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Tuesday, 9 October 1956

Mr CREAN (Melbourne Ports) . - The honorable member for Chisholm (Mr. Kent Hughes) said this afternoon that the real question that we have to consider is not how much is spent, but how it is spent. The committee should be grateful to the Minister for the Army (Mr. Cramer) for explaining in some detail to-night how the £362,000,000 spent by his department in a period of six years has, in fact, been spent. The only criticism that I make is that the information was not supplied earlier. Information of that kind should be supplied to honorable members well in advance of the commencement of the debate. The suggestion has been made before, but I make it again now, that with the budget there should be presented a white paper explaining the Government's defence policy and indicating what there is to show for our expenditure on defence. Otherwise, we shall not know where we are going. Some people regard defence expenditure as a matter suitable for consideration only by experts, but, in the final analysis, it is a body of non-experts - that is, the members of this Parliament - which ratifies the expenditure of huge sums for the defence of this country. The Parliament will not be faithful to its trust if it votes huge sums for defence without having adequate information about the way in which the money will be expended.

The Parliament also should be given information to enable it to consider questions of the kind that were posed just now by the honorable member for Mackellar (Mr. Wentworth). They are questions which are facing, not only Australia, but all countries. Everybody views with abhorrence the prospect of atomic warfare. There does not appear to be any doubt that if a war were to occur, it would be an atomic war. That is why these questions must be handled with great care. It is easy enough to make fantastic statements, but there is no doubt that, if a war did occur, it would be terrible for the innocent and the defenceless. Warfare to-day is no longer just a military escapade; it is something that affects the lives of the ordinary people in the community. I suggest, therefore, that expenditure on defence is not a matter which concerns only experts. It may be that, in the long run, experts have to decide whether the Navy should concentrate its attention on, for example, submarine warfare or anti-aircraft defence, but I contend that technical defence questions should be considered more openly than they are in Australia. As we know, the United States of America is a great democracy. Recently, there was the spectacle in that country of a debate - almost an open debate - concerning the policies that should be adopted by the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.

I suggest that it might be to Australia's advantage to adopt such a healthy approach to this matter. What is the position in this country? In effect, the Government says to the three defence services: " Here is £200,000,000. Whack it up amongst yourselves, and try to get the best value for the money ". I am not saying that that is the Government's policy, but many people believe that more publicity should be given to these matters. I do not think that any security risk was involved in the statement that the Minister for the Army made tonight, about the relative strengths of the various branches of our armed forces, and the number of motor vehicles they employ. I recognize that the Minister for the Navy (Senator O'sullivan) is not a member of this place, but I think that it would be advantageous for a detailed statement on the

Navy to be presented with the Estimates in this chamber. That is the practice that is followed by the British Government, which presents a White Paper on defence to the Parliament. By this means, the views of the defence chiefs filter through finally to the Parliament, which makes the decisions.

I think that it will be conceded that the public press is an important forum of opinion. Both the Melbourne " Age " and the " Sydney Morning Herald " each makes available two columns for letters from correspondents, and letters are not restricted to 50 or 100 words as in some of the other newspapers. During the last month or so, I have read some quite interesting letters on defence in the various newspapers. Due to these press facilities, correspondents can expatiate at length, and occasionally letters on a particular subject continue to appear in a newspaper for several weeks. This is a valuable contribution to the moulding of public opinion. lt has been stated during the debate on the Estimates now before the committee that only during the last week or so has Labour criticized this Government's defence policy. Of course, that is not true. It will be recalled that, during the debate on the Estimates last year, a motion similar to the one now before the Chair - that is, that the Estimates bo reduced by £1 - was moved by the Opposition. Furthermore, the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) criticized the Government's defence policy in the policy speech that he delivered during the last general election campaign. On that occasion, the right honorable gentleman said -

There must be an overhaul of the problem of national defence. In Labour's view, the Federal Government cannot approach the problems from the scientific point of view or from a modern military outlook.

That is an aspect of the matter that was dealt with by the honorable member for Mackellar (Mr. Wentworth). Our leader continued -

We require selected air bases, better road and rail facilities, more effective naval docking and a continuous emphasis on the air weapon . . . What is required is a plan of preparedness and adherance to the plan.

