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Friday, 20 March 1987
Page: 1056

Senator MASON(9.36) —The Government's White Paper on defence marks significant changes in Australia's attitudes to defence. The Australian Democrats largely support this attitude, the blueprint and the White Paper-with some reservations which I will deal with later. I urge Liberal Party and National Party senators to do the same. I agree substantially with one thing Senator Durack said, that is, that consensus is necessary and desirable. Perhaps one of the worst aspects of Australia's defence planning in the past has been the inability to have a sensible single course of action. We have fallen between two stools-the demands of continental defence and of forward defence. That period has created a situation in which we spent enormous amounts of money on defence without any really adequate return to the taxpayers.

It was because of this that the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities was undertaken in an attempt to get a proper and rational basis to our defence planning. It was a far-sighted and reasonable view which has resulted in this White Paper. So that is the first point I want to make-that whatever changes of government there might be over the next decade or two the last thing Australia needs is a radically, violently different defence point of view from that which applied beforehand. That is disastrous in all possible respects for the obvious reasons of the necessity to buy materiel and plan well in advance for the sorts of weapon systems we will have.

Until the early 1970s Australian governments saw defence planning almost entirely as contingent on the need to provide forces distant from our own shores, and the need to defend Australia's immediate approaches had a secondary role. Now we see that the Hawke Government has accepted, up to a certain point, the view that we should direct our efforts to defend this continent and our northern approaches. The watchword which appears constantly through the Dibb report and the White Paper is self-reliance. The Democrats would agree with that. There has not been a complete break with earlier assumptions about defence, as Senator Durack points out. We all like to see our own point of view in anything and Senator Durack says that this paper represents the Opposition's point of view. I would not have thought that that situation would have applied completely in the past but if it does now, so much the better. That is a good thing. I we can get that sort of consensus it is only to be applauded. Of course, that is one reason why this debate is important.

As I said, there has not been a complete break from earlier assumptions about defence and the Government in the White Paper expresses a desire to maintain the potential to deploy forces in the wider South Pacific and South East Asian regions. That worries me. To an extent I do not quite believe it because it is more out of sentiment to placate fears here in Australia and overseas, particularly in the United States, that we are planning to retreat into a Fortress Australia. The Australian newspaper's defence correspondent, Peter Young, recently wrote along those lines. I would agree with that.

It also exhibits itself in the more tangible intention to extend Australia's military presence in the South Pacific. This indicates a much more traditional view of Australian defence. I understand that it is a reaction to the perceived Soviet threat in the region. As a member of the Western alliance, and more particularly on the basis of our alliance with the United States, it is considered necessary for Australia to make a contribution to the Western naval, air and military presence in the region. Of course, the question is: To what extent in the years to come will this tendency cut against the principles of self-reliance and effective deterrence of attack on this continent? I completely applaud, and I think most Australians completely applaud, the measures planned to achieve that state of defence. In other words, will we find ourselves again in the dilemma of trying to provide for the defence of Australia effectively while also trying to provide forces that can operate in conjunction with out allies in distant parts of the Pacific and Asian regions? If experience should have shown us one thing, it is this: We cannot do both effectively, and never will be able to, because of the economic constraints on a country of this size.

I say here that the Australian Democrats are not proposing that Australia should retreat into an isolationist position. We believe that our interests and obligations in the Asian-Pacific region are best and most effectively met in ways apart from a military presence-particularly the kind of military presence that we can afford, which is minimal. Here I am speaking of diplomatic activities, appropriate foreign aid, trade and cultural ties. Prosperous democratic states through the region which are likely to be friendly with us and strong in their own right are more important than the small amounts of defence that we might throw in there in an emergency.

I refer particularly to the initiatives that we ought to be taking to assist the Aquino Government in the Philippines with its very proper attempts at land reform and effective distribution of income in that country where, as honourable senators will know, the situation is becoming much worse, not better, as time goes on. If ever there is a communist insurgency from the New People's Army in the Philippines, it will be for that reason and not from any sinister world plot by communists. It will be because the proper and reasonable concerns of the Filipino people have not been addressed and places such as the slums of Tondo and others in Manila have been allowed to perpetuate. The Government ought to take that on board. The sooner we get back to a Colombo Plan-type aid program and get away from throwing millions of dollars at the World Bank and that kind of nonsense-the sooner we use the initiative and idealism of our young Australians and fund them to assist at a grass roots level in countries such as the Philippines-the better. We would be respected for that but we are not respected for what we are doing now, with the cutback on our aid program that occurred last year.

