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Thursday, 2 May 1957

Mr BARNARD (Bass) .- The only criticism offered by the Minister for Defence (Sir Philip McBride) of the speech made by the honorable member for Parkes (Mr. Haylen) was to the effect that the honorable member did not use the full time allotted to him. At least the honorable member for Parkes was able to place on record the viewpoint of the Opposition on this most important question, and he did so most admirably and in direct contrast to the dreary and uninteresting statement read by the Minister. T believe, Mr. Speaker, that it might be said with truth that the Labour party would not oppose, but rather would approve, specific measures placed before the Parliament which had a real bearing on the defence of Australia; but because we on this side of the House do not believe that the Government has, in the past, approached these matters in the way that they should have been approached, we have been bound consistently to oppose previous defence measures which this Government has introduced. Since it assumed office in 1949, the present Administration has regularly presented honorable members in this House with prepared statements dealing with Australia's defence potential. Almost as regularly, Opposition members have had to point out that the Government's thinking in terms of defence has been limited to the number of sailors, soldiers and airmen which it believes should and could be trained in this country during any given period, but has completely ignored the hopeless inadequacy of the equipment available to them, and has failed to understand the enormous impact that defence preparations must have upon the economy of the country. In effect, what has happened in the past is that the Government has said to the. Defence Department, each year, " Here is. a sum. of money approximately equivalent to one-fifth of pur national income. You spend it, because apart from some definite principles, we are not concerned with the details, except to state that if and when the war breaks out then we must be ready tq meet it at once ".

To substantiate what I have just said, 1 remind honorable members of a previous statement made in this House by the Prime Minister when he was speaking during a debate on defence. He said, " We must be ready to meet this contingency by the end of 1953 ". Therefore, year after year, enormous sums of money have been expended by the Defence Department in this same happy-go-lucky spirit, but at the end of 1956, the permanent head of the Defence Department publicly stated that Australia not ready for war in 1953. In point of fact, Australia was in no better position six years after the. date upon which the Prime Minister had made his dramatic announcement, despite the fact that millions of pounds of taxpayers' money had been expended by one defence department or another. To substantiate what I have just said in regard to the statement made by Sir Frederick Shedden, T refer the House to the twenty-ninth report of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts, which deals with the defence services and the Estimates.

In effect, that is what the head of the Defence Department said when being questioned before the Public Accounts Committee. In answer to questions, he informed the committee that Australia had not been ready for mobilization in 1953, and that that was still the case in 1956, which meant, in fact, that Australia was not ready for war in 1956, just as it was not read} for war in 1953. If ever there was a serious indictment of a government foi irresponsibility in these matters, I suggest that lt is the statement by Sir Frederick Shedden as head of the responsible department.

In examining the legislation before the House, I should like first of all to comment upon one or two salient facts that have emerged from the reasons given by the Prime Minister for the introduction of this legislation. The first one is the complete acceptance by this Government of the principles of the five-year defence plan inaugurated by the Labour party, a plan which was to operate from 1947 until 19.5.2. The plan provided for an expenditure, pf approximately £300,000,000, certainly the largest amount that had been made available by any administration during peace-time. Broadly, the plan was to provide for scientific research and to ensure that Australia kept abreast of the development in modern weapons as well as to provide for the establishment of a long-range guided weapons project as a joint undertaking with the United Kingdom. It should be said, to the credit of this Government, that it has during its period of office carried out the latter project; indeed, I believe it has enlarged it.

The principles of the plan laid down by the Labour party in 1 947 were not accepted by this Government when it took office in 1949. In reference to the plan, I should say that it provided, further, for a complete re-organization of the naval section to enable development of naval aviation, and to this end provision was made for the purchase of aircraft carriers as well as other units. But of far greater consequence was the proposal in regard to the Royal Australian Air Force. The plan was for an air force trained in the techniques of modern warfare and equipped with the latest jet aircraft and providing for both operational and citizen air force squadrons.

When the Liberal-Australian Country party Government assumed office in 1949 it immediately scrapped that plan, believing, no doubt, that if it introduced a system of compulsory military training as opposed to the pre-war principle of voluntary enlistment, there might be some people in this country who would applaud the fact that some thousands of young men were receiving a basic recruit training. The fact that there are at this moment 118,000 young men who have received a basic recruit training would possibly, from the Government's point of view, constitute a complete answer to our defence problems; but those who are prepared to look at this matter in its proper perspective must immediately assume that in a war of movement there .is no alternative to mobile forces equipped with the latest weapons. That is exactly what we have not got in this country to-day.

It may be appropriate to point out at this moment that this Government has yet to learn the very important lesson that when a country has acted upon that conception in peace-time it has inevitably suffered invasion, defeat, and, in many cases, annihilation during war-time. Not infrequently such governments have refused to face up to the important fact that ability to withstand attack is not measured in terms of the number of men they can place in the field, in the ships or the air, or for that matter the number of aircraft that can be maintained in the air. These things are intrinsically bound up with a country's economy, and my experience of these matters has been that in attending to the first, governments have inevitably neglected the second. Those countries were not prepared to give consideration to national development as well as industrial expansion. In short, they neglected their economy and the result has inevitably been defeat.

In 1950 when the National Service Bill was introduced into this Parliament the Labour party warned the Government that the plan was an extravagance which could prove disastrous financially as well as in other respects. In my opinion, that contention has since been borne out by the Government's decision to reduce the number of national service trainees from 37,000 to 12,000 a year. But, as a consequence of that 1950 legislation, millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been expended while the country remains in a state of complete unpreparedness.

