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Tuesday, 29 November 1938

Mr STREET (Corangamite) (Minister for Defence) . - The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Curtin) has moved an amendment that the amount allocated for defence he reduced by £1, and, as his reason for so doing, has stated that this committee has not had an opportunity to examine in detail whether or not the amount provided is reasonable, and whether or not the situation is such as to justify what is a colossal expenditure on defence. The honorable gentleman will realize that, attached to the Defence Department, are financial officers of a very high standard of training whose duty it is to scrutinize every single item of proposed expenditure that comes before them. There are also tender boards which scrutinize every contract that comes before them. In fact, every item brought before the committee on these Estimates to-day has been scrutinized most carefully by officers within the department, by Treasury officers, and, to the degree to which I am capable, by myself.

Mr Brennan - By the Public Service but not by Parliament!

Mr STREET - It is no pleasant task to ask Parliament to vote nearly £17,000,000, and one does not do so without a full realization of what it means, or without a full realization of the fact that it would be an iniquitous request to make if the Government did not believe that the adequate defence of Australia warranted the expenditure of that sum. The Leader of the Opposition has said that he and his party stand for the adequate defence of Australia. Of course, it is very difficult to define what that phrase " adequate defence " really means. The Government also stands for the adequate defence of Australia. It has consulted with its technical advisers both here and abroad, and as has been stated by the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons), by my predecessor (Mr. Thorby), and by myself, it is as the result of those consultations that the Government has presented its programme to Parliament involving an expenditure of about £44,000,000 over a period of three years. This has been done with a full realization of what is involved. I ask the Leader of the Opposition to believe that this year's provision of nearly £17,000,000 has not been fixed because of some war hysteria, which it may he alleged exists, but is a sum which the Government and its advisers believe is necessary to enable Australia adequately to defend itself. Accordingly, Parliament is asked to vote that sum. I do not quite see how we could function if we had to take each individual item and allow some committee to say whether or not that item was justified, because in that case we should merely be doing again what has already been done. But I can assure the honorable gentleman that each particular item in the Defence Estimates has been scrutinized most carefully. The various arms of the services have not put up their requests for what they, consider necessary without going very carefully indeed into the justification for each amount. I know the honorable gentleman will say that there has been profiteering in the past, and broadly speaking it is, perhaps, true that there will be profiteering in the future; but it is the aim of this Government to watch things as closely as possible in order to ensure that there shall be no profiteering. In respect of the people who are offering their services in whatever direction their abilities may be useful, the Government, only recently, decided to utilize the services of accountancy societies in connexion with the supply of munitions and materials of war in order to ensure that costing might be fully investigated. That has been done so as to prevent any possible chance of profiteering, which I abhor just as much as does the Leader of the Opposition.

I repeat that the Government presents this defence programme in the very full realization of what it means. The Estimates, which set out in fairly close detail what the various services require, have been in the hands of honorable members for some considerable time. It is difficult, of course, to develop a joint-staff mind; it is difficult to say whether any branch of the service should receive priority over another branch. There will always be difficulty even among experts in that respect, but I believe that these Estimates have been viewed, as far as it is possible to do so, from the aspect of a joint-staff mind in order that a correct balance between the various branches might be maintained, and in order also to achieve the only objective which they seek to attain, namely, that we should have adequate defence. That is what the Leader of the Opposition wants, and that is what the Government wants.

In moving his amendment the Leader of the Opposition said that it would be immaterial if this sum were reduced by £1. That is true, but, of course, he realizes that, the import of his amendment goes further than that. Furthermore, he said it was not possible to tell, without a great deal of dissection and some guesswork, what proportion of this expenditure was being incurred overseas and what proportion was being spent in Australia. I assure the honorable gentleman that the greatest proportion which it is possible to expend in Australia will be expended in this country over the three-year-period. The nearest figure I can supply at the moment is that 72 per cent, of the total expenditure involved will be expended in Australia over that period. Nobody likes to send orders out of this country if they can be fulfilled in Australia. However, if we find that initial orders must be placed overseas then we shall do so in order that we shall make our position secure in the shortest possible time. I could continue at length in this strain. Both the Prime Minister and my predecessor have repeatedly outlined the defence requirements of this country, and the Estimates now before the committee are the means of putting the Government's policy into operation. I' agree that the amount which will b'e expended is enormous. I shall in the near future take the opportunity myself to state again in full the policy of the Government on defence, although honorable members on both sides of the committee must now know it.

Mr Curtin - Will the Minister say whether in that statement he will be obliged to ask for a further appropriation?

Mr STREET - When I make my statement I shall make evident what I intend to ask for. The honorable gentleman will then be able to pass judgment on what I say. I cannot accept the amendment moved by the honorable gentleman. I feel that the committee has had ample opportunity to examine these Estimates in the several months in which it has had them before it.

Mr Brennan - What? Here is a document of 36 pages and we have just received it.

Mr STREET - I believe that it would be in the interests of honorable members generally if that statement were circulated early, and, if at some future date, I am in a position to make an early circulation of a similar document, I shall do so. I admit that it is difficult, impossible really, for honorable gentleman to assimilate the explanatory statement in an hour or so, but, if they have carefully studied the items in the Estimates, they can relate those items in their minds to the statement, and clear up some of the points that interest them. I repeat that I cannot accept the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition. I do not understand his purpose in moving it, because I believe that this committee has bad the opportunity to examine the Estimates in detail. They have been checked as carefully as possible and I do not believe that there is any wasteful expenditure. Every penny that it is possible to expend in Australia is being expended here.

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