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Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Page: 7393

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (16:26): Another wacky, off-the-wall, largely irrelevant contribution from the Greens. I do not quite know what Senator Ludlam was saying in all of that but I do know that the Greens have fairly consistently said that they do not support a well-resourced Defence Force. They would cut Defence very sharply, so as far as this debate is concerned they fall very much on the side of the government even though they have taken a little trouble today to pretend that they have a difference of view with them.

What we have today is a government with, effectively, no policy on defence. The government came to office talking the talk about wanting to have a strong Defence Force. The then Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, brought forward in 2009 an ambitious scheme for resourcing and building a strong Defence Force with a very impressive shopping list of kit for the Defence Force over the next 20 years, leading to a new, refreshed, re-equipped Defence Force in 2030. We can argue about whether or not it was a good vision, but it was at least a vision.

The problem with this vision was that, almost from the first day it hit the deck, it began to crumble. It began to disappear. Bits and pieces were pulled out here and there until, eventually, in this year's budget the government took the 2009 white paper quietly out the back and shot it. It is not around anymore. It is gone. It is dead in the water. This white paper was hard to believe to begin with and became positively incredible by the time it was put to sleep.

So we have now a situation where the government has systematically withdrawn the resources from the Defence Force—and particularly Defence acquisition—which would have been necessary to build either the 2009 white paper that Mr Rudd postulated or, indeed, any other kind of credible Australian Defence Force for the challenges of the 21st century. It is impossible to imagine that what this government is doing is anything other than treating the Defence budget as a gigantic cash cow to raid at will as it finds itself running seriously short of cash and needing to find some way of supporting the increasingly improbable, razor-thin budget surplus of 2012-13. And it is not just me who has said that; it is every expert in this area. Every person who is a serious commentator on the defence scene in this country and beyond who has bothered to comment on this has made very much the same kind of conclusion. There is nothing to support this government's plan.

Senator Crossin's rather thinly disguised ignorance in this area demonstrated how bad the government is at engaging with this question. She talked about how the government has notched up $100 billion in spending on defence, but that is over four years. It is an easy claim to make over four years. The reality is that the defence spending in the budget is not going up. It is going down, and amalgamating the figures over four years does not alter that fact.

Senator Crossin talked about the extra spending in the portfolio and she talked about $700 million being spent on the Collins replacement project. There is not a person in Australia who has even the slightest interest in Collins and our submarine capability who does not know that that $700 million is about papering over the reality that the government does not have a plan to build a new submarine. It needed to have made the decision two or three years ago on the new submarine. It cannot make that decision. It is stymied. It is paralysed by fear. It is a rabbit caught in the headlights on the question of the submarine and, as a result, is commissioning more interim studies to bide the time until somebody else takes the reins, preferably a party of a different persuasion, and makes the big decision for them. Nothing is happening with this, and pretending that there is somehow a commitment to spending in the defence sector is just laughable.

I have said that this is an absolutely deplorable situation but what do other people think about this? Professor Alan Dupont, from the University of New South Wales, has made devastating comments about the way in which the defence budget has been handled and about the decline in defence spending. Peter Cosgrove, a former Defence chief, said:

I do worry that we are developing some gaps in our defence structure that will be very tough to claw back later on. I may not be as pessimistic as (others), but I would applaud the day when we can restore a high level of funding for defence.

Peter Cosgrove is a very credible figure in this landscape. Peter Leahy, a former Chief of Army and now professor at the University of Canberra, said:

The 2009 white paper is dead on the floor, butchered by the withdrawal of funds. There's no way they can deliver it. On current funding levels, there will need to be dramatic changes.

Mark Thomson, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said:

… in the last budget there were savings methods across the decade of $2.9bn in increased efficiencies, and efficiency dividend of $400 million, and that brings us to $12bn.

He is referring to the so-called savings there. He said further:

You have to look back to the draw-down from Korea in 1953 to see anything like this.

Hugh White, who has already been quoted in this debate, said:

WE SHOULD thank Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan. Their budget cuts have destroyed the defence policy of the 2009 white paper, and that is a good thing because it was a bad policy.

He went on to say:

We pretend to be a middle power and we say we're a middle power but we have the defence capability of a small power.

That is a very disturbing comment for him to make, because it reflects what most people think, that under this government we have seen a draw-down capability.

Senator Feeney: So is Hugh White's strategic vision one you are signing up to?

Senator HUMPHRIES: You will get your turn in a minute, Senator Feeney. For the Minister for Foreign Affairs to say in the Senate last week that 'there will be no adverse impact on operations—they are all fully funded' is ridiculous. It is like saying: 'We're sending the Australian Olympic team to London. When they're there they'll have all the resources that they need but when they get back to Australia there will be no money for training. There will be no money for recruiting and there will be no money for the things that drive our level of excellence in sport.' It is preposterous to suggest that we can make the kinds of cuts, $25 billion worth of cuts, in the defence budget that this government is making and pretend that they do not affect frontline operations of the Australian Defence Force. Of course they do and only, with respect, fools would maintain that somehow these cuts are not affecting the frontline of Australia's defence, particularly in operations like Afghanistan. We have the midyear economic statement to come in which we can expect more of the same. You need more money, you have to make big cuts to get your mythical surplus back into some kind of pretend reality and there will be more cuts to come in this budget. It is an absolutely deplorable situation. The men and women in uniform know that as well. Senator Bishop, I challenge you to cite a single authority that has endorsed your approach to the defence cuts in this budget.