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Monday, 23 March 1987
Page: 1138

Senator NEWMAN(4.58) —Like so many honourable senators who have spoken before me, I rise first of all to say how glad I am that we have a defence White Paper before us. It is 11 years since we had the last one. It is very important that Australia has an ongoing debate on defence matters. I welcome both the report of the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities and the defence White Paper. It is very important that we see in our news- papers and that we have in our parliaments informed debate on matters of such basic importance to the future of the nation. I give credit to both Mr Dibb and to the Government for the production of these documents. There are some matters of detail which I wish to criticise today but, nevertheless, I feel that it has been a most worthwhile exercise to have the whole subject reviewed for so long and so publicly. I hope that it will not be 11 years before we have another White Paper.

It is very easy to forget defence and to cut back on funding for defence in times of peace. It always seems to me that defence is like insuring one's home. If one does not insure, one is always sorry the day after the fire. Self-reliance is the basis of the White Paper and it fulfils four major objectives for defence policy. First, it gives us a capacity for an independent defence of our country. Secondly, it gives us strategic stability and security in our region. Thirdly, self-reliance helps us to meet our treaty obligations. Fourthly, it contributes to strategic stability at the global level. These emphases, I believe, are acceptable to all of us.

I am very glad that the emphasis given in the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities has been retreated from in the White Paper. It concerned me, as it concerned so many of my colleagues, that we were in fact, if not in name, retreating into a Fortress Australia policy. I am glad to see, at least in the strategic assessments in the paper, that we are looking much further afield. Even if the capabilities in the report do not necessarily go all the way with the wider outlook that is shown in the White Paper, it is a better line to be following as a nation. It is the continuation of a line we saw back in 1976 with the last White Paper. We saw it again in 1984 with the report of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. If we look at the wording of the White Paper we will find something of a cut and paste job, in some respects. Quite often familiar phrases and paragraphs are repeated down those 11 years. From a continuity point of view it is a wise and balanced report.

I am very glad to see the emphasis again on the United States alliance. It is extremely important to us that we have access to military intelligence from the United States, to its technology and logistics support. Its alliance with us helps in the deterrence sense against anybody who might be looking at us to see whether we are weak. It also helps to make our defence of our country achievable and affordable. I am also glad to see the emphasis given to regional commitments. Such matters as joint exercises, port access, and staging and training facilities have been emphasised and I am very happy to see all of them.

Priority is given to air and sea defence in the area of our direct military interest and there is an important role for a long range strike capability. This, too, I welcome. Many speakers before me have talked about the concept of land defence. I do not intend to canvass that issue again here. I am glad particularly that it does not preclude offensive operations in defence of our territory or interests. I feel very much that that was a weakness in the Dibb report. The capabilities do seem to have been determined by an assessment of the threats we are likely to face. They rely on an assessment of a favourable strategic situation-that there is no possibility of a major attack in the short term and that no regional power has the capability to mount a major attack on us at this time. Such an attack would involve the seizure and occupation of a substantial portion of our territory.

The thrust of the White Paper is to make sure that we have the capability to meet sudden minor threats. Priority has been given to the threats which could arise without much warning. I am concerned, however, that even in the White Paper there is still not sufficient recognition of the uncertainties which face us with the expansion of the Soviet Union into South East Asia and the South West Pacific. I noticed that the New Zealand defence White Paper also referred to the uncertainties. Of course, New Zealand's actions do not support its concern about uncertainties. If it were sufficiently concerned for its own well-being it would not have turned its back on its ANZUS partners to the degree which it has. I regret very much that because of this matter, we no longer have quite the same relationship with New Zealand as we had before.

I am concerned about the intention by the Russians to assert global power status; we have watched for some years now the changing methods by which the Russians are seeking to extend their spheres of influence. We would be very naive if we did not look at what is happening at Cam Ranh Bay and in South East Asia-the attempts to get closer to our Association of South East Asian Nations neighbours, the attempts to give economic assistance to our South Pacific neighbours and become involved with them. All these matters affect our strategic concerns. We must not put them out of our minds. We have political instability and the potential for violence in countries near us like New Caledonia and Vanuatu. The situation in Pacific countries in general could easily change overnight so we must not become complacent just because we talk about a period in which there seems to be no particular threat.