In the electorate that I represent, there are, one one side of the River Yarra the Williamstown Naval Dockyard, and on the other, at Fishermen's Bend, two great air craft construction plants - the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Proprietary Limited, and an establishment of the Department of Aircraft Production. The employees of both the aircraft industry and the shipbuilding industry are confused about the future, because they have been told - particularly those of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Proprietary Limited - that no plans have been made for the future of those industries. It appears that, when the 30-odd Sabres now under construction are completed, there will remain only repair work to be done. That certainly will not bs sufficient to keep 3,500 men in employment. Similarly, the Williamstown Naval Dockyard has no plans for further work after three naval vessels that are now under construction are completed. I have discussed this matter with the managements and the workers of both establishments, and they have stated emphatically that shipbuilding and aircraft production programmes cannot be commenced overnight. Between the drawing board stage and the commencement of production. about eighteen months or two years may elapse.

This Government continues to take great credit to itself for what it has done, and is doing, in relation to defence, yet it has not given any definite instructions to the establishments that I have mentioned in connexion with future work. 1 point out that, at both these huge plants, there are many skilled men who like the work that they are performing. Most of them have completed their apprenticeship,' and many have graduated from technical schools and universities. A large number of these men, particularly those who are married and have families, are now on the lookout for jobs which offer greater security, because they are apprehensive about the future of the industries in which they are at present working. This could well be tragic as far as the future industrial development of Australia is concerned.

If it is not proposed to construct any more naval vessels at the Williamstown dockyard for the time being, the shipbuilding facilities there could be utilized for the construction of merchant ships. Why cannot some orders for merchant vessels be placed with that dockyard instead of being placed with overseas yards? I understand that overseas shipyards have received quite a number of orders for ships required by Australian companies. The placing of some shipbuilding orders with the naval dockyard would enable us to keep intact the highly skilled staff at present employed there. It has been said that there is a greater concentration, and a wider range, of skilled tradesmen employed at the naval dockyard and by the Commonwealth Aircraft Production Corporation Proprietary Limited than on any other construction work in the country. I understand that, at one time, nearly 5,000 technicians were employed by the corporation. However, this number has gradually dwindled; many technicians have drifted away from the aircraft production plant, and those who remain have a feeling of insecurity. The Government should be frank about the matter. lt is not sufficient for the Opposition merely to protest year after year about proposed allocations for defence purposes; we want to know what the Government expects ro get for the money. That was stated from this side of .the chamber at the commencement of this debate. Some information about the Army has been elicited, piece by piece, but we have not yet received very much information about the Navy, and very little about the Air Force. We have had no statement at all from the Government as to its overall defence policy and strategy. What kind of attack does it imagine that Australia should defend itself against? Is our equipment adequate for the circumstances of 1956? Many people, and members of Parliament in particular, are impressed when they hear of 50,000 or 100,000 servicemen, and so many thousand vehicles, but those things do not necessarily mean mobility. They are the bones of a defence force, as it were, without any spirit of life having been breathed into them. No spirit of life has been breathed into the defence policy of this Government. Its policy has been based simply on large numbers, and any one who criticizes the Government runs the risk of an accusation of being unpatriotic. To-day, the criticism comes not only from members of Parliament, but also from important bodies of opinion outside the Parliament. Some of the daily newspapers to-day carried leading articles on the future of Australia's aircraft industry. Last week, we saw many articles expressing discontent in connexion with the Government's defence policy.

It is easy enough at any time for the honorable member for Mackellar to suggest that the Prime Minister should be commended for his change of face in the matter of defence, but I think we are at least entitled to ask why it became apparent only last week that a change was desirable in Australia's defence strategy. We had been lulled for years into a feeling of security engendered by the thought that because we were spending so much money everything was all right. Now it appears that everything is not all right in Australia's defences, and we should remember that a defence policy, like any other long-range plan, must have a certain aspect of continuity. We should not change our strategy violently overnight. A change should be progressive. How the review from top to toe - to use the Prime Minister's own expression - will be conducted, remains to be seen. A review from top to toe implies that something is wrong with what has been done in the past.

The CHAIRMAN - Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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