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Thursday, 4 October 1956

Sir PHILIP McBRIDE (WakefieldMinister for Defence) (Minister for Defence) . - I am sure, Mr. Chairman, that you and the people of Australia will be disappointed at the insincere approach of the members of the Australian Labour party - particularly the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward), who has just resumed his seat - to the very important subject of defence. I know that newspaper reports are not usually accurate, but it is worth noting that the reports of the newspapers on the consideration that was given to this matter by the Labour party suggest that the whole business was decided in five minutes and that, even during that short period, several members of the party were not present. If that is a fact - andI think the reports are confirmed by the remarks of the honorable member for East Sydney - it is obvious that the Opposition did not raise this matter in committee in order to promote the security and welfare of the people, but in the hope of gaining political advantage. lt appears that the Australian Labour party is reverting to type, because we know from experience over the years that if there is one thing in which the Labour party shows complete lack of interest, it is defence. I remind honorable members that when a Labour government was in office in 1931, it cut the vote for defence more than that of any other department. It reduced the defencevote to £3,400,000 - the lowest amount that has been devoted to defence since 1910-11. I also remind the committee that when there was a threat of war in Europe, and the government which succeeded the Scullin Government attempted to strengthen the defences of Australia, the Labour opposition opposed every increase in the defence vote. I also remind honorable members that, as late as 1938-39, when the vote for defence was increased to £14,400,000, Mr. John Curtin said that any extra expenditure, after Munich, was warmongering.

The Labour government came into office during World War II., When the programme and pattern of defence for Australia had been shaped by the Menzies Government. Members of the anti-Labour Opposition pressed for more active defence preparations, and the Prime Minister of the day, Mr. Curtin, gave a full account of the condition of Australia's defences, much to the consternation of many of his followers. He said that the defences were in a high state of preparedness. I challenge any honorable member on the Opposition side to state how the Labour government had changed the defence programme of the Menzies Government in any one particular. The Labour government, under Mr. Curtin, built on the foundations that had been shaped by the previous administration.

Now, the Australian Labour party is running true to type. As soon as World War II. was over, the one thing that the Labour government of the day was eager to do was to disperse all the equipment that had been made ready for the defence of Australia. Nobody could say that we were in a state of peace and permanent security, but the Labour government began immediately to dispose of £100,000,000 worth of factories, annexes, machine tool plants and equipment. Equipment to the value of £100,000,000 was disposed of and now, because we have had, of necessity, to replace the things which were disposed of, honorable members opposite have the audacity to ask why this expenditure has been so large. I say quite definitely that one of the real reasons why it is so large is that we have been making good the deficiencies resulting from disposals by the Labour Government after the war. The Labour government also disposed of one of our bastions in the north, the Manus Island base. Do not let anybody ever forget that the Americans, who had spent about 500,000,000 dollars on this base and had offered to maintain it for our use in case of need were turfed out by the present Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt). All of these assets were disposed of in various ways and, while I do not claim for one moment that we have nearly restored the base to its former standard, we have spent some millions of pounds in making a usable base in that area. Although some members of the Opposition were in government during time of war, apparently they have either learned nothing or they are deliberately attempting to conceal the achievements of the Government in the process of building up our defence forces.

It is perfectly true that in 1951, when the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) returned from overseas, having made an appreciation of the general European position, he said that we had to endeavour to prepare for war by 1953. It is perfectly obvious that if we were to be prepared for war to the extent of being completely ready for mobilization at that time, we would have had to clamp down all the controls, all the restrictions that applied in time of war, but obviously no country, not even the United Kingdom or the United States of America, in time of peace would impose those burdens upon its people. A nation has to make an assessment of its needs in respect of defence and then of what the economy will sustain, because, after all, defence without in the background an economy to sustain it, would be a failure. Consequently, we stepped up defence expenditure from the relatively small amount that was made available by the Labour Government, until in 1951-52, in spite of the fact that we have heard two Opposition speakers state that we had never expended £200,000,000, we expended £215,000,000.

Mr Ward - We know that this Government is a record spending government, but what has it to show for its expenditure?

