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Wednesday, 21 August 1991
Page: 239


Mr BEVIS(8.54 p.m.) —I am pleased to be able to contribute to this important debate on an important statement from the Minister for Defence (Senator Robert Ray) on our defence policy into the twenty-first century. The Defence Force structure review, which was announced earlier this year and which is embodied within the statement issued by the Minister, provides a very necessary and timely focus on Australia's defence needs in the next decade and beyond.

It should be seen in the context of a dramatically changing international arena with all the implications that holds for foreign affairs and for defence. It should also be seen in the context of domestic pressures to ensure value for money and increased productivity from all sectors of our economy. Economic constraints are as real in defence matters as they are everywhere else. As the Minister's statement noted, the central challenge before us is to organise our defence better so that we can obtain the maximum combat capability in the most efficient and affordable way.

The force structure review contains a number of welcome initiatives which will enhance our defence capabilities. The expansion of commercial and civilian workers undertaking support and maintenance work has the potential to be cost effective and will release defence personnel and resources for more important combat related duties. It is important in the implementation of that program that each case be assessed on its merits. There are clearly areas of activity within the defence forces-particularly in support and maintenance work-which could quite easily be handed over to non-defence personnel on a private, civilian contracted or employee basis. There are, though, a number of areas of maintenance and questions of supply which defence will need to look at closely in making these decisions to ensure that at no time is Australia's combat capacity diminished on those occasions when it is most needed.

In addition, the statement includes increased emphasis on basing forces in northern Australia. This decision recognises the realities of Australia's strategic interests. I think it also recognises and picks up on many of the lessons that have been learned through exercises such as K89. Decisions such as the relocation of the second cavalry regiment to Darwin, I am sure, have occurred at least in part from the lessons that have been learned from K89 and, given the huge geography of our nation, to deploy a larger portion of our defence forces in the north makes good sense.

Continued development and expansion of the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar system is an initiative which I support. As a member of the defence subcommittee of the joint Houses of the Parliament, I have had the opportunity of visiting that installation and seeing the operations first hand. There is no doubt that Australia's efforts in this field are at the cutting edge of world technology. We are, probably with only one or two other nations in the world, able to produce over-the-horizon radar systems that are combat effective. The work that has been done by those involved deserves praise and clearly has a number of beneficial outcomes for the nation.

The decision of the Government to construct six Collins class submarines to be based primarily in Western Australia with two deployed on the east coast will provide Australia with a capability at sea which is unmatched in our region. It will also assist the development of our two-oceans policy which, again, recognises not only the size of our country but also the fact that we are an island continent and need to recognise the importance of maintaining a naval presence in both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Those six Collins class submarines will enhance our naval capacity quite significantly.

All of these changes improve our defence ability in what I believe is a cost effective manner. The most significant changes, though, with immediate or short term effect relate to the Regular Army-particularly the changes which will impact upon 6th Brigade, which is based at Enoggera army barracks within my electorate of Brisbane. The 6th Brigade is currently an integrated regular reserve unit. Its combat units consist of the 6th and the 8/9 battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment and the 49th Battalion Royal Queensland Regiment, which is a reserve battalion. This brigade is to become the new ready reserve brigade of the Army. A good deal of the public debate and comment on the Defence Force structure review relates to ready reserves, and I wish to take some time to talk about that, not only because it affects my electorate directly, but also because it is of some significance to the defence of our nation.

Over the next four years all battalions within the 6th Brigade will be rearranged to become ready reserve units. The ready reserve concept is a worthwhile one which, if successful, will give us a comparatively well trained, full strength regiment consisting of 3,200 ready reserves and 800 regulars. It is pleasing to see that the restructured 6th Brigade will be at full strength. It is a fact that the brigade is not now at full strength and has not been for some time. That is a pity. It is a reality, though, in the context of the tight economic situation we face.

I have some concerns about the introduction of the ready reserve and I shall mention some of those in this debate. At the outset, I have some concern that next year we will find ourselves with 1,000 recruits keen to join the ready reserve and enlist for one year's full time training. All the surveys that have been done indicate that that is not going to be a problem, and very soon we will find out whether that is the case. I sincerely hope that there are more than enough recruits to implement the first-year operations of the ready reserve.

I also harbour some concerns about the effectiveness of training in subsequent years. The two-week block of training for ready reserves in their second and subsequent years will afford Army an opportunity to undertake worthwhile training in locations throughout Australia that are suitable for the purpose. However, the remainder of the training period in subsequent years will be of short duration. It has to be recognised that there are limitations and problems associated with training the ready reserve on two-or three-day blocks, which will be the case, I understand, for approximately half of their training in subsequent years. That matter is being addressed by the Army, and I think it will need some careful scrutiny by the Government.

