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Thursday, 2 May 1957

Mr BIRD (Batman) . - The changes in our defence policy that are being discussed to-night are of transcending importance to Australia, because the results of those changes could . involve the future existence of our sovereignty. I regret to say that the Government's approach to the whole defence question has been most peculiar. Last year, the Parliament was asked to approve the allocation of £190,000,000 for defence purposes for the present financial year. The Opposition was in doubt as to whether that money would be spent advantageously. We moved an amendment that expenditure be reduced by £1 as an instruction to the Government to reconsider the defence problem. Of course, our amendment was defeated. Then, the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) announced that the defence programme would be completely revised in the light of existing circumstances. That was a clear-cut and detached admission by the Prime Minister that Parliament had been asked to vote £190,000,000 for an out-moded and obsolete defence system. No other conclusion could be reached from his statement. In that statement he expressed his underlying dissatisfaction with the existing defence administration.

On 4th April, at long last, we heard the Prime Minister's revised ideas on defence. As one who has a great deal of love for his native land, I regret that the revised programme does not meet my requirements or, I should say, the requirements of the Labour party. The Prime Minister's statement is clouded with confusion and uncertainty. Large portions of it are vague generalities clouded with ambiguity. I regret also that some of the plans have already gone astray. The Government's plan in respect of the rifle has fallen before it has reached the first hurdle. The Prime Minister said -

In our consideration of the Army, we have, in accordance with the principles I have already described, decided to provide modern equipment standardized or compatible with that used by the U.S. . . . These plans include provision of the new F.N. rifle and its related ammunition and the U.S. 105 mm. field artillery equipment.

They were laudable sentiments, because the Government, among other things, wanted to standardize the rifle equipment. I have no quarrel with that concept at all; it is eminently satisfactory. However, in the Melbourne " Herald " to-day, the following statement appeared: -

.   . and a deadly new rifle. The U.S. Army announced to-day that it had adopted a new standard rifle, known as the T44.

It had rejected the Belgian FN rifle - adopted by Britain and Australia - in favour of a weapon developed at the Springfield, Massachusetts, Armory.

The Government's grandiose plans for standardizing with American equipment are no longer practical or feasible, because America has left us far behind. If this is to be a forerunner of the Government's policies in relation to co-operation . and standardization with America, this Parliament may expect some rude shocks in the very near future. We must not have the same untenable position arising in respect of the decision to standardize equipment in the Air Force. The position with the rifle shows that the Government did not make sufficient inquiries about the future intentions of the American Army in relation to the F.N. rifle. If it had, doubtless the United States Government would have made it clear that it was contemplating the introduction of the new T44 rifle. I do not know whether the F.N. rifle is better than the T44 rifle. It may not be a matter of the greatest importance, but the statement indicates that the Government's policy in relation to rifles has fallen by the wayside before it has reached the first hurdle.

The Labour party - the record speaks for itself - supports to the utmost the provision of adequate and modern equipment. In addition, we say that a comprehensive defence scheme would envisage a number of other important and vital factors. The Government, in statements made in this House and outside, must give leadership to the people on our defence programme. Any defence scheme must, of necessity, be innocuous if it does not give a positive and practical lead by the nation's leaders. Whilst there is room for honest difference of opinion between the Government and the Opposition - and between supporters of the Government - there must be no ambiguity about the direction in which Australia is headed when it prepares its programme for defence.

I should very much like to hear more specific details about the Government's intentions with respect to the future of the aircraft industry. When the Prime Minister referred in his speech to the Royal Australian Air Force, he was most vague in relation to what the aircraft industry is expected to do. He said - I suppose that this was included to show that he had some interest in the matter -

Production of the Jindivik, pilotless aircraft in Australia is continuing. Deliveries have already commenced against orders placed by Sweden, and inquiries have been received from other overseas countries.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting the factory of the Department of Aircraft Production at Fishermen's Bend. I saw the Jindivik in production, but the impression I formed was that the programme was almost finished. I should have thought that the Prime Minister's defence statement would have included some mention of the Government's intention with regard to its own very efficient aircraft production factory. It is true that, since the Prime Minister made his statement, we have heard an almost equally vague statement from the Minister for Defence Production (Mr. Beale) to the effect that Australia would re-equip with a supersonic jet fighter which would be made in Australia. When he was questioned in the House about what his statement meant and who would construct the aircraft, the Minister said that it would be constructed by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. We have heard nothing at all about the Department of Aircraft Production. We have a third aircraft factory in Australia, De Havilland Aircraft Proprietary Limited, which has not made as many aircraft as the Department of Aircraft Production or the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, but, nevertheless, has done a good job on the work given to it.

I indict the Government on its treatment of the aircraft industry during the last twelve months. Because of its lack of deci sion, this industry has suffered a grievous blow. Every one knew that, according to the plans, at a certain time the Canberra jet bomber and the Jindivik programmes would be completed by the Department of Aircraft Production and that the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation was in the last stages of constructing the Sabre jet fighters. But the Government, with its general policy of procrastination and dilly-dallying in these matters, did very little about them. All that was done was to engender in the minds of those employed in the aircraft industry a feeling of complete lack of confidence as far as the future was concerned. Unfortunately, the result was that there were a large number of dismissals brought about by the lack of confidence of employees in the future intentions of the Government, This Government, knowing that the aircraft production programme would be terminated early in 1957, should have made plans twelve or eighteen months ago for the aircraft industry to tool up for another project. I understand from newspaper reports and from discussions I have had from time to time with people in the Liberal party that there is some divergence of opinion in Government ranks on whether Australia can afford an aircraft industry. I hope that the Government will not take much notice of those people who have such little faith in Australian workmanship and achievements. There are far more important fac* tors to be considered than the actual cost of an aircraft, because the future of this country could depend upon Australia's capacity to produce an efficient frontline machine. If we are, for the purposes of economy, to decide that we cannot build such an aircraft because it can be built cheaper overseas, all I can say is that the effect upon Australia's destiny could be disastrous.

