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Thursday, 9 May 1957

Mr NELSON (Northern Territory) . - The honorable member for Bradfield (Mr. Turner) has complained somewhat bitterly of the fact that Labour, in the present debate, is attacking the Government's defence policy, and he also has complained that the Labour party has not put an alternative policy before the House. I remind the honorable member that this debate is primarily a debate on the defence policy of this Liberal party-Australian Country party Government, and that, as such, it is being attacked not only by honorable members on this side of the House but also by some supporters of the Government. Australia, of course, knows that it can rely on a Labour government, if and when required, to implement an effective defence policy, because Labour had such wide experience during World War II. If the occasion arose again, Labour would be able to do as it did in World War II.

I take part in this debate because I, in common with many other honorable members on both sides of the House, am very much concerned about where the defence policy of this Government has led us in the past, and also about where the proposed policy will lead us in the future. I have only to look about my own electorate, and to ponder what I see there, to have grave misgivings about the future and to feel that, as a result of the past defence policy of this Government, Australia is in a very precarious position indeed. The Government has no reason to be proud of its achievements in respect of defence. I venture to say that the defences of the northern part of Australia, along the northern coastline extending from Cairns on the Queensland side to Geraldton on the Western Australian side, have never been in a sorrier plight, despite the fact that we have had the experience of a war to guide us. If a war were to break out again, we should be faced with the same difficulties as faced us on the previous occasion. We are still relying on Singapore as the main pivot of our defence system. I ask honorable members to pause and think of what would happen to Singapore in a future war. I suggest that it would meet the fate that it met in World War II. It would be attacked and destroyed and the way would be open once again for an island-hopping enemy to proceed southwards to Australia. I take it we are all agreed that in the event of war the attack must come from somewhere to the north of us. We have no enemies to the south, the east or the west. So, we will have the same set of circumstances as before; the drive against us will be southward towards the main base of the Allies in this area, which will once again be Australia. .

I am mindful of the fact that nuclear or thermo-nuclear weapons will be used in a global war. I also realize that not all the nations of the world, especially the nations to the north of us, at present possess that type of weapon. It could be, therefore, that in a localized war which might take place to our north, north-east, or northwest, we would be drawn in against our will, and that that war would be carried on, at least for a time, with conventional weapons. So, in fact, we would have a similar set of conditions as prevailed in the last war. In actual fact, the position would be much the same as it was in the last war, because on that occasion the fall of Singapore laid us open to the enemy; and on the next occasion, of course, we could be denied, and most probably would be denied, bases by a neutral India and a neutral Ceylon. So, our position would really be worse in the next war than it was in the last war. The fall of Singapore would again leave the way wide open to a fresh attack which, of course, would be launched against Darwin and its installations. Such an attack would be easy for an enemy, because there is nothing much in the way of installations at Darwin to discourage it.

It is a sorry fact that, after a colossal defence expenditure exceeding £1,100,000,000,- there is not at present one installation of a permanent nature in the whole of our northern area. The only item of permanent construction there is an airport now being built. So, we have at present in Darwin, which is our main base in the north, and always has been, no air force. We might have 30, 40 or 50 air force personnel at Darwin, but I doubt if we have even that number. We have certainly an airfield construction squadron which is at present building a very fine strip suitable for use by the most modern fighters now under construction in the Western world. When that is finished it will be a great asset to the north, but there are no other such facilities about the place. Not only have we no air force there, but we have very little in the way of naval installations. We certainly have no army of any account up there.

The construction of the air strip I have mentioned is a very good thing, but it does not appear to be so good when we remember that it is the only airfield in the north at present and will be the only airfield there in the foreseeable future that can act as an alternative airfield to the airfield at Darwin. It is an axiom that every airfield must have an alternative airfield for use in case of emergency or for any other reason. A string of bombs across an airfield can render it absolutely useless, and in the north there is no alternative to take the place of the airstrip I have mentioned. We can no longer rely even on the airstrips laid down by the Army and the defence authorities during the last war. because they, too, have fallen into disrepair. Even if they had been maintained they would be quite unsuitable for the landing and handling of high speed modern fighters, transports and bombers. So, we see that in this respect the building of a single airstrip at Darwin will be of little use unless it be accompanied by the construction of alternative airfields on the coast around Darwin and in Queensland and Western Australia.

Apparently, the Government in its defence planning has abandoned the idea that the Navy will play any part in the next war. The naval establishment at Darwin is being reduced and eventually, I believe, it is the intention to withdraw the Navy altogether from Darwin. I believe the naval authorities will be handing back to the Civil Administration in the Northern'Territory areas along the foreshores of Darwin which they have contended, right up to the present, to be absolutely essential to the defence of Darwin and, therefore, to the defence of Australia.

We know, and have known for some time, that there are very few army personnel in Darwin. In fact the only army personnel at present in Darwin are a few men who are being used for caretaking purposes in and around barracks. We know also that the Government contends that it will have a mobile force capable of being rushed to those places at a moment's notice. But" I feel that it would be very difficult, and, indeed, virtually impossible under the conditions that prevail in the services to-day, to rush forces of any strength to any point in Australia at a moment's notice because we have not the requisite fighters, bombers and transports to do so. The result is that the main body would have to be moved by sea or by land, and that would take a long time.

The position in the north is so bad that the Government and its defence chiefs are not even maintaining the vital strategic roads laid down in the last war, which serve as the main lines of communication with the north. I refer to the north-south highway, the Stuart Highway, and the Barkly Highway from Queensland. We had the sorry spectacle only this year of having the north-south highway declared unfit for ordinary traffic, and the road was closed to transports for a period. As a result, traffic on the road was brought to a complete standstill. I do not know whether the Government intends to use that means of transport to move its mobile force; but if it does, bogged trucks will be strewn on the roads from Mount Isa to Darwin and from Alice Springs to Darwin. Those highways have not been maintained even at a strength that would permit normal peacetime traffic.

I suggest that the Government immediately accept the advice of the DirectorGeneral of Works, Mr. Loder, and spend" £2,500,000 to bring these highways up to a standard that would enable them to be used' for civil and defence purposes. While the Government is about it, it could extendthe road from the Northern Territory south to South Australia. We would then have a. complete highway for use in times of peaceor war as an alternative to the railway should a bottleneck occur on that railway line. In the past I have always viewed the defence policy of this Government as beingcompletely negative, and I have the sameattitude towards most of its future policy. I consider that the best contribution that any government can make to the defence of Australia is to encourage population. If the Government set aside portion of its defence expenditure, say to the extent of £10,000,000 a year, additional population could be established in the northern parts of Australia along the coastline, and that would do far more for the defence of Australia than the out-moded policy that hasbeen implemented in the past. Population and defence go hand in hand.

Every mile of road constructed and' every mile of railway built in the north will have an important effect in opening up nowunpopulated areas, and will be of immense value to defence as well. Goodness knows* it is time that railways were built to serve the north. In the event of attack, troops and equipment will have to be rushed to the north, irrespective of whether the war is waged with nuclear weapons or with conventional weapons. An urgent requirement for the defence of Australia is the completion of the north-south railway. The Government should push on also with the building of an inner defence railway, as has been advocated by defence chiefs, from Bourke, in New South Wales, through to Queensland, and perhaps on to Darwin. If such a railway were built, it would be a connee ting link with the main Australian centres of industry and population in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and would be invaluable for conveying troops quickly and efficiently to any spot in the north where they were needed. I conclude by asking the House to remember that a populated Australia - especially a populated northern Australia - will remove the temptation to land-hungry people to attempt to take possession of it.

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