Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 515


Senator MacGIBBON(4.36) —The Opposition supports the statement by the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) on Australia's actions in the South Pacific. This is a long overdue action on the part of the Government and it has very modest objectives. Nevertheless, we support it. The statement really is a dec- laration of increased military involvement in the South Pacific region in the form of patrolling and of increased military support to the countries in that region. In a general sense the report can be criticised for the fact that it lacks any supporting text to it for the decisions that have been arrived at. There is no definition of what Australia's interests or objectives are in following this policy. It is not quite fair to call it a knee jerk reaction by the Minister, or even to say that it is gunboat diplomacy-but it is bordering on it. The rationale behind why these decisions were taken was not thought out and therefore is not displayed.

The basic Australian national interest, of course, is our security, and security is not a matter of defence forces alone. It has to be supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs working with and supporting the national security of the country. It is not the purpose of the Department of Foreign Affairs just to represent Australia around the world; it has a vital role in Australia's essential security. I repeat a call I made in this chamber last year that however imperfect the report of the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities might be on the defence of Australia, the Government should do the same thing with the Department of Foreign Affairs. There is time now for a similar report to be made on the requirements of Australia's Foreign Affairs Department in serving the national interest. We might find that if that were done there would be a good case for merging the Department of Foreign Affairs into the Department of Trade, for example. I am tired of going around the world and seeing the Australian Department of Trade, which is vitally important to us given the balance of payments problem this Government has got us into, fighting with conflicting policies coming out of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Those two departments should be combined. It is not unusual to find the Department of Foreign Affairs with a different policy view to the Department of Defence.

This Government has been guilty of neglect in the South Pacific. Despite some very clear warnings that have been on the horizon for years there has been a failure by this Government to maintain Australia's essential interests in this region. There have been very few visits, for example, by the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) to the region. It is true to say that the esteem with which Australia is held by the island nations of the South Pacific is lower than it was in former times. This has been exacerbated, of course, by the funding cuts that have been introduced by the Government, particularly in relation to Papua New Guinea-the cuts were heavy to PNG-and the very insensitive way these cuts were brought about; it was with very little warning at all to the countries involved.

The South Pacific is now quite different in many ways from what it was a decade or two ago. The rabidly pacifist anti-nuclear policies of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Mr Lange, have destroyed one of our basic defence alliances. We have the secessionist movement in New Caledonia, where a large proportion of the community, although admittedly a minority, has genuine aspirations for some independence. While I personally believe that the independence of New Caledonia is not necessarily the only solution-I think that a peaceful resolution could be arrived at by other means-there has to be some accommodation by France of the legitimate aspirations of that very large section of the community. But France, with all the sensitivity, intelligence and experience that it showed in the seven years of the Algerian war, is re-running the same program in New Caledonia today. We have grave fears as to what long term effects on Western interests the French actions will have in the South Pacific. There are difficulties within the nation of Vanuatu, and Australia has a changing relationship with New Guinea. It is becoming fundamentally different from what it has been in the past as New Guinea emerges to a point, maybe in five or 10 years' time, where it is economically independent. There is a new generation of politicians emerging in New Guinea with different outlooks and different aspirations for that country. Again that is not being reflected and accommodated by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs.

Overlying these various national problems we have specific political issues, for want of a better term, including the development of the Melanesian bloc of New Guinea and Vanuatu and the Kanaks in New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands putting forward a point of view based on a Melanesian position. We have the interference in this area of France, which persists with its nuclear testing in the South Pacific although it is opposed by every nation south of the equator. The argument is not against the French possessing nuclear weapons or having a nuclear deterrent; rather, the argument is that far too much testing has been done in the Pacific region and, if the French wish to test their weapons, they should either do it in metropolitan France or use the American underground test facilities available to them.

Another destabilising political influence in the region is the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty which was foisted on us by this Government-a Treaty which, quite correctly, was not signed by the United States because it denies options that we may well need in the future to preserve the deterrent for the Western democracies. Another political influence, of course, is the travels of Mr Halfpenny through the area, putting extreme left Australian trade union views into Fiji and other countries in the South Pacific and fomenting troubles which will probably exist for generations where none existed before.

Over and above everything else, we have the penetration of the Soviets into the South Pacific, in both a military and a commercial sense, to a degree that we have not seen before. A question that troubles all of us on this side of the chamber is: Why has the Government taken so long, in the face of such clear evidence, to respond to this threat? The Soviets have always had an interest in the South Pacific to develop or gain a port facility and to gain an airfield and landing rights in the area. Well over a decade ago they sought port facilities at Nuku'alofa in Tonga, and diplomatic activity by Australia and New Zealand prevented that taking place. More recently, in 1984, negotiations took place between the Soviets and Kiribati which led to a fishing agreement being signed to operate for 12 months from October 1985. It expired in October last year. We heard the Gorbachev Vladivostok speech of 28 July 1986 in which he outlined very clearly Soviet intentions in the South Pacific region. Of course, only last Christmas, in December 1986, the fishing agreement was signed with Vanuatu to give the Soviets greatly increased access to that which they formerly enjoyed at Kiribati.

