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Address to 2012 RSL National Conference, Sydney

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Address to 2012 RSL National Conference, Sydney

Posted on Tuesday, 25 September 2012

E&OE……………………….………………………………………………………………… ………………..

It’s an honour to address the Returned and Services League, the body that pre-eminently upholds the interests and the ethos of Australia’s military personnel.

It’s sometimes said that our nation was forged at Gallipoli. Certainly, Australians have since taken the courage, initiative and comradeship of the original Anzacs as representative of our country at its best.

In our national psyche, the 330,000 Australians who fought overseas in World War One, the 700,000 who served in Europe, the Middle East, South East Asia, the Pacific and Australia during World War Two and the 50,000 who served in Vietnam have become the best of us, nobly answering our country’s call.

Each generation has been proud of our soldiers, sailors and aircrew because they have been ready to put their lives on the line. They are brave, professional and selfless, often they suffer for our country; sometimes they suffer in silence. They uphold freedom, justice and human rights. We expect them to embody what’s best about our country and they don’t let us down.

As one who has never worn a soldier’s uniform, I salute those who have. I have not done what you have done. I have not been where you have been. That is to your credit, not mine. It leads me to respect you more, not less.

I am only too conscious of the fact that others pay the price of politicians’ decisions. That’s why we must be so meticulous to get them right and so determined to support those who have to execute them.

Just a few years ago, an RSL congress was a gathering of old men. The older veterans have now been joined by much younger personnel, male and female, from the East Timor, Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan deployments. Times change, but not Australians’ readiness to serve.

Even for a decent people, the world can be a dangerous place. That’s why the first duty of government is to protect its people.

Australia needs armed forces capable of defending our citizens, our interests and our values wherever they might come under attack. We always have and we always will until the lion lies down with the lamb and swords can finally be beaten into ploughshares. That’s a day we must hope for but can never expect to come.

Australia fights no wars of aggression, acquisition or conquest but we must be capable of resisting those that do. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Australian soldiers have fought for universal decencies against those who would impose a narrow conception of Islam on everyone.

Iraq is undeniably a fragile state but it is almost the only pluralist democracy in the Arab world. Afghanistan could easily revert to the dark ages once Australian and allied forces withdraw, but every day our soldiers stay means more girls going to school, more rights for women, and more awareness of the possibility of a better life.

History testifies to peoples’ struggles to impose their ways and their gods on others. At least in Western countries, it has finally dawned on us that the best way to avoid the war of all against all is to leave these choices to individuals.

Above all, it is a moral principle that our forces defend: that people should treat others as they would themselves be treated.

Still, at every military funeral, we politicians must ask ourselves: is it worth it? We owe it to the bereaved to pose the question. We also owe it to the bereaved to answer it honestly based upon our best judgment.

Ultimately, Afghanistan’s fate rests in Afghans’ hands, not ours. We have given them an undertaking, though, that we will train the fourth brigade of their army and that we will support the civil administration of Uruzgan province. Sometime by 2014, we will have done all that we reasonably can and the mentoring task force will be withdrawn.

We have also given them warning that we will never allow their country to be used as a base for terrorism against us. That’s why Australian and allied special forces are likely to remain in Afghanistan for some years to come. This would be a search and destroy force. Nation-building would be left to the Afghans, where it ultimately belongs.

The one message our enemies need to understand is that our determination to keep our people safe exceeds their determination to do us harm. We have to count the cost of staying but we also have to count the cost of going.

Thirty eight combat deaths is a high price to pay but it hasn’t been pointless if it helps to keep our country safe. I have spoken to hundreds of our soldiers and they seem convinced that the sacrifice is worth it.

Naturally, their loved ones are less sure about putting their sons and partners in harm’s way. Still, decision makers owe it to our soldiers to believe in our country as much as they do and to be as committed as they are to upholding Australia’s values and interests.

One of our most important values is free speech. Free speech can be awkward, challenging and sometimes offensive but it’s necessary for a free society. Australians should never be

apologetic about the principle of free speech even when strongly rejecting the way it’s been exercised.

