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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 646

Senator DURACK(7.15) —This statement from the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) on the report of the fleet base relocation study is very important. Its purpose is to give the Government's comments on the report, which was published in January this year. The significance of the statement by the Minister is that it indicates that the Government has made a decision in favour of a two-ocean Navy concept. In other words, the study concludes, and the Government has accepted the view, that the HMAS Stirling naval base in Cockburn Sound in Western Australia should be developed to the extent that half the Australian fleet is based on the west coast, as distinct from the policy of the past under which the fleet was virtually all based on the east coast.

The development of this new strategy is of particular importance and significance. The Opposition in government was certainly working towards this. Australia was first made aware of the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean and the west coast of Australia for defence requirements by the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. It was the Fraser Government which developed the Stirling naval base. The Minister for Defence, in the statement, has pointed out that this Government is the first one actually to home-port any warships there. The statement refers to two destroyers and a possible third one. The Government is to be commended for that and also for its decision to base submarines in Cockburn Sound. Nevertheless, the basic strategic concept of a two-ocean navy-the importance of the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific Ocean to Australia's defence-was very much developed by the Fraser Government, and in fairness, particularly the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. Clearly the Opposition does not oppose or dissent from that concept which we are pleased to note the Government has now adopted. Obviously it is based very definitely on realistic strategic perceptions. The statement goes on to indicate the sorts of benefits that will flow to the area of the south-west of Western Australia, particularly around Cockburn Sound and Fremantle, from the development. This work, of course, will not be done overnight; it will be done over a period. Obviously, it will be very expensive and a large number of naval personnel will be based in Western Australia.

The study and the ministerial statement also deal with the relocation of the Navy from its traditional base in Sydney Harbour. There is no commitment by the Government at this stage but obviously Jervis Bay is the preferred place to relocate the Navy. The statement indicates that the Government is proceeding with an environmental impact study in regard to that broad concept without in fact making a firm commitment to it. That seems clearly to be the right approach. However, one must note the very high cost of that proposal, apart altogether from the environmental costs, personnel and so on.

Under this relocation plan, which is the subject of the study and the statement, capital investment of the order of $1.5 billion will be required. I think we can be assured that it will cost a great deal more than that in order to achieve the policies announced by the Minister. I think one must be somewhat cynical about the Government's real intentions in the long term to follow through with plans of that kind because this Government does not accord defence a very high priority in its spending. We know that one of the first things it did was to rule out the question of an aircraft carrier. It has talked about some replacement platform, but it has done nothing about that. It closed down the Fleet Air Arm at Nowra. Indeed this Government is having great difficulty in retaining adequate personnel in all the Services and indeed in even persuading the people to serve in submarines. So there is a great morale problem in the Services.

There has been a cutback on many activities which are important in training and in the morale of service people. The plans to spend money of these proportions, together with the additional expense that will probably be required to increase the naval strength alone to meet this and other defence requirements, raise the question as to how serious the Government really is about this commitment. It certainly made this commitment to the two ocean naval concept. It certainly made the commitment to upgrade these facilities in order that HMAS Stirling could cope with it. But it has not yet made the commitment to Jervis Bay.

In any event, it seems to me that we should not get too excited about the fact that the Government is moving on a policy that it has announced. Clearly the two-ocean naval concept is the right policy and the right strategy, but I think it is fair to ask whether this Government will really make the commitment in dollars and cents terms to the requirements of defence in Australia and whether it will carry out the policies that it is talking about here. I have a horrible suspicion that this is much more theory than is likely to be practice.

The Government clearly has got to adopt a very different attitude to the defence requirements of this nation, to the requirements of defence personnel and to the requirements of all aspects of our defence needs. It is not simply a matter of putting down a statement such as this, although as I have said it certainly adopts the right concept and the right strategy; there has to be a very different attitude than the one the Government has so far exhibited to defence priorities in its own budgeting. I cannot really see that the sorts of grand plans outlined by Mr Beazley in this statement are likely to be put into proper effect by this Government.