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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 644

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy) —I table the fleet base relocation study report and, on behalf of the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley), seek leave to make a statement relating thereto and to incorporate the statement in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

I have pleasure in tabling this report of a defence study into options for basing the fleet at Cockburn Sound in Western Australia and at Jervis Bay in New South Wales.

The study was initiated by this Government for two main reasons. It recognises that the defence of Australia requires an increased naval presence in the west. It also recognises that the main base of the fleet in eastern Australia cannot remain in Sydney Harbour indefinitely. This is in keeping with the intention of the Government to establish a defence infrastructure appropriate to a self-reliant defence posture.

A need for a substantial naval presence in the west, if the Navy were to properly fulfil its responsibilities, was recognised early this century. It was not until the early 1970s, however, that a decision was made to establish the facility we now have at HMAS Stirling in Cockburn Sound.

It is a measure of this Government's determination to ensure an effective defence of our country that establishment of Stirling as a major base there should no longer be put off.

This Government is committed to further developing Stirling, and thereby making a two-ocean navy a reality. It was this Government which decided to home-port the first destroyer at Stirling-HMAS Stuart-in 1984, and the second, HMAS Swan, in 1985; and it was late in 1985 that I announced that Stirling would become a major base for Australia's submarines.

The development of Stirling reflects a strategic need to have the capacity for maritime operations to be conducted from the west as well as the east coast, and the consequent need to ensure that maintenance support is available there.

Ships operating in the strategically important areas of the north and north-west and supported from Stirling will gain a substantial increase in their effective operating time-by 13 per cent for destroyers and 31 per cent for submarines. The basing of more ships at Stirling will also enable the Navy more readily to develop expertise in areas in which it would need to operate in contingencies that could arise in shorter time scales.

The report states that the development of Stirling for up to half the fleet would be a sensible planning objective to be achieved progressively. It is now the Government's intention to move half the fleet to Stirling.

I have already announced that Stirling will be a major base for the new submarines. The first submarine to transfer will be HMAS Oxley, which will be home-ported there from September this year-in addition to the two destroyers already home-ported there. The report makes it clear that two Oberon submarines and four destroyers could be based at Stirling by 1990. Further development and basing could follow in the 1990s as the new classes of minehunters, submarines and light patrol frigates enter service.

The report addresses the detailed implications of developing Stirling. Specific proposals now need to be considered in the light of the overall defence program, the Government's other important defence initiatives, and particular aspects such as provision for basing there further ships as the fleet expands to 16 or 17 surface combatants.

Development of Stirling will have a significant local impact. Investment in Stirling could amount to some $330m over 10 years or more. Up to 1,000 persons could be directly engaged in construction. Some 3,000 extra Navy personnel, wives and dependants could be expected to generate an increase in demand for consumer goods and services of $50m annually and create some 900 additional jobs in the area.

The significance of establishing docking or ship-lift facilities in Western Australia for destroyers and submarines, particularly for emergencies, will increase with the number of ships at Stirling. The Government has decided to make a commitment in principle for a Commonwealth contribution to a Western Australian marine support facility in order to ensure that this capability is available in Western Australia. Detailed matters which now need to be resolved include-the scale and timing of the total facility, and of the Commonwealth's contribution to it, the development of other related support capacity in Western Australian industry and at HMAS Stirling, and the terms and conditions of RAN access to the facility. A team of senior defence and RAN personnel will shortly begin discussing these details with Western Australian Government officials with a view to finalising the matter by May this year. It has to be remembered, of course, both in regard to this proposal and the total fleet basing issue, that the Commonwealth is operating in an environment of extraordinary economic difficulty. This will, of course, influence our negotiations.

Development of Stirling will also have extensive indirect impact on the Navy generally, as it adjusts its whole infrastructure, oriented till now to an east coast navy, to the realities of an east-west coast navy.

Historically, Australia's major military establishments have developed near the major population centres. Such location reflected a combination of factors-local defence of those centres together with ready access to industrial support; a policy of supporting the operations of allies; and the ability to train and despatch expeditionary forces. That has changed, and changes to the logistic and other support arrangements need detailed consideration in consequence.

It is also timely to examine options for developing a fleet base at Jervis Bay-against longer term prospects of a need to move the base from Sydney and the suitability of Jervis Bay as an alternative location for the fleet in the east. While moving half the fleet to Stirling will relieve problems in Sydney for the medium term, a long term perspective is necessary.