Fighting the consequences of religious fundamentalism in Afghanistan can seem pointless if violent intolerance is not adequately dealt with back home. Ten days ago, hundreds of people gathered outside the US consulate in Sydney, many demanding death for everyone who dishonoured the prophet.

This notion that there is only one path to God, with death for all who disagree, is simply evil. It has spawned September 11, Bali, the London and Madrid bombings and the Mumbai massacre. It drives the suicide attacks in Iraq and elsewhere.

It’s probably the greatest threat to the world’s security because it admits of no compromise and here was a kindred spirit, aggressive and outspoken, on our own streets. The Sydney riot was so shocking because it seemed that Australia was not immune to lethal hatreds.

I salute the Muslim leaders who have stood up since the riot to deplore what happened. They have our country’s thanks.

As a people, Australians don’t reject any particular religion but we do reject extremism. We reluctantly accept people’s right to proclaim fundamentalism but we will never accept anyone’s right to practice it on our streets or in our neighbourhoods in ways which break the law or infringe the rights of others.

Newcomers to Australia don’t have to surrender their heritage but they do have to surrender their hatreds. People who aren’t prepared to live and let live should not come to this country. If they are already here, they need to understand that Australia won’t tolerate the intolerant.

We owe it to our armed forces in Afghanistan not to let the hatreds that they are fighting there disfigure our own country. The police and the courts need our support to punish those who threaten our safety at home just as much as the armed forces need our support to defeat those who threaten us abroad.

Today, I assure those most committed to our armed forces that a Coalition government will take our duty to them seriously. Don’t just listen to what I say. Look at what I did, and what my colleagues did, when we were in government.

In 1996, when total government spending was cut by about a percentage point of GDP, defence was quarantined on Prime Minister Howard’s insistence. Once the first East Timor expedition had revealed severe gaps in our military capability, the former government delivered three per cent real annual growth in defence spending.

As a percentage of GDP, defence spending rose from 1.74 per cent to 1.95 per cent between 2001 and 2009. Over the former Coalition government’s 11 budgets defence spending increased by 48 per cent in real terms. This contrasted with the previous eleven budgets, under Labor, which saw defence spending shrink by 2 per cent in real terms.

A big modernisation of the Australian Defence Force started following the release of the 2000 Defence White Paper. Labor had abolished two regular infantry battalions in 1991, hollowing out the Army to five undermanned battalions.

By contrast, the Coalition’s legacy was an army of seven regular infantry battalions and a regular commando battalion capable of four simultaneous commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Between 1996 and 2007, the armed forces’ ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio improved from 45 to 66 per cent, as resources moved from the back room to the front line.

Thanks to the last Coalition government, the armed forces acquired Abrams tanks, javelin missiles, Super Hornet fighters, armed reconnaissance helicopters, airborne early warning and control aircraft, new patrol boats and C-17 long-range jet transports. Three large Air Warfare Destroyers and two larger-than-the-ex-HMAS Melbourne helicopter carriers were ordered and paid for.

Our defence legacy was military forces capable of defending Australia, dealing with regional contingencies and involvement with our major allies in military operations elsewhere in the world. The best that can be said of the current government’s performance on defence it that it’s been more promise than delivery.

The current government’s 2009 White Paper committed to some $275 billion worth of acquisitions, including 12 new submarines, 8 frigates and 100 Joint Strike Fighters, to be funded by 3 per cent real growth in defence spending, all vital, it declared, to preserving Australia’s security.

In fact, defence spending has been cut by 10.5 per cent in the current year, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, as the government slashes defence to plug its budget black hole. This is the largest annual reduction since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

As a share of GDP, Australia’s defence spending will fall to 1.56 per cent, the lowest since 1938, with further falls to come. Despite having the world’s 13th largest economy, it seems that the government is determined to reduce Australia from a middle power to a small one.