I turn now briefly to force structure. The White Paper confirms resources of the order of 2.6 to 3 per cent of gross domestic product. As others have before me, I express grave doubts that this commitment can or will be met. We all know that we are facing a May mini-Budget. If it is going to be economically responsible there will have to be very savage cuts in national spending. We also face an August Budget. Once again, the Government will not be able to retreat from stern measures. The defence budget should have great priority in any assessment of expenditure by the Commonwealth Government. Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic to expect it to pass unscathed, as the Minister seems to say. It may be a case that he is simply whistling in the wind, but I have my fears that he will not achieve his financial target.

This is a budget with the largest capital investment in defence history-33 per cent of the budget is for long term investment. I will come to that later. I want to survey briefly some of the items in the force structure. On surveillance, the Jindalee decisions were announced earlier in the year. I welcome the announcement in the White Paper that the airborne early warning and control systems will be included in the five-year defence plan. Unfortunately, the wording in that section of the paper leaves me with some concern as to how strong a commitment there is from the Government. I shall be watching that area closely.

The major items to do with the Royal Australian Navy have already been announced by the Government. I welcome the concept of a two-ocean navy. It is a very wise decision and probably is long overdue. I also welcome the mine countermeasures and the decision to increase the numbers of our submarines and surface combat ships. All these are desirable measures and I do not intend to dwell on them.

A number of items concerning the Royal Australian Air Force were mentioned by the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) prior to the release of the White Paper. I do not feel that it is appropriate for my purposes to go into them in detail. But I am glad about the aerial refuelling decision, which gives extra capacity to our aircraft. However, I will look very closely to see whether the types of aircraft which can benefit from aerial refuelling will be increased. It is a pity that the decision was made only for one type of aircraft. The decisions on the squadron of FA18s to be placed at Tindal and the network of northern airfields are also very wise.

I am more concerned with some of the decisions relating to the Army. The emphasis on high mobility to react across the continent to protect military and civilian infrastructure and the population in the most remote parts of the country is very sensible and long overdue. But there are some areas which I feel should be noted. We have M113s which are very aged. There is no proposal for their replacement. In the light of a requirement for high mobility I would have thought that that would be given some emphasis. There is no suggestion as to how the logistics support will be developed for such a mobile force in remote areas. How will stores be got to the force? How will the shells be provided? What will happen about providing engineering support, for instance? At the moment an engineering troop cannot travel around Australia without civilian support to carry its bulldozers. It is one thing to move it around the eastern coast with civilian support. Where will that support come from in very remote areas of far northern Australia? I would like to have seen more spelled out about that. We are very short on detail in relation to this northern force.

What is the Government going to do about the conditions of service for the servicemen who will be serving in the northern force? Will they be taking their families to the north? If so, what will they do about housing? As we all know defence housing has been of a very poor quality over many years. Will defence servicemen be given super-quality housing in difficult living conditions? Will they get the sort of accommodation that mining families get in Western Australia? It is a very expensive undertaking. Will they simply be sent there for a month or so and their families left down south? Does this mean that we will need a larger force so that units can be exchanged? What will be done about education and wives' careers if families are sent north? What will happen to the social lives of single men? The social angles will have to be thought through. When the White Paper refers to a study being made about the forces to be deployed in the north, I wonder whether that study will include these matters as well as the purely military ones. The White Paper mentions medium artillery but how can it be got to the north and how will it be moved around there?

I turn to the Blackhawk helicopters decision which, I think, was a wise decision. In the light of Vietnam experience it is very much needed for the command and control of the Blackhawk helicopters to be under the Army. Some debate is continuing in some quarters about where the maintenance of these helicopters should be undertaken. However, as far as the general rule goes, I think it is very wise that these helicopters be under the command and control of the ground forces which need to use them in battle. I intend to speak about the reserves later. Looking through the Army section I see that a number of items are stated to be matters for further study, for further investigation. For example, this relates to the tanks, to the artillery for the regulars and reserves and to the capabilities for Army aviation.

The Department of Defence has had a very long time to work up this White Paper. In one sense it has had 11 years but it has certainly had nine months since the Dibb report was brought down. I feel we are being short-changed to some extent by being told that there will be studies. Are studies being conducted into why some of our forces right now do not have enough sandbags? Are any studies being conducted as to why some of our men do not have enough biros? I do not want to pour scorn on the White Paper but it looks very glossy when the reality on the ground for some of our servicemen is not at all glossy. We are going through shortages; we are having cutbacks in training. It is one thing to talk about the future but I feel not enough emphasis is placed on the nitty-gritty that we have to face if we are to have an efficient and meaningful defence force right now, not just in the future.