Another aspect of the Government's White Paper that the Democrats question is the assumption that a policy of self-reliance depends on the maintenance of Australia's alliance with the United States in the same unquestioning ways as in the past. We believe that effective defence of Australia on a basis of self-reliance and deterrence should allow Australia to act much more independently of the United States where we see fit as a sovereign country. But this does not seem to be the tone of the Government's White Paper in which there is some fairly hefty soft-pedalling and backtracking in that direction.

The Dibb Review developed further the concepts of the 1976 White Paper and offered the Government a blueprint for defence development over the next 10 years. The Dibb review argues that it would take at least 10 years and massive external support for the development of regional capacity to threaten us with substantial assault. It worried me a little to see that. I think it was restated in the tabling of the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley), in which he said that a situation would not occur in which there could be any major attack by a regional power. Such an attack is defined as one involving the seizure and occupation of a substantial portion of our territory. I agree with that in present circumstances; but unfortunately, politics, especially in South East Asia, moves rather quickly.

If Australia has a soft underbelly, it is the Torres Strait. There is no doubt about that whatsoever. While there is a stable and friendly government in Papua New Guinea, and while that area can remain the vital corridor, as it is, for Australia's interests-and probably the one on which we should concentrate most, rather than spread ourselves out through all the islands of the Pacific-I can agree with that proposition; but we have no guarantee that that will continue to be the case in a very fast changing world. If we sit back complacently and do not allow ourselves the flexibility of feeling that there could be a threat from that direction, we are very mistaken and failing in our duty. Of course, the Government has said in the White Paper that it will strongly increase our defence capacity in northern Australia. From that point of view, the social and economic development of northern Australia is important to the continuing security of the country. Mr Dibb stated:

As a result, Australia must gear itself in particular for lower levels of conflict, arising within shorter warning times.

Fair enough; that is okay, but that should not be the only measure. Defence planners should be watching very carefully political moves in the countries to our north. Our defence policy ought to have backups which would allow us to adapt weapons, quite quickly if necessary, to an immediate threat which might become much more obvious in a few years time because of events over which we have no control whatsoever and could not have foreseen. Such matters come to mind when one sees in the White Paper the extremely vague description which has been given to the new surface combatant-a strange phrase, I must say-which is a small frigate.

Senator Gareth Evans —It is a small `f' frigate.

Senator MASON —That is right. The point is that there is no indication that these ships will have missile capability. The Government has very carefully dodged this issue. Perhaps the Minister, when he speaks at the end of the debate, will be able to reassure me on this matter. If we are to have a slightly bigger version of the Fremantle class ship, a first-class small warship, which lamentably we have underarmed by giving it World War II bofors on the foredeck which, I understand reliably from naval officers, cannot even be fired when the ships are cruising at full speed upwind, it will certainly be absolutely useless as any kind of defensive weapon. If we build any more relatively good small warships and underarm them in that way, or at least not make provision for them to be rearmed-in other words, not to provide space in them for missiles, control systems and wiring channels-the Government is making a very serious mistake. I hope the Government has taken this matter into account. If it has it should let us know because many people in Australia would like to be reassured on such points. I do not know how far ahead the Government is thinking about the ships it has now but it should certainly not think: `This is a little ship which we will direct to a low level threat and it will never be any good for anything else'. That is a very wasteful way of looking at things.

The other point the Government should look at is the Hawker Siddeley Engineering Ltd program-an extremely good program which is available to us and which worked out pretty well in Britain-of having container ships which can be used in the normal container trade. They have been pre-adapted and at 24 hours notice can be provided with containerised control systems and Sea Harrier aircraft. In other words, it is quite possible to have aircraft carriers, light fleet carriers or ships with that capability and use them at other times as container ships. That is sensible for a country which has a very restricted defence budget. We do not have vast sums of money to spend.