In May, the government withdrew $1 billion from the Joint Strike Fighter programme. This month, it’s withdrawn $100 million from the Air Warfare Destroyer programme. In the budget, the government cancelled an order for self-propelled artillery to save $200 million in favour of more towed guns that will actually be more expensive over the next four years.

Thanks to cuts in maintenance budgets, not one of three heavy lift ships was available to help with disaster relief last year. There have been periods when not one of the six Collins class submarines has been fit to put to sea.

According to the Kokoda Foundation’s Dr Ross Babbage, the government’s stalled procurement programme and defence budget cuts have put Australia’s medium term security at risk because the capabilities that Australia would need in a major crisis, such as powerful submarines and stronger air strike capabilities, can’t quickly be obtained and have been pushed off into the distant future.

All governments say that they have no higher priority than national defence but only some take their pledges seriously.

I was a senior member of the last government that improved our defence capabilities and am determined that an incoming Coalition government will at least maintain them. We can’t be complacent about military forces that do less with less; or, even worse, unrealistically expect our armed forces to do more with less.

After all, Australia’s strategic environment is hardly benign. There are tensions in the South China Sea. Despite countries’ overwhelming mutual interest in avoiding serious conflict, it’s hard to imagine our region ever being free of the risk of war. Perfectly reasonably, other countries in our region are spending more on newer and more sophisticated defence hardware.

As a serious country, Australia needs the military capacity to deter threats from our region, to project force in our neighbourhood, and to operate with our allies in the wider world where we judge that’s in our national interest.

In the long run, a country’s military power is determined by its economic strength. Our overall task in government will be to build a stronger economy for a stronger Australia. That means lower taxes, not higher ones. It means reducing the overall size of government, not increasing it.

After the four biggest budget deficits in Australia’s history and no realistic prospect of Wayne Swan achieving a surplus this year without cooking the books, the Coalition is looking for savings in every area of government, including defence bureaucracy.

No Coalition government would ever make savings in defence that would compromise our national security interests or reduce the operational capabilities of our defence force.

Ultimately, a country will have the military capabilities that it’s prepared to pay for. Still, it’s what the spending delivers, rather than the spending itself which really counts. For the Coalition, the bottom line is that our military forces should always be at least as capable as they were when the Howard government left office.

Any savings that the Coalition can find in the defence bureaucracy will be reinvested in greater military capacity. Our aspiration, as the Commonwealth’s budgetary position improves, would be to restore the three per cent real growth in defence spending that marked the final seven years of the Howard government.

The priority for new spending would be to give our forces on operational deployment the weapons systems, reconnaissance platforms, combat uniforms, and fighting vehicles that they need for protection and effectiveness.

Within 18 months of an election, an incoming Coalition government would publish a new Defence White Paper with costed, affordable ways to meet Australia’s defence and national security objectives. The focus would not be so much on the numbers of ships, planes, military hardware and personnel but on what our armed forces should be able to do and how their operational capacity can better match the tasks they might be expected to perform.

Probably the most urgent big procurement decision is the replacement of the submarine fleet. Ideally, as with the Collins Class, work on the next generation of submarine will centre on the South Australian shipyards.

This is not a decision, though, that can be made from opposition. Within 18 months of an election, an incoming Coalition government would make the short and medium term decisions necessary to ensure that Australia has no submarine capability gap.

The other big procurement decision is the timing of our acquisition of the Joint Strike Fighter. Again, without detailed operational advice, this is not a decision that an opposition can make but we will make it within 18 months of a change of government.

One issue that the next Defence White Paper will consider is basing more of our military forces in northern Australia especially resource-rich areas with little or no current military presence. At the very least, we need the upgraded surveillance capability planned by the former government but cancelled by the current one.

A Coalition government would immediately start the process of acquiring a number of new state-of-the-art unmanned aircraft. Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, which in a day can undertake detailed surveillance of 40,000 square nautical miles, could help to protect the oil and gas projects on the North West Shelf as well as allow much earlier detection of illegal boat arrivals.