There has been a strange reluctance on the part of this Government to recognise the obvious. Yet I believe that it has recognised the problem to some degree because the statement is in part a response to it. The sad thing is that there is concrete evidence that a large number of Government members still do not recognise the problem. Only yesterday in this chamber we heard Senator McIntosh telling us-to quote from Hansard:

. . . some members opposite who hear the words `South Pacific' and immediately start shouting `the Russians are coming'. This scaremongering tactic has continued unabated for more than 30 years.

Well, Senator McIntosh, the Soviets are real and they are a threat to Australia's interests. Later he goes on to ridicule the Soviets' occupation and base facilities at Cam Ranh Bay. He refers to `one of the other magic scare terms, ``Cam Ranh Bay'' '. Then he quotes what a Mr Hastings has to say about it, and concludes by saying:

I have given up hoping for a more balanced assessment from Opposition members on the Soviet Union . . .

It is not balanced to neglect Soviet actions and activities in this region. The details of Cam Ranh Bay have been on the public record for many years, ever since the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence Sub-committee on Defence Matters, in its report in October 1984, made reference to Cam Ranh Bay:

The Soviet Pacific Fleet has also been steadily increasing in size and strength since the mid-1960s and currently comprises some 810 vessels, which is approximately one-quarter of the total Soviet naval strength.

Later, in relation to Soviet activity in Vietnam, the report states:

In return it has acquired the right to use naval and air facilities at Danang and Cam Ranh Bay, from which Soviet naval vessels (between 20 and 26) normally operate and where facilities for nuclear submarines have reportedly been constructed. Tu-95D Bear long-range reconnaissance and other aircraft carry out regular patrols.

Last week the Chief of the Defence Force, General Bennett, took a line similar to that taken by Senator McIntosh-that the Soviets were no threat in this region. I hope that when General Bennett goes into retirement in a month or two he follows a political career because he has actively supported this Government on matters which really were not within his premise to comment on. His area of authority, as for every other person wearing a uniform in the Australian defence forces, is to serve Australia and the Australian Government in a professional defence sense, not to become involved in controversial political issues.

Regrettably this support for a Soviet presence is not confined to Senator McIntosh. On 16 October last year the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, who represents the Minister for Defence in this place, in reply to a question from Senator Teague said:

The Government has no evidence that the Soviet Union has deployed weapons systems in Vietnam which directly endanger Australia. That is just another re-run of some outdated theories and neuroses which do not deserve wider currency . . .

That is a quite astonishing statement because I imagine that all members of the Ministry are briefed on the security risks to this country. But the week before last the American naval commander for the Pacific region, Admiral James Lyons, held a Press conference here. He torpedoed all these myths about Cam Ranh Bay being a fishing village or a seaside resort when he tabled irrefutable photographic evidence of Soviet military involvement there. It is intriguing that Admiral Lyons felt the need to do that. What has been going on in the military intelligence services and the foreign affairs services that are advising the Australian Government? Why does the Ministry not know those things that have been in all the relevant publications for years and years? How could Senator Evans get up on 1 October last year and dismiss the charge that Cam Ranh Bay was a Soviet base with the statement that it was just another rerun of out-dated theories and neuroses? There are very troubling consequences of that statement. How can we take notice of Mr Dibb's report telling us that we will have a 10-year warning of any attack on this country when we have the evidence in Cam Ranh Bay not being accepted? It is all very intriguing.

Another speaker in this debate, Senator Mason, went on with the customary anti-American line that substitutes for foreign policy with the Australian Democrats today. He made a particularly strong attack on Admiral Thomas Hayward, a former Chief of Naval Operations of the United States Navy-the head of the US Navy-who is a very intelligent, very well informed person in foreign affairs as well as in his military skills. The point that Admiral Hayward was making, as reported in the Australian yesterday, was that ANZUS was being weakened by this Government. That was the point that Senator Mason objected to. Admiral Hayward related his statement to the Dibb report. As I have made clear, my view of the Dibb report is that it is an isolationist, insular document which prescribes a fortress Australia. Admiral Hayward made the point that by accepting the Dibb report we were weakening ANZUS. I would like to quote two parts of the Dibb report in relation to ANZUS. They contain the most mercenary appreciation of the Treaty I have ever read. At one point Mr Dibb said:

The presence of the joint facilities, together with the access that we provide to visits by United States warships and the staging through Australia of B-52 bombers, are a sufficient tangible contribution to the Alliance.

Later on he said:

United States warships visit this country, although they have no home-porting here, and unarmed B-52 bombers stage through Australia. The access we provide this way, together with the presence of the Joint Facilities and political support is a sufficient tangible contribution to the Alliance, from the perspective of both parties.

In the light of such statements, which have never been refuted by the Government, by the Minister or anyone else on the other side of the chamber or in the other House, it is perfectly valid for Admiral Hayward to assume and to state that there is a weakening of our commitment to ANZUS.