Sir PHILIP McBRIDE - I am pointing out the inaccuracies of the statements that have been made by speakers on the other side. The international position changed, and it was then evident that the threat of an immediate global war had disappeared. Consequently, we adjusted our programme to meet the conditions which existed then, conditions of cold war, or minor war such as the war in Korea, and we adopted a programme which we expected would be sustained in this country, at the same time as we were to expand production and increase the population. So it was decided that we would convert from the preparation for war by 1953 to a long-term programme, and the programme accepted at that time by the Government was for an expenditure of £200,000,000 per annum for three years. It is perfectly obvious to anybody who knows anything about defence programming and the building up of forces that once a programme is decided on it is most improbable that the whole of the allotment for the first year will be spent, because defence requirements and war materiel are no. bo i an off the shelf. In other words, when equipment is ordered there may be a delay of twelve months. 24 months, three years, or even more, before those orders are fulfilled. Thus, it was perfectly obvious that in the first year or two of the duration of that programme the amount allotted would not be expended. The Government, knowing this, decided to open an equipment trust account, so that certain moneys which were not expended but were obviously committed, because authorizations had been made and orders placed, could be placed in this trust account. Those are the conditions from which we gel the terrific criticism that at the end of the year the services are out to spend every penny that they can spend. Of course, the simple fact is - and those former Ministers who were in government during the war know it perfectly well - that the services are not given an open cheque to order unlimited quantities of anything.

Mr Pollard - They were not given an open cheque by us.

Sir PHILIP McBRIDE - They are not given an open cheque by any responsible government, least of all by this Government, because we have had better value for our money than ever a Labour government had. The services advance certain propositions, which are considered by the Cabinet. If they arc considered proper and necessary, authorizations are made. At that stage the authorizations are considered by the Board of Business Administration. I remind the committee that we have established such a board, which is not unknown to the Opposition, because during the war there was a similar bo-ird under the jurisdiction of the Labour government. The purpose of the board is to ensure as far as possible that we get value for our money. I will not be so foolish as to say that in the expenditure of £1.000,000,000 there has been no waste, but I am prepared to say that in my opinion Australia has got as good value for money spent on defence as has any democratic country. All this hubbub about trust accounts and unexpended money arises from the circumstances I have mentioned, which are perfectly legitimate and perfectly explicable.

Mr Ward - What about the great losses from military stores?

Sir PHILIP McBRIDE - The honorable member for East Sydney knows that when he was a member of the Labour government there were losses in stores.

Mr Ward - Not to the present extent.

Sir PHILIP McBRIDE - He has not found out the amount that was lost. Over £400,000,000 worth of equipment is in store. To suggest that out of stores of that value, dispersed as they are over the Commonwealth, no losses should occur is simply ludicrous.

Mr Ward - They are extraordinary losses.

Sir PHILIP McBRIDE - Nobody can seriously suggest that the losses that have been sustained are unusually large. The honorable member for East sydney referred to bungling in connexion with national service training. I hope, and I think, that few people in Australia share that opinion. I believe that national service training has been one of the greatest achievements of this Government. It has been a great thing from the point of view of training and discipline, and in addition, the scheme has provided us with a reservoir of men who are basically trained should a war o:cur. I am not going to say for a moment that, now that we have these large numbers of men who have had basic training - some are continuing their training with the Citizen Military Forces - we must continue on the same scale. That matter is being reviewed at the present time. But I do suggest that the introduction of national service training is one action of this Government which has the wholehearted support of the people of Australia, particularly those who have undertaken the training.

I do not know what the future development of our defence programme will be, but since weapons of war are changing all the time, we should be stupid to stand pat with the type of military equipment, units and training that prevailed during the last war. Changes have been gradual, but the time has arrived for a review. This is recognized not only by Australia, but also by the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada and, I believe, all the other democratic nations. I have no doubt that defence methods already have been reviewed by the Communist nations. To suggest, however, that because we may change our approach to defence, because " Hobart " is to be put in reserve, because :these things are happening-

Mr Pollard - The Minister admits that 4hey are happening.

Sir PHILIP McBRIDE - I affirm that the probability is that, as a result of the review that is taking place now, certain changes will be made, and I suspect that those changes will bring subsequent changes in their train. But to suggest that, because we have quantities of equipment of a certain kind for a particular purpose, everything -we have done has involved foolish expenditure, is simply ludicrous. Of course, this is the kind of thing that honorable members opposite revel in. They cannot find anything constructive to say, so they use hind sight and say, " Well, you made a mistake here ", or " You made a mistake there ". 1 assure the committee that the Government does not propose to make the mistake of standing flat-footed in this time of change, t also assure the committee and the people of Australia that when this review is completed and the decisions are made we shall go forward to order and obtain the things that are necessary for our defence services within the new defence structure. I regret having spoken for so long. I conclude by saying that I am disappointed by the lack of constructive criticism from the Opposition. I am disappointed, too, by the lack of sincerity in the comments of honorable members opposite which do neither credit to them nor service to the people of Australia.

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