without having even the foggiest idea to what the nation was being committed. The C27 aircraft announced had been mothballed by the US because they lack the required capabilities to be effective, yet here we were, jumping into this billion-dollar-plus purchase investment. All the justifications the minister has put forward for this acquisition are highly contestable at best and just plain wrong at worst. There was no competition and we will be paying twice what we should—$700 million more, to be exact. The budget decision to bypass the LAND 17 project for self-propelled howitzers has damaged the centrepiece of the Army's high-firepower, low-manning modernisation. The consequences of the decisions of delaying the Joint Strike Fighter and cancelling altogether the self-propelled howitzers will mean that once again the defence department has made major internal savings which are returned to consolidated revenue, with no benefit to the defence of our nation, while breaking several election promises along the way. None of these cuts were specifically discussed and affirmed with departmental officials, who were completely ambushed by the press conference with the Prime Minister and the defence minister. The superficially expedient nature of these huge cuts means that Australia is being left without a credible defence administrative or strategic plan, and we simply cannot be part of that.

Locally, the $5½ billion from defence in the budget is a big blow to Wagga Wagga in my electorate of the Riverina, and it is going to have a great impact not just now but going forward. Twenty Army major capital facility projects have been delayed by as much as three years. This includes the construction of Kapooka's working accommodation. I understand that general running expenses at the Army Recruit Training Centre at Kapooka, at Blamey Barracks, have been reduced by a quarter as a result of the cutbacks. Last year 4,000 recruits went through the base—2,300 regular soldiers and 1,700 Army Reserve soldiers. This year 2,500 Regular Army soldiers will be going through Kapooka. It is an important strategic military base for the Army and for the nation. The cutbacks will mean such things as the commandant, who, instead of travelling to other bases for important face-to-face talks with other colonels and military heads will now be forced to do that by telephone. Is this satisfactory for a base which is so important to our defence capabilities? I think not.

Furthermore, we heard earlier this year that after the Anzac Day ceremonies there were a number of catafalque parties from our Defence bases who were not able to go out to the various towns and cities within the electorate and elsewhere to actually put on an Anzac Day ceremony for those towns and cities. When I inquired about this I was told that it was due to defence cutbacks. Happily, I am informed that this will not be the case next year and that these people will be able to go out to the bases but that the towns will need to get in early and book those important commemorations around Anzac Day so that they get the proper representation.

In the budget Labor drained $5½ billion out of defence. As I say, it reduced our spending back to 1938 levels and we all know that, in 1939, World War II broke out. We do not want to go down that budgetary path, particularly at this difficult time of trouble in the world, with ongoing commitments in Afghanistan—while we have an exit strategy, there are still important defence capabilities that we need there—and particularly when we have so many deployments overseas.

On the battlefield the military pledges to leave no soldiers behind. When our veterans return home, we should not be leaving them behind but, unfortunately, with the lack of Defence retirement indexation, we as a nation are doing that. It is a disgrace. I hear so many complaints from veterans whose pensions, superannuation and life savings are not being properly indexed, as they ought to be. These people are forced to endure rising cost-of-living pressures, as we all are, but their pensions et cetera are not keeping pace with the funds that they need to have a decent living. These people put their lives on the line for our nation, our parliament and our people. We should not be leaving them behind. On the battlefield, as I say, the military pledges not to leave anyone behind, yet we as a nation are leaving our veterans behind and this must stop.

I am glad that the government did a backflip on the home travel, because it is very important. It was a benefit taken away from them in the defence cuts but, thankfully, in recent days we have seen the government backflip. I welcome that backflip by the government, because it is important.

Mr Perrett: Hear, hear!

Mr McCORMACK: I hear 'Hear, hear' from the member for Moreton and he knows, as well as we do on this side, how important it is for those young people to be able to go home to their relatives and families. They go to far-away military bases to do their training, their deployments and they deserve the opportunity to go home, to refresh and regroup so that they can then continue their wonderful service to this nation.

According to the member for Fadden, the cost of reinstating the flights is just $15 million a year. That is money that would be well spent by this nation on behalf of those people who serve this nation so well. I am ashamed to say, though, that the military cutbacks of $5½ billion have cut such a huge swathe out of our nation's defence portfolio. It is a very important portfolio.

Another thing that I think the Labor government ought to urgently reconsider—we have heard disingenuous motions; we have seen people who have made a lot of noise by getting all hairy-chested about it but, when it comes to actually laying their cards on the table, they have not done one thing about it—and that is the fair indexation for our veterans, our veterans who gave this country so much, who put their lives on the line in the defence of the nation, who now deserve priority, fairness, justice and equity. They are not after anything that they were not entitled to. They are not after anything more than what they signed up for, but they do need to be properly and fairly indexed. I speak regularly to my good friend the former deputy commandant at Kapooka, Bert Hoebee, who writes me almost daily emails about this subject. I feel for Bert and I feel for his veteran colleagues, because I know how much they are hurting and I know how much they feel that this is unfair. It is unfair. It needs to be fixed, and if it will not be fixed by Labor then it certainly should be by an incoming coalition government—and let that be soon. I am hoping that we see justice, reason and equity to fix it on behalf of these veterans who gave this country so much.

Debate adjourned.