I turn to the question that so many of us have debated on this White Paper-the real deficit in this paper. We have a White Paper of 112 pages. Of the 112 pages, eight relate to service personnel. Of those eight pages, three contain graphs. In the Dibb report there was very little emphasis at all on personnel and this chapter has to be some sort of a front job to try to remedy that situation. The Government is facing a very difficult situation. Efficient, educated and well trained personnel have to be the most important part of our defence forces. Personnel are leaving the defence forces in droves. Servicemen are expected to be able to cope with expensive and technical equipment and yet we are losing them and we are losing the money it cost to train them. This afternoon Senator Hill gave the costs of training new personnel. Some $91m, I think, will be the shortfall in 1986-87. It costs us nearly $8,500 to train a male and just over that for a female. The Budget estimate for recruiting in 1986-87 will be $27m in advertising and administrative costs. So losing personnel is a very expensive exercise but nothing in those eight pages gives us anything new.

If one were looking to see what would be one's future in the defence forces, I think one would have to be very disappointed by the proposals put out for personnel. The paper states that we need to provide trained defence personnel for the acquisition and operation of new equipment and facilities and for the maintenance of essential combat skills. Also honourable senators should not forget that the Australian population is aging. The falling birth rate reduces the pool of young people to be recruited. It is very dangerous to let go the pool of personnel which we already have when they have been trained.

Over the last few years there has been a continual drop in the number of apprentices being trained. We will be the poorer for that. The White Paper shows that manpower will be reduced from 34 per cent of the defence budget by 5 per cent in the next five years. That will take our proportion of the defence budget to one of the lowest of that of any nation. I cannot help wondering whether the Minister is secretly glad to see the resignation of some of these men. It makes his ability to acquire capital equipment that much easier.

Many issues affect the problems we are having with personnel and they were addressed last year in the Hamilton Review of Effect of Service Life on Spouses. We have not seen sufficient action by the Government to implement the recommendations of the Hamilton report. Committees have been set up and this is a great way of doing things in the Defence Department. When in doubt, set up a committee. Something like five committees have to prepare the case for the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal hearings. To set up a committee is a way of life. We have had committees and so far only the cheapest recommendations have been implemented. I want to see what the Government will do about the families who have educational problems and the spouses who need support and employment opportunities. Still no funding has been provided for the National Consultancy Group of Service Spouses of which the Minister is so proud. What will happen about these matters?

The wage fixing system of the Defence Force Tribunal is a great improvement on what it was but it is still not good enough; it still needs reform. Cases before the Tribunal have become adversarial. There is no longer the opportunity simply to find out the facts. It has become the case that the Department is speaking with two voices-two loyalties-one of which is the Government's. It is very interesting to see that although the Minister says it is nothing to do with him, that servicemen can win some and lose some when they go before the Tribunal, now that there is a shortage of submariners, when the submarine allowance case came before the Tribunal the advocate made very little objection at all to the allowance being increased and at last a meaningful submariner's allowance was awarded. I have to think that the advocate got his riding instructions from the Government and it is just not good enough for the Government to say that it has no control over the Tribunal, that it is quite independent. The Government has an input and it should acknowledge it. As a result, service people have been the ones who have suffered.

In evidence that was given in 1981, servicemen worked from 44 to 45 hours a week; they are now working 52.5 hours a week. Of course they get no overtime; we all know that but their service allowances have not kept pace with inflation and we are waiting very keenly to see what will be done about it.

Another little thing that niggles servicemen about their conditions of service is the ongoing problem about Medicare levies. For example, a soldier who has a working wife contributes to the Medicare levy and so does she. All of the complaints over several years have not so far been able to get that matter fixed. That is one more thing that should not happen to the men who defend us. I am glad to see in the White Paper that the Government has pledged that the basic entitlements of the Defence Force retirement and death benefits will not be reduced. There is a commitment to ensure that improvements in superannuation benefits will be passed on. But let us not forget that only last year the Government ripped 2 per cent off the benefits of the servicemen and the veterans-and that is after they have to pay 5 per cent of their salary compulsorily into a scheme which only gives them a pension just a little bit better-only fractionally better-than the old age pension. So the Government has a long way to go on superannuation benefits for servicemen before that condition of service ceases to be yet another cause for concern amongst the defence personnel. It is a most unsatisfactory scheme in my view.