I repeat what I have said publicly before. The future growth of Sydney will impose increasing constraints on the Navy's operations. There are also inevitably competing and growing demands for limited space in big cities.

The Navy's armament depot at Newington is a particular case. Not only is the extent to which it can now be used limited by new safety standards and encroaching development, but its occupation of 260 hectares of land for this purpose in the centre of a city is neither prudent nor operationally sound, nor consonant with the other uses that urban pressures would suggest. It needs to be relocated to where it can efficiently and effectively support the fleet.

We need therefore to begin to plan for an eventual move of the eastern half of the fleet to a more suitable long term location. The Government will now commission the environmental studies that need to proceed.

The report notes the advantages of Jervis Bay over other locations for a new fleet base. There are a number of naval facilities there including the naval air station at Nowra, and collocation would be advantageous. A new base would permit integration of those elements of the fleet left after buildup in the west, and enable efficiencies in support.

Such a base would remain close to industrial support, including the dockyard, in Sydney.

The area has room for expansion and consolidation of other Navy facilities over time. In sum, Jervis Bay has been clearly established by defence examination as the most suitable alternative base in the east for the fleet.

At this point, I shall respond to the views of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation in its report of 7 October 1986 on relocation of naval facilities to Jervis Bay, when it proposed that an environmental impact study for naval development at Jervis Bay should be undertaken only when a comprehensive planning study and public review of naval facility requirements and alternative sites demonstrates that relocation to Jervis Bay is necessary.

The Government notes but does not endorse the position taken by the Committee. The Committee's approach would seem to invite the Government to come to a firm position to relocate to Jervis Bay before commencing an EIS-thus rendering the EIS in any fundamental sense largely redundant. That approach seems contrary to the spirit of the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974-75 and indeed to the recommendations of the Committee's 1974 report which said:

Any proposal to develop naval facilities at Jervis Bay be subjected to an environmental impact study in accordance with the terms of reference of the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974-75 and if it can be demonstrated that a more suitable site for such development exists the Australian Government should not agree to the proposal.

The advantage of the process recommended in 1974 is that the Government will have before it the whole range of factors and interests, environmental and otherwise, which are pertinent to taking its decision. This is regarded as the more responsible approach and is consistent with earlier public statements from the Prime Minister and myself that no Government decision on relocation would be taken before environmental studies were completed.

The Committee also questioned the need for fleet base relocations to take place at all. It accepted the case for relocation of the armament depot from Sydney, but it raised doubts about the need for relocation of the fleet-drawing on references from the Dibb report, including the statement that an `accelerated move out of Sydney Harbour could not be justified by any pressing strategic imperative'. The Committee went on to comment that in its view the fleet base in Port Jackson would be capable of adequately accommodating a fleet of the present size into the twenty-first century'.

Even at the most optimistic rate of relocation, and assuming planning were to commence tomorrow, establishment of the fleet in Jervis Bay could not be achieved before the twenty-first century, that is, some 15 to 20 years. The high cost of relocation-$1 billion-and the size and complexity of the task could well require a much longer timeframe for relocation. While it is true, as suggested by the Committee, that a buildup at HMAS Stirling, Western Australia, will relieve pressure on other naval facilities, that does not offer any long term solution to the prospect of increasing problems I have mentioned associated with Sydney Harbour. This Government is not prepared to ignore the fact that what are presently only difficulties in Sydney Harbour could eventually constrain naval operations.

The second recommendation of the Committee dealt with the need for any proposed development at Jervis Bay to be considered and planned in the context of the overall proposal for fleet facilities and bases around Australia. I simply observe that such issues are addressed in the report I am now tabling and are taken into account in the course that is being followed by the Government. Once again I would stress, as has been done in previous statements, that there is no commitment at this stage to relocating the fleet to Jervis Bay. There is a commitment to examining fully the environmental considerations of what is clearly the most suitable alternative location for the major fleet base in the east. That will be done before the Government reaches any decision.

The environmental assessment for Jervis Bay will therefore proceed.

Finally, I need the emphasise that the possibility of long term relocation of the fleet from Sydney must not preclude action necessary in Sydney in the meantime. For example, development necessary for Australia's mine-countermeasure capabilities is a high priority imperative and cannot be deferred. There will always be a requirement for mine-countermeasure vessels in Sydney because of the Harbour's enormous economic significance to Australia. Accordingly, the development of those facilities necessary in Sydney to support this capability will proceed.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.