I turn to the Minister's statement. One of its central parts is the proposal that we provide 12 patrol boats to the nations of the South Pacific. Basically, that is a good idea which has the support of all of us on this side of the House. There are some technical questions in relation to this, though. The design accepted was off the drawing boards; it was not a built design. There were very tight constraints. The boats had to be delivered to a very tight schedule. The successful tenderer was accepted on the basis of cost. We know that the contract has slipped badly. It is more than six months late; it might well be 12 months late. The first boat is now in the water undergoing trials. We do not know how good the design is, what its sea-keeping properties are like or whether it meets with its design speed, which in any case was very low. From memory, I think it was about 20 knots. All international freighter traffic is travelling considerably faster than that these days, as are quite a few fishing boats. Be that as it may, we do not know how late the contract is. It is quite critical to the Minister's statement because Papua New Guinea is now faced with increased and unbudgeted expenditure in refitting some of its patrol boats. These are boats that it intended to retire and replace with the new boats, but because of the slippage in the program it will be involved with an expenditure of millions of dollars. We do not know how much the contract will cost but we will explore that at the relevant time at the Estimates committee hearings.

The second point made by the Minister concerns the doubling of long range maritime reconnaissance flights by the Royal Australian Air Force and the PC3 Orions. It is interesting that the statement that was tabled in the Senate is different on this particular point from the statement that the Minister made in the House of Representatives. In the House of Representatives statement the Minister extended the relevant paragraph to say:

This is a significant increase when one considers the many other duties we assign to those long range maritime patrol aircraft, including operations out of Butterworth in the South East Asia and South China area and the very important role the aircraft play in coastal surveillance associated with fishing activity off the Australian coast.

The Minister may have got carried away with his usual exuberance but those words quite plainly mean that the doubling of patrol activity in the South Pacific by the Air Force is in addition to the present duties of the Air Force. That raises some problems. Basically, we are very understaffed with respect to air crews for the maritime reconnaissance squadrons. Nos 10 and 11 Squadrons have 10 aircraft each-20 aircraft in total-and we have at best only seven trained crews in each squadron, fourteen crews all told. With problems such as sickness and the inevitable business of crews being away on training courses we are lucky to be able to find more than five crews at any one time, maybe six, and to increase the load on them by doubling it on a long operation-as the Minister said, they are out there for at least five days-strains the resource very much. The long range maritime patrol crews fly far more hours per year than other air crews in the Air Force because the nature of their operations is such that they are out for probably ten hours at a stretch. When they go out on operations such as these they might be flying for three or four days consecutively. These are very long hours and a very long time in the air. It is not easy work. It is not sitting in a 747 going from here to San Francisco. All the operations are between 10,000 feet and sea level because every target that comes up on the radar must be physically identified by its markings and numbers. The crews are going up and down through the weather. They are never above the weather; they are punching through it at best at 6,000 to 10,000 feet. It is long, fatiguing and painstaking work.

It is not easy for the Department of Defence to increase the number of crews we have. There simply is no surge capacity. If we got into any sort of defence emergency the first thing we would require would be continuous ocean surveillance. We simply do not have the crews to fly the number of aircraft we have. The training time for a crew would, I imagine, be a year to 18 months. There are difficulties, because of the arduous nature of the activities, in recruiting people and getting volunteers within the Air Force to be air electronics officers, technical air crew officers or pilots for these aircraft. They would much rather either fly in the strike command or in the transport squadrons than fly in this way. The very long hours of duty, the postings to Butterworth and being away for a week at a time have a great effect on family life.

That leads me to another point. We are picking up an increased commitment for the defence forces here, yet there is not one word from the Minister about the appalling state of conditions under which the Services operate at present. We have record rates of resignation from the services. We have never had such a high rate or such a worrying and costly rate with respect to experience as are going on at present. There are many factors relating to this but the fundamental point is that the Minister, the Government and the Department do not care. They sit in their air-conditioned offices at Russell; they get their pay cheques every week and everything is nice and simple for them. But for the people wearing a uniform times are tough and they are not looked after in a commensurate way for the effort and dedication that they put into their work. There is a lack of re-enlistment bonuses. There is a lack of money for live firing exercises, steaming time and flying time. These are all the things that people join the services to do, but they cannot do them because there is no money for them. Service personnel have poor housing conditions. Despite the Hamilton report entitled `Supporting Service Families', nothing effective has been done on that. It is no wonder that people are leaving the Services. Unless something is done we will not have the people to fulfil these tasks that the Minister has stated in his paper.

I would like to refer to another task that has been accepted, and that is the provision of charting and survey services for some of the South Pacific islands. This is a very necessary and very laudable thing. We have to have charts and maps for a variety of reasons. But I would argue that in this case charity begins at home. On at least three occasions over the years in which I have been present at different committees, evidence has been given of the 50 year lag in providing modern charts around Australia for the Australian defence forces. That is an intolerable situation. It is a matter that should be addressed because charity begins at home. If we do have an emergency, our own charts and our own land maps really have to be up to date. The Opposition does support this move. We do believe that it is a very small commitment. We believe it is very late, but nevertheless it is very necessary.