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Wednesday, 28 November 1973
Page: 4013


Mr KELLY (Wakefield) - As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, I should like to make a few comments. The Minister for Works (Mr Les Johnson) mentioned that the Committee was critical of the fact that approval for documentation was sought before the hearing commenced in May. Evidently there was a great deal of urgency about it between earlier in the year and May. But since 14 May, when the Committee heard the reference, all urgency seems to have disappeared. We have the queer picture that the Government sought and obtained approval for prior documentation to proceed, yet now we find that the length of time during which the work is to be done is to be extended by 2 years. It is quite clear that there is a difference in the urgency as the Government now sees it.

It is probably related to what we understand to be the urgency that the Government sees for our defence requirements. The Government has said that there will not be any threat for 15 years. I guess that this explains the measured tread with which the Government is attacking the problem of refurbishing the Williamstown dockyard. It is quite clear from the programming for the destroyer refitting and rebuilding in particular that unless things are put in hand early there will be a very serious gap in our destroyer strength in a few years' time. The Navy spelt it out to the Committee with crystal clarity and said that there was an urgent need to proceed with the infrastructure - the dull business of building and refurbishing the docks - so that the vital requirement of having the destroyer strength ready to meet a future threat might be met. The timetable was exacting, so the Navy had to have permission for prior documentation. Then everything had to proceed in an orderly manner and with some urgency so that we could fulfil the need to refurbish the dockyard in order to have the destroyers ready to meet a threat.

But evidently things are different now. Perhaps there is not a threat now. This must be the motivation behind the Government's decision to adopt this more leisurely pace. I presume, therefore, that it springs from the Government's assessment - as spelt out by the Minister for Defence (Mr Barnard) - that there is no foreseeable threat for 10 to 15 years. I am not an authority on these matters, but I use again a quotation that has been used in this House before. Mr John Curtin said on 2 November 1938-I repeat the date, 1938- as reported at page 1095 of Hansard:

Defence expenditure must depend entirely upon the conditions which prevail in the world from time to time. Obviously that must be the position.

I do not think anybody would cavil at that. He continued:

I say that any increase of defence expenditure after the Munich Pact so far as Australia is concerned appears to me to be an utterly unjustifiable and hysterical piece of panic propaganda.

This is what I am concerned about. The Minister's assessment of the possible threat may be as wrong as Mr Curtin's was in 1938. Within a year we were at war. All I am expressing is my grave concern that the Government's leisurely approach to the refurbishing of the Williamstown dockyard inevitably places the destroyer strength in 10 or 15 years' time at grave risk.

Destroyers are queer things. As soon as they are put in the water they start to go bad; their skin starts to decay because it has to be very highly stressed. They are like racehorses: If they cannot go fast they are no good at all. For that reason their skin has to be highly stressed. They have to be combatant ships because that is what they are for. They ought to be in the water as soon as possible because their time span is limited. We know that it is limited. The Navy spelt out how limited it is. The Government said to the Public Works Committee: 'Let us hurry up and hear it. Let us obtain permission for prior documentation'. The Committee met that request. Now we have dropped back to a slow walk after being urged into a brisk gallop. I express my concern that this is another judgment that the Government is making on the basis of its opinion that there will be no threat for a long time. The Government may take some comfort from that opinion; I certainly do not.







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