Last year when I was in Britain I went to some trouble to go into this matter. I have all the paper work if the Government wants it although I have no doubt it probably has it. All I am asking is that in the interests of security proper emphasis be given to something like these aircraft carriers. There is a benefit, of course, from having an adaptable system. The ships can operate in a convoy-coastal or further-and provide air cover for themselves and other vessels in the convoy. Another advantage is that if a light fleet carrier is extensively clobbered in a war it is out of service. I gather from British Aerospace that if one uses its system or a similar system, provided one can get the ship back into port and its control systems and carrier have not been damaged, they can be taken out and put into another ship quite quickly. So one may have lost the ship but not the capability of defence. To the Australian Democrats it is fairly important that we should have capabilities that can be upgraded quickly if we need them but are not costing us money in the meantime. The Dibb review concluded:

Australia must have the military capacity to prevent any enemy from attacking us successfully in our sea and air approaches, gaining a foothold on our soil, or extracting political concessions from us through the use of military force.

The Australian Democrats would agree absolutely with that statement; I think every Australian would once he had thought about it. If we cannot provide ourselves with that military capability we are very much putting ourselves in the position of hostages to fortune in a very unfriendly world. The Dibb review further concluded:

Through a strategy based on the fundamentals of our geographic location we can maximise the benefits of an essentially defensive posture in our region.

Fair enough; I agree with that. It continues:

The exercise of authority over our land, territory, territorial sea and airspace is fundamental to our sovereignty and security. We must also be able to protect our resource zones and defend our maritime approaches as far as wider regional considerations are concerned.

Dibb says:

Australia has a sphere of primary strategic interest encompassing South East Asia and the South Pacific generally. Developments here can affect our national security, but any military threat to Australia would be indirect. Our defence activities and projection of military power in this wider region should not determine our Force structure, as they do in our area of direct military interest.

We also agree with that. As far as the South Pacific is concerned, the review says:

We must be mindful of the national sensitivities and aspirations of small South Pacific nations.

Of course we must. They are independent countries. We must not think that we are there to be a new colonialist or to maintain military dominance of the Pacific. That applies particularly to Papua New Guinea, which is a sovereign country. Nevertheless, such discussions as I have been able to have with people from that country indicate that at very high levels, greater defence co-operation with Australia would be very welcome. I do not think we would have any great difficulty increasing the strength of our ties. I want to deal with that a little later. Dibb goes on to say, and this is the important point I want to make:

Australia's support should be predominantly economic and political. Military co-operation should be directed at increasing the self-defence capability of those island states that possess defence forces.

The review sees the ANZUS relationship as having practical benefits for Australia's defence effort. Dibb says:

We would not have the same access to intelligence information, logistic support arrangements, weapons acquisition programs, and defence science and technology transfer from any other country.

Of course that is absolutely true. The review also says:

There is no requirement for Australia to become involved in United States contingency planning for a global war. The presence of joint facilities, together with the access that we provide to visits by United States warships and the staging through Australia of B52 bombers, are a sufficient tangible contribution to the alliance.

The Australian Democrats say that that is considerably more than we should contribute. We believe absolutely that we should follow the New Zealand line that there ought not to be visits to our cities by United States warships that may be nuclear powered or nuclear armed. No justification for such visits has ever been put forward, and none is possible. They come here only to provide rest and recreation services for their sailors. There is no strategic reason whatsoever why they should come here, and no benefit can be demonstrated. All we get is a lot of hot air on the subject. Time and time again I have asked people in America and in Australia to give reasons in support of these visits, but those reasons have not been forthcoming and they never will be, for the simple reason that they do not exist.

We ought to be aware of the operations of the joint facilities. As I recall it, on page 19 of the White Paper the pious point is made that these bases exist primarily for deterrence and that, therefore, they are a good thing. To the extent that they are there for deterrence, the Australian Democrats agree that they are a good thing, but we ask the Australian Government to exert the necessary degree of control to ensure that they are there only for the useful purposes mentioned in the White Paper.