Another emerging aspect of national security is the need to guard against cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure.

This capacity to make timely procurement decisions is vital for Australian industry as well as for our national security.

In its first three years, the current government let only $8 billion in defence contracts, compared to $25 billion in the former government’s final three years. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, in the last financial year the government made just 25 of the 65 acquisitions decisions that had been planned.

Especially in defence, the Australian government should have a clear preference to buy Australian. Instead, under the current government, Australian defence industry has shed more than 10 per cent of its workforce because of official procrastination and a tendency to commission foreign suppliers over proven Australian ones. In government, the Coalition would restore a ten year Defence Capability Plan to give more certainty to local industry.

Not only should defence savings should never come at the expense of the operational capacity of our armed forces, they should not come at the expense of defence personnel either. A “fair go” is the least a grateful nation can offer to serving and former military personnel.

Reports of tension between the government and defence department secretary Duncan Lewis were hardly a shock given the operational cutbacks the government is now imposing.

For instance, there’s been a 10 per cent plus cut from the Reserve Forces’ salary allocation. These cuts in duty time affect the Reserves’ efficiency and will mean fewer qualified personnel able to deploy on operations including disaster relief. While cutting the operational budget, the government has increased the number of civilian defence department deputy secretaries from nine to 17!

The government’s decision to cut recreation leave travel for single ADF personnel over 20 was so mean spirited that it was over-turned in the parliament under Coalition pressure.

An incoming Coalition government would finally offer a measure of justice to ex-service personnel by properly indexing defence pensions and would deliver this in our first budget.

If it’s inadequate just to lift Centrelink pensions by the Consumer Price Index, it’s even less fair to apply solely that index to those who have risked their lives for our country. Loyalty goes both ways. The very least we can do is pay ex-servicemen and women a retirement benefit that increases in line with the increases of ordinary pensioners.

Not only has the current government failed to honour its pre-election commitment to a fair deal for defence pensioners. It has recruited its parliamentary allies to vote down Coalition proposals that would hold them to their promise. It’s now abundantly clear that the only way to give a fair go to veterans is to change the government.

It’s very important to learn from history; never to ignore it and never to gloss over it. If we don’t remember, we don’t understand; and if we don’t understand, we can’t learn. That’s why acts and institutions of national commemoration are important. They keep historical events before the public.

In 1995, for instance, in my own electorate, the Warringah Australia Remembers Trust built the Defence of Sydney monument at North Fort to commemorate the night in 1942 when war came to our largest city. Every year, on the Friday closest to the 31st of May, a service there reminds people of this often-forgotten chapter of our history and of need to be prepared.

The previous Coalition government invested more than $70 million into the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to promote awareness of our history and understanding of our traditions. When the current government threatened the Memorial’s funding, the Coalition shamed it into reversing planned cuts.

This is an especially important year for commemorations. The 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Darwin prompted the Member for Solomon, Natasha Griggs, successfully to propose a parliamentary resolution to establish an annual Bombing of Darwin Day.

Other important anniversaries this year include the start of Australian involvement in Royal Air Force Bomber Command.

The Coalition enthusiastically supports the commemoration of the Centenary of Anzac between 2014 and 2018. We look forward to working with the RSL and others to ensure that as many Australians as possible have the opportunity to participate.

Few of us quite appreciate the critical role of the Australian army in defeating the last great German attack of World War One. It is probably the closest Australia has yet been to a pivotal moment in world history.

One hugely beneficial outcome of these centenary commemorations would be the establishment of a War Memorial-like museum or interpretive centre to complement the existing shrine at Villers-Bretonneux and to explain the work and significance of the First

Australian Imperial Force.

After all, there are differences between nations. These will sometimes be arbitrated by force. And Australians cannot realistically stand aloof from the troubles of the world.

In peace and in war, Australians have been tested and rarely found wanting. We must never forget those who have worn our country’s uniform and must strive to conduct ourselves in ways which honour them.