In the area of housing, of course, last week the Government at last announced that it would set up the defence housing authority. Of course, the Government first announced this measure back in January 1986. It has taken a devil of a time to see the light of day. I only hope that it will fulfil the promise which so many hope for from it. We have 22,941 defence houses in Australia and, of those, 60 per cent are considered by the Department to be substandard. If that were not bad enough, the Government has just announced that rents for service houses will be raised on 1 April-including all the substandard houses. They will be raised by 7.5 per cent, which is greater than the increase in the service wages. So I think the Government, which is both the employer and the landlord, has been very tough on our servicemen. The Government can talk about improving conditions of service all it likes but, when it continues to leave servicemen living in substandard accommodation and take money from them unfairly, I believe, in rent for that accommodation, servicemen will believe the Government only by its actions.

When the defence housing authority is established and running, I hope it will improve things for servicemen. But the average cost of building defence houses is so high. The estimated average cost of construction on defence land is $91,000. Items have appeared in the Army newspaper from servicemen asking: `How come a service house at Watsonia can cost something like $100,000?'. The writer asks: `Are we being ripped off?'. This money comes out of a defence vote and is debited to the Department of Defence. I believe that somewhere along the line the servicemen are being ripped off; they are not getting sufficient good quality houses, which they need. At the rate that the Government is putting money into housing, even with this new authority, it will be far too many years before we can really get any meaningful improvement in the number of houses. We will have to look, I think, at much more innovative ways of acquiring housing for the defence forces, and I think we should be encouraging private ownership by servicemen themselves. There are ways of assisting in this regard, and I am looking to see what the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt), for instance, intends to do with the defence service home loans scheme. I think he could make a meaningful contribution to defence housing if he were only prepared to be innovative enough with the scheme which he administers. I am looking very keenly to see what the input from private enterprise will be with the expressions of interest which should have been before him by now.

Let me very briefly refer to the reserves. I think this is an area where, once again, the Government should get credit for giving a much more meaningful role to the reserves. This is now only just beginning, but I think it is very important, if we are to raise the morale of the reserves, that they see that they have an active job to do and that, in the event of a war situation, they know what their responsibilities will be. It is of inestimable advantage for them, in the long training times in peace-time, to feel that they are doing a worthwhile job, even though it is often tedious and boring. In support of that same angle, I think that the legislation which has been brought down to allow for a limited call-out of the reserves in situations short of full scale war is long overdue, and I welcome that as well. But I still have to say that there has been no apparent commitment to increasing the level of training, and little attention has been given to making sure that the reserves are well equipped. There has been talk about tanks and artillery but, on a more basic level, what is happening about spares and equipment? We have to agree that the role is important, but the training time and the equipment are crucial. The Government does not really understand why it loses the reserves as fast as it advertises to get them. I point out to the Government that the role will take it some of the way, but in the area of training time and equipment the Government will have to do better.

There is not much time for me to refer to the industry section of the White Paper, which is a very important section. I do not think that we have gone the whole way yet in improving the situation with defence and private industry. But it is a start, and I would like to see even greater efficiency with our defence industries themselves. I am concerned that a four-page Press release has come from Senator Button-it was in my mail today-all about the involvement of private enterprise in defence industry; yet when I asked him a question last Friday about buying food grown and manufactured in Australia, he turned away my question with a nonsense answer. We are being exhorted as a nation to buy Australian and we are being expected to bring down imports so we can improve our balance of payments. The defence White Paper talks at length about such things, saying:

Wherever possible Australian firms will be prime contractors on major projects.

It says also:

Australian industry will be called upon to involve itself more intensively in the support, maintenance and development of Australia's Defence Force.

It is a bit of a mockery when we find that our farmers, who are going broke, will not necessarily provide the food and the Australian food industries will not necessarily process it, simply because the job might be done more cheaply in New Zealand. I hope that the Government will look at that matter seriously.

One item which does not appear anywhere in the White Paper is the question of mobilisation in a time of war. I realise that the subject of the war book is something about which the Defence Department does not choose to speak too publicly, but I am worried that there may not be an up to date list maintained, always up to date, about our capacities relating to our ports, airfields, roads, factories, fuel storages, et cetera. Neither in the Dibb report, I think, nor in the White Paper was this question canvassed even in the smallest detail. I worry that perhaps this aspect is not as up to date as it should be. It is extremely important that this aspect not be neglected.

I simply summarise by saying that I welcome so much of the White Paper, particularly because it allows for this sort of debate, both in the Parliament and in the community, but I have grave doubts about the financial assumptions on which it is based, and only time and the Budget will tell. But the fatal flaw, as far as I am concerned, is that the Minister is putting toys before the boys, and he will live to rue that day.