Let me now examine the second of these salient facts to which I referred a few moments ago and which, according to the Prime Minister's statement, implies that Australia is now preparing against the possibility of war in South-East Asia by streamlining its forces to fit in with those of the United States of America. I suggest there is nothing extraordinary about that statement. Indeed, I believe that it would have the general approval of all Opposition members, because it is a practical approach in terms of general defence policy, provided that we do not in the meantime overlook the important fact, which has been emphasized so often by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt), that the basic and overriding principle in all these matters should be, and must be, the maintenance of peace. If it is a question merely of general defence policy, I say at once that it is a further example of the Government's facility in turning complete political somersaults. It is not so many years since, in times far more critical than those in which we live now, the present Prime Minister was levelling all manner of charges at a Labour administration for having, as he suggested, the temerity to invite assistance from the United States of America. I say unhesitatingly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it was just as well for Australia that the Labour Government took that course. Today, there is in progress a basic change from British to American standards. Apart from the several comments that I have already made, I do not suggest that the reasons for this change are anything but practical.

Let me turn once again to the question of national service training. The Minister for Defence said at the outset of his remarks that when the Scullin Labour Government took office it immediately scrapped the national service training scheme that had been in operation. I remind the Minister that that is what this Government is doing at the present time, with only this difference: In order to save face, it has refused to take the final plunge and abolish national service training completely. The Army intake is to be reduced to one-third of the former figure, and national service training for the Navy and the Air Force is to be terminated completely. This means that approximately one in five of the youths in the eighteen-year-old group will be called upon to undertake national service training, and these will be selected by ballot. Ballots may be popular and reasonably fair in certain circumstances, but I have no hesitation in saying that in other circumstances they can be both unfair and unpopular. In my opinion, the proposed system of balloting for the selection of national service trainees definitely belongs to the latter category. How can this or any other government reasonably suggest that a decision which could have a profound effect upon the lives of many young men should depend upon the result of a ballot? It is a fantastic proposal, and it reflects little credit on the Government that conceived it. But I suppose that the Government's decision in favour of it is understandable if one measures it by the standards of the sense of responsibility that this Government has shown in these matters in the past.

I.   turn now to details of the Prime Minister's statement, and particularly to the future commitments of the Royal Australian Air Force, which, as I have stated previously, is a branch of the armed services that should and could have received from the Government a great deal more attention than it has received in the past, particularly in view of its crucial importance. In a world war fought with nuclear weapons, we could meet a determined attack only by establishing and maintaining bases in areas of the world from which opposing forces could be expected to launch their attacks, and I have 'no hesitation in saying that, in present circumstances, we must regard ourselves as being extraordinarily vulnerable. Although I claim no expert knowledge in these matters I think that I am on safe ground when I say that there is no safeguard again nuclear weapons except interception before they reach their target and that, therefore, a substantial part of the forces available in Australia at the present time would be of little use in the event of a conflict.

During the past six years, we have spent more than £1,000,000,000 on defence. Although we have been able to provide many of our requirements, we are still not in a position to put into the field quickly either the armed forces or the equipment that we should need in a conflict, or to provide a civil defence corps adequate to meet any of the emegencies that could be expected. It is an unfortunate fact that although the Minister for Defence is prepared to talk in general terms of the serious consequences of a nuclear war, the Government has provided no more than a miserable sum of approximately £234,000 for civil defence purposes in this financial year out of an estimated budget expenditure of more than £1,000,000,000. Obviously, the Government believes that fear of the appalling damage which all countries must expect to suffer in a nuclear war has acted as a deterrent and reduced the likelihood of such a war. I say at once that the Government has gambled in a shocking way. and that its recklessness may have dire consequences for the people of Australia in the years that lie ahead. In the meantime, despite assurances to the contrary, the Government's approach to the reorganization of the Air Force remains, as it has been in the past, haphazard and sluggish, and, in many respects, reeks of plain inefficiency. Towards the end of 1956, it culminated in a reduction of the tempo of aircraft production, and the dismissal of hundreds of employees from the aircraft industry. The strength of the Air Force is largely concentrated in New South Wales, and, to a lesser extent, in Victoria, and the other States are neglected intolerably.

Mr Duthie - What- is the position in Tasmania?

Mr BARNARD - I remember asking the Minister for Air (Mr. Osborne) a question about it during the last session of the Parliament. I was informed that the strength of the Air Force in Tasmania was one officer and three other ranks. I repeat that our air forces are largely concentrated in New South Wales and Victoria, and that the other States are neglected intolerably.

I suggest that, despite the deficiencies of this defence statement, there is much in it that is in line with Labour's policy. Therefore, I hope that it will not be another document that is presented to the Parliament, debated, and promptly forgotten. Although there are deficiencies in it, it embodies some things that have been consistently advocated by Opposition members who have continually opposed the retention of outmoded and costly defence ideas such as the building up of a large but inadequately trained reserve army, the greater part of which could not possibly be used in any war now conceivable, with the expenditure of enormous sums of money each year on costly and wasteful administration. To emphasize that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, 1 should like to refer, once again, to the twenty-ninth report of the Public Accounts Committee, which deals with the Defence Services and the Estimates. The report states that Army maintenance expenditure for the financial year 1955-56 totalled £48,980,000, and that capital expenditure amounted to £12,466.000. This means that about 57 per cent, of the entire Army vote of £84,761,000 was absorbed in administrative costs. Other points mentioned in this report also support what I have said.

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