This White Paper is a definitive policy information paper which places a certain obligation on the Government in that respect. The Government has told the Australian people and this Parliament that those bases are there for that reason and that they have positive values of that kind. It is up to the Government to ensure that that situation, if it does not already exist, does exist and that it constantly monitors the situation to ensure that we are in effective control of the use of those facilities. In no way should Australia agree to any activity carried on at these bases or which is planned, or at any facility which is likely to be part of the commencement or facilitation of a global or zonal nuclear war.

The Government has very largely incorporated the views and recommendations of the Dibb review in its White Paper. If anything, we would prefer the Government to strengthen its views on some of the matters that I have touched on over the last 15 minutes or so where I think Dibb made good positive bottom line points which are beyond doubt and which are not contestable. For the Government to withdraw from them for purely cosmetic or propaganda reasons seems to me rather less than honourable. The Government has a good stance here. It has something to which I think the Australian people can rally. Let us not blur it around the edges with all sorts of rather strange nonsense, because there is quite a bit of that in this report. The basic strategy of the Government, of course, is defence in depth. The Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) in his statement said:

. . . an opponent would flounder on layers of deployed defence assets through and to our north.

That is good; that is what we are aiming at. The Minister goes on:

The first layer comprises high quality and comprehensive intelligence about military developments in our region, and a variety of surveillance capabilities to detect and track hostile intruders in our maritime and air approaches.

That is fine. He continues:

The second layer is a naval-air capability to destroy enemy forces in our approaches and to protect focal points and shipping lanes.

Of course, that is where the necessity of arming those surface combatants is essential. The lessons of wars-such as the Falklands war and wars in the Middle East in recent years-have shown that it does not matter much on what sort of a platform one puts a missile such as Harpoon, provided one can get it away in sufficient numbers, because it will destroy the opponent regardless of Phalanx or any other quick-firing guns which fire lead or uranium bullets and things of that sort. Such things can stop only a certain number of missiles in flight. Any ship, no matter how well armed with that sort of weapon, is vulnerable to a reasonably persistent and numerous attack by missile.

That ought to be the message which is on the wall of every defence planner in Australia and he should read it every day, because that is the basic defence posture we can offer to the world. People can get here in numbers only by sea. We have that very good defence capability, if we have sufficient platforms to carry those missiles and enough missiles. That is a point I want to deal with later because there is something very worrying about that in this report. The Minister further stated:

The third layer comprises a flexible ground force with air and naval support able to react to any enemy incursion right across our territory . . .

Strong air capability is obviously necessary in that area. An airborne army, well and lightly armed, is essential. It should be trained, of course, in the north-not in such places as Orange or Cobar. All these strange medieval ideas in the military forces hopefully will be got rid of as people retire, but certainly they should be got rid of in the governmental and planning areas as fast as possible.

I want to concentrate now on a few areas where I would take issue with the Government or seek more explicit information. I have already mentioned our doubts about the values of initiatives the Government is proposing in the South West Pacific; that is to increase the number of Royal Australian Navy ship visits to the region, to increase Royal Australian Air Force reconnaissance aircraft deployments and other defence co-operation activities. Reading those things, in cold blood, they do not really amount to very much, do they, and they will not have much influence on any events in the South Pacific. I am concerned that this will lead to increased pressure for more distant deployment of more of Australia's limited resources and that we will fall between two stools. That is dangerous; we would be back where we started. We simply cannot do everything and be effective, and when it comes to countering the perceived efforts of Soviet ideology in the Pacific, we are in cloud cuckoo land if we think we are going to do anything about that-if, indeed, it does exist. If we think that by sending in our ships on visits we can counter the influence of Russia, a country which has high speed attack nuclear submarines and nuclear powered aircraft carrier task forces and things of that sort, we are crazy to think along those lines or to believe that that thinking has any value or virtue whatsoever.