The position, of course, is that Australia has placed its defence emphasis on air power. This is our fundamental policy for future security. World War II. proved that Australia could make modern aircraft exceptionally well and at a reasonable price. It is all very well to cite the price of an individual aeroplane constructed in this country and make comparisons with the price of an individual aircraft constructed, say, in America or Great Britain. Certain cost factors that go into the computation of the price here and the prices in those countries are not comparable. In addition, the aircraft industries in those other two countries are heavily subsidized by the governments. Therefore, from that point of view there is not as much in the argument as some of the anti-Australian opponents of our local industry would have us believe. lt is true, of course, that we can buy aircraft cheaper overseas, but if that had been the policy in relation to the whole of our manufacturing industries we would not have a factory in this country. However, tariff protection has looked after us in that direction.

I should very much like tq know the Government's intention in regard to the production of the supersonic jet aircraft. Is it to be made only at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation factory? Are the two -factories of the Division of Aircraft Production at Fishermen's Bend and Avalon to be thrown to the wolves? Are we to be told in three or six months that because of lack of work we are to sell them for a mere song, possibly to private enterprise? Not even the most ardent supporter of private enterprise would say that those two splendid examples of public enterprise, or socialistic enterprise, have not proved eminently successful for the purpose for which they were created. I defy anybody, either inside or outside the House, to say that the workmanship and production of the Division of Aircraft Production factories have been in any way inferior to those of any privately owned aircraft construction company. I am not suggesting that the Government would say that, but if anybody has any ideas about saying it, he should think twice and inquire into the achievements of the aircraft factories in this country.

Is the Government to purchase a number of the supersonic jet fighters and then make some here, on licence from America? It may be that those are the Government's intentions, but it had similar intentions in regard to the F.N. rifle, and that idea has t>een exploded. I hope that the Government will not have the same experience with these aircraft. Or is it the intention of the Government to bring out the parts and then assemble them here? What are the Government's intentions? I submit for the consideration of the House that it is most essential that our aircraft factories should not be allowed to suffer any more wastage of skilled technical staff.

From the stand-point of spare parts, the local aircraft industry should be retained. Original air-frames and engines represent only a portion of the total requirements for keeping a military aircraft at peak efficiency. Air-frames are damaged and become worn. Engines require overhaul and repair, and new modifications have to be undertaken to maintain aircraft at their peak. The local industry is the only body capable of doing this essential work. Unfortunately, the heavy dismissals last year, which were brought about by the Government's complete inefficiency or lack of appreciation of the future requirements of the industry, have lowered the morale of the staff. Resignations of virtually irreplaceable staff have taken place and are still taking place, because the management does not know what is in store. When a man approaches the management of the Division of Aircraft Production factories and asks about the future prospects, the management cannot give him any information. Surely the Government could have looked at this matter some time ago.

I hope that nobody gets into his head that one can take an ordinary fitter, turner, sheetmetal worker, or other tradesman employed in ordinary engineering industry, put him into an aircraft factory, and make him an efficient worker in that factory io two or three weeks. That is not possible. In that particular work he has, in effect, to serve a new apprenticeship, and it takes at least nine or twelve months to produce an efficient aircraft industry worker, irrespective of his qualifications when entering the factory. Yet, because of the policy of the Government, which has shown a marked apathy, to say the very least, about the future of the industry, such lack of confidence has been brought about, first, by very heavy dismissals, and, secondly, by the complete reluctance of the Government to let the men in the industry knowits future intentions, that it will be impossible to collect again the staff which has been dispersed, because the men will not be caught a second time. They have sought other employment as a result of dismissal or apprehension of the future, because of the Government's complete indifference to them. They have gone to other jobs, looking for security for the future. If the Government does decide to build up the activi- ties of the Division of Aircraft Production - and I have never heard any suggestion of it from a responsible member of the Government - it will suffer a severe handicap because of the reluctance of former aircraft workers to go back into a factory, when in a year or two their employment might again be jeopardized by the Government's most peculiar approach to the whole aircraft industry.

I hope that the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, which has produced the Wirraway, Boomerang fighter, Mustang fighter, and more recently the Sabre jet, is given a complete assurance that there are years of work ahead for its employees, because it is an efficient industrial enterprise which has already proved its capacity to measure up to requirements. Our own Government enterprises, the Division of Aircraft Production factories, have produced the Beaufort fighter and bomber, the Lincoln bomber, and now the Canberra jet bomber and the Jindivik. It is a very efficient industry. What is its future?

I hope that during the debate we will hear something from the Government so that we may reassure the men who are employed in these undertakings. Every week they ring me and ask their chances of future employment. They receive offers of employment in some other branch of the engineering industry, and they ask whether they should accept the offers or stay with the Division of Aircraft Production. In the interests of the men, the industry, and the future of this country, the Government should make up its mind and tell the people just what it intends to do in relation to the aircraft industry.

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