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Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 525


Senator HARRADINE(5.38) —I welcome the statement by the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) on defence initiatives in the South Pacific. In doing so, I would point out that it is apparent from the statement that the Minister is attempting to distance himself from the main thrust, the essential thrust, of the report of the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities. I acknowledge that Mr Dibb, in his report, paid specific attention to the need for the type of co-operation required with our South Pacific country neighbours as is envisaged in this statement. However, I refer honourable senators to a couple of paragraphs in the statement which I believe give weight to the conclusion that I have just reached about it. Page 2 of the document states:

It is absolutely vital to Australia that we do not forget the strategic lessons taught by the Pacific war. Paul Dibb has said that a self-reliant defence posture demands that we shape our defence capabilities to suit our environment. Likewise, it requires that we pay great attention to maintaining and strengthening the congenial features of that strategic environment.

Later, to back up that statement, the Minister makes this very important statement on the top of page 4:

The island countries lie across important lines of communications between Australia and Japan, our major trading partner, and the United States, our major ally. They also lie across important trade routes and approaches to Australia's east coast, where many of our major population centres are located. An unfriendly maritime power in the area could inhibit our freedom of movement through these approaches and could place in doubt the security of overseas supply to Australia of military equipment and other strategic material.

The references in that statement are almost identical to references in a speech I made to the Australian Defence Association in ANZAC House in Sydney on 17 July last. I am happy to say that the Minister has so focused attention now in an official statement that one needs to ask: Where do we go from here? If one analyses the document that is before us today, with its limited terms of reference, one will see that the significance of the statement is not so much in its defence detail because its defence detail goes to the question of brown water co-operation. The statement does not go in defence detail, as distinct from policy detail, to the development of blue water naval co-operation and other Defence Force co-operation which is required to protect the very sea-lanes which the Minister in his statement says are vital to this nation's security. So the significance of the Minister's statement is not so much in its defence detail but in its political message. The clear political message is this: We have sent an unmistakable signal to friend and potential foe alike that Australia regards the Pacific area as of vital strategic importance to it and that it intends to act accordingly. I am confident that that is the message. I hope that it is the message. If it is the message, the Minister deserves to be commended for this statement.

Our sea-lanes of communication are important not only because through them come the strategic materials that are necessary for our defence but also because through those sea-lanes come and go the materials upon which our economy and the economic life-blood of this nation depend. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) said last year that we are facing the greatest economic crisis since World War II. The Treasurer (Mr Keating) has said, and has repeated as late as today, that this is because of the collapse in the value of our overseas trade. What are the political and strategic implications of those statements? The strategic implication clearly is that if a potential enemy can interdict our trade it will present Australia with an economic crisis the like of which we have not seen since World War II. The Minister acknowledges this clearly on page 4 of the document. The document does not seek to deal with the full implications of that. It says that our close defence relations with Papua New Guinea, which have been continuous since World War II, are reflected in our largest defence co-operation program.

What I want to put in the pipeline now, as I have done previously, not in this chamber but elsewhere, is that the Government should take up the keenness within Papua New Guinea to enter into a firm defence treaty. Currently bilateral talks are taking place with Papua New Guinea on economic and defence co-operation between ourselves and Papua New Guinea. In my view these talks provide an ideal opportunity to conclude a formal defence treaty with the Papua New Guinean Government. The need for such a defence treaty was referred to by Sir Julius Chan a couple of weeks ago at the National Press Club in Canberra. He was speaking on behalf of the Papua New Guinean Government.

It is my view that because of the importance of the vital sea-lanes in and around the area that the defence treaty should provide for joint defence facilities on Papua New Guinean territory. Those bases would provide a cost-effective way of defending Australia's most important trade sea-lanes, such as those referred to in the Minister's statement which we are debating, and those which pass through the Solomon and Bismarck Seas, which are the most important sea-lanes when it comes to trade. Clearly, the sea-lanes which pass through the Pacific island nations are most important when it comes to defence supplies from the United States. It is my view that such a defence treaty should form part of a network of formal and informal arrangements, including the type of arrangements which go on in the Pacific island countries, between Australia, Association of South East Asian Nations neighbours and Pacific island countries, for the mutual defence of regional waterways from extra-regional threats.

One thing which has not been mentioned during this debate, because it is not directly related to the document, although it is indirectly related to it, is the situation in the Philippines. I crave your indulgence, Madam Acting Deputy President, to mention it. Let us consider the situation if the NPA, for example, took control of the Philippines and were supported by the Soviet Union. A map of that part of the world would show Vietnam, Cam Ranh Bay and the Philippines which surround the South China Sea and through which a large part of Japan's supplies pass. If a potential foe of Japan, or any of the other countries through which vital oil and other supplies flow through the South China Sea, were to interdict trade in the South China Sea, there would need to be a rerouting of vessels around Australia and up the east coast of Australia. That is an eventuality which should come into the calculations of our defence planners and should and does come into the calculations of some other countries. I certainly hope that that never occurs, but we should be aware of it.

I conclude by saying this about Paul Dibb: If Paul Dibb has done something, he has developed a report which is clear, concise and has a logical sequence. Unfortunately, it is a strategy structured for a country other than Australia-I think the Government now acknowledges that-but at least it has put defence in the forefront of public debate. It has put defence before this chamber as it has not been put for a number of years. What I do not like about it is that the Minister, instead of coming in here and laying on the table the statements, as has been done on this occasion only, previously has had leaks to the Press. I withdraw that. It may not have been the Minister, but leaks have been made to the Press before the statements have come to this chamber. I do not think that that is fair on this chamber or the people we represent. Imagine Churchill going into the wartime parliament of the House of Commons two weeks after things had appeared in the Press that he wanted to speak about to the House of Commons. Even with non-wartime matters defence is such an important question that the first group of people who should know about the Government's plans for the defence of the nation is the nation's representatives in Parliament. Thus democracy would best be served.