This suggests again that the diplomatic area and the aid areas, sensibly applied, are the areas in which such things should be addressed. In fact, Mr Hayden made a similar sort of argument on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Four Corners program on the French in the Pacific. The Minister said, in response to arguments that the French presence in the Pacific protected Western interests because of its military muscle in the French territories, that hard line French attitudes towards the Kanak issue in New Caledonia and its nuclear testing were in fact more damaging to Western interests because of the animosity they created in the islands. We could even offend in that way if we were too insistent on that sort of thing.

We should be directing efforts to Papua New Guinea, as I said to the Senate last month. It is a kind of geographic shield right across our northern approaches with a very small area of sea which could easily be crossed by modern weapons. A fleet of small troop-carrying hovercraft could cross those islands and sand bars in a few minutes if indeed Papua New Guinea-I hope this never happens-were to be governed by a government hostile to us or were invaded or attacked by another country.

We should consider all kinds of options with respect to and in full discussion with the Government of Papua New Guinea right up to and including something like the American Monroe Doctrine which, as honourable senators know, involves a commitment by the United States of America that an attack on any part of the American continent would be regarded as an attack on the United States itself. The Democrats and I are not putting that forward as a policy; I am saying that it ought to be considered because our communication lines to the north could be guaranteed. We should see Papua New Guinea as an extension of our own northern territory, which it is geographically.

One aspect of the Government's documentation with which I am not satisfied is the notion of `our guaranteed access to ready resupply of essential warstocks' from the United States. Reference to that is on page 8 of the Minister's tabling statement:

Emergency warstocks of equipment and munitions would be prohibitively expensive to maintain ourselves. However our needs could be relatively easily met from United States stocks.

That worries me because there is always a contingency situation before us which is not mentioned in the White Paper and which nobody likes to talk about. But it exists; it is very real. In the event of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union in which both those countries were extensively damaged but in which the rest of the world was at least able to stay governable and was not too badly damaged-nuclear winter and all other things aside-we would be completely alone. We would not be able to rely on the United States to provide us with those war stocks. We should take that in mind. I ask the Minister: What sort of stockpile of Harpoon missiles will the Government maintain? If we are to have only enough Harpoons to keep one or two on each ship-I know that they are very expensive pieces of machinery; they cost $1m or more each-we are placing ourselves in a very bad and false position. These weapons do not deteriorate markedly or quickly, I understand, and they will probably cost more later than they do now.

I notice that the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, who is respons- ible for this paper in the Senate, was quoted on Monday as saying, for the first time, that we are running out of oil in the Bass Strait and it is about time that we considered seriously liquid fuel alternatives. The Democrats have been saying that for the past nine years and pointing out the long lead times involved. I am glad that the Minister is saying it now; it is not before time. From a strategic point of view, the sooner we get on with it, the better. One aspect of that strategic point of view is that consideration should be given to building or retaining in the ground an easily recoverable area of Bass Strait crude oil as a strategic reserve for this country. For economic reasons, we are mad to think that every bit of that must be used up and then we can become dependent on something else. Until we have other resources and other means-perhaps another oilfield or a further effective source of liquid fuel-we should do something effective about it.

I think that the Government ought to see-perhaps it does see it; I hope that it does-that the posture which we are assuming now, which is largely one of an effective self-defence of this country, is a very important one because of the foreign policy message it gives to others. If we follow through what is contained in the Dibb report and, to an extent, what is in the White Paper, with some reservations, we will be saying to other countries that we are not in the business of meddling in their affairs; we are not in the business of having disastrous wars such as the war in Vietnam; and we are not going to fiddle around in a long Vietnam-type war on 70 or 80 fronts in the Philippines. We should make it absolutely plain to everybody that that is the way we see things. But-and this is the important `but'-if other countries adopt aggressive policies towards us, it will be to their cost. We will maintain the means-we can do it now with modern materiel, smart missiles, and so on-to give anybody who tries to intrude on or invade this country a very hot time. If that message were given, it would be the most positive disincentive for anybody who might ever have ambitions to attack this country.

The spread of such a defence milieu must contribute to an easing of international tensions. That is perhaps one of the most important things one could consider in this context. This must serve to provide the preconditions for real and complete disarmament in the sense of aggression. It ought to be the public duty of all smaller and middle powers to carry out that kind of defence thinking. Australia now has the chance to provide an excellent example.