I also have some reservations about the logistic matters associated with the change of 6th Brigade to a ready reserve. The simple question of where these people are going to be housed needs to be confronted, and I understand that matter is being looked at now. However, I believe that there is not space for 1,000 people at Enoggera from the start of next year, and the Government will clearly need to look at the changes that have to be made and the possible cost implications in ensuring that there is adequate housing for those involved.

My major concern in this area is the reduction of two regular battalions. The 6th Brigade has successfully integrated reserves and regulars into a very effective combat force. It seems possible and desirable to maintain one regular battalion as part of an integrated regular ready reserve brigade. After all, the ready reserve will have the benefit of one year's full time training, not required of current reserves.

I readily acknowledge the cost factor involved in changing a ready reserve battalion to a regular battalion. New equipment has to be paid for, and that is a significant cost which Defence is having to meet. I have referred already to some of the major cost items, particularly in the Navy. There are also some acquisitions in the Army, in particular the purchase of the wheeled armoured fighting vehicle, which will greatly improve mobility. I understand that one of the early trials of that will be with 6th Brigade, and I welcome that. The acquisition of night vision equipment on a large scale is to be commended. One of the lessons that came out of the Middle East Gulf dispute earlier this year was the advanced night vision capability of the United Nations alliance forces. There is no doubt that the large scale distribution of modern night vision equipment will be of great assistance to our infantry battalions.

The reintroduction into service of between four and six Chinooks is welcome. I have made speeches on that point in the past, and I am pleased to see that the Government is continuing to look at ways in which those Chinooks can be reintroduced into service.

However, in the end it is not the equipment but the people who make the difference: how well trained they are and, in defence, how many of them there are. The Government needs to monitor closely the introduction of the ready reserve and to adjust its implementation in the light of developments. There is some irony in the replacement of the two regular battalions in the 6th Brigade. This year 6 Battalion of the 6th Brigade has been recognised for having some of the most outstanding skills and abilities in the Army. It has recently won the overall Duke of Gloucester award, the night operations award and the award for the most outstanding section commander. This is the first time that all three awards have been won by the same battalion. Given the resources and opportunity, it would clearly be desirable to keep this successful combination together. The Minister is correct, though, when he says:

It is easy to draw up lists of what can be done to improve our defence capacity, if there were no resource limits. More demanding is the task of deciding what we can do less of, or to find better ways of doing things so that we can release resources for new projects and activities.

I acknowledge that problem and the costs involved in the suggestions I have made about the need to maintain some greater regular battalion presence in the 6th Brigade.

With the Defence budget maintained in real terms and with strong pressures on other parts of the Budget, I concede the difficulties facing the Government in this matter. However, defence of our nation and its citizens is one of our fundamental responsibilities as an Australian Parliament. New technology is making defence procurement more expensive. I believe we are fast approaching the point where our total expenditure on defence as a nation will need to be revised.

I suspect that my sentiments in seeking some additional funding in this area will be echoed by those opposite. I ask them in their contributions to consider the question of the total Budget outlays and to reconcile what I anticipate will be their call for increased defence expenditure with their often stated view that total government outlays should be reduced. Later in this session we will no doubt hear from prominent members of the Opposition in response to the Budget, when they will be calling for cuts in government expenditure. Last year they proposed a $3 billion cut in Budget expenditure. I put it to those opposite that, when they argue for increased defence expenditure, they might at the same time inform the House how they will reconcile that with their requirement to cut total government outlays. They might enlighten the House as to the specific areas they wish to cut in order to fund not only the overall outlays reduction but the increase in defence expenditure.

I commend the Government and the Minister for their efforts to rationalise the Australian defence forces, their training and support facilities. The savings made in this process can be applied to other areas of greater need. Similarly, I think it is time for us to look beyond our own shores at the opportunity to rationalise our defence in association with other countries, particularly New Zealand, where there is scope for us to look at rationalising our total defence operations in some association with the New Zealand Government.

Finally, I commend the Minister and the Government for acknowledging in this statement the need to strengthen international arms control measures. There are many lessons we hope to learn from the Gulf war; foremost amongst those must be that arms sales and worldwide arms production must not be allowed to continue. I am pleased that the Government has acknowledged that in this speech. The future in defence, as elsewhere, will be about efficiency and effectiveness. I believe this statement is a positive move in both directions.