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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 2018

Mr SHARP(5.58) —The Opposition supports the basis of the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill before the House this evening. But, of course, we do so with some reservations. I understand that the Leader of the National Party of Australia, our shadow Minister for Defence (Mr Sinclair), has foreshadowed some amendments that he will move at the Committee stage later this evening. It is pleasing to see legislation come forward from time to time that the Opposition can support.

It is also interesting to listen to members of the Government speak in great praise of their Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley). I have been listening to the debate this afternoon. Many members on the Government side have praised the Minister for Defence as being the best Minister for Defence that this country has ever seen. I remind honourable members on the other side of the House that many Ministers for Defence in their time have been praised as the best Minister for Defence that the country has ever seen. While this Minister has been very busily going around patting himself on the back for some of the things that he believes he has achieved, it is worth remembering that all of the things that the Minister has been saying in this House over the last few months will end up only as so much hot air unless he can carry those things out and do the things that he says he will do. All of that depends very much on his ability to pay for such things as those contained in the defence White Paper that was before the House only a few weeks ago. If he cannot pay for those things, I am afraid that the present Defence Minister will fall into the ranks of nobodies in the defence area because he will have created so much more hot air without achieving anything. It is worth while for members on the Government side of the House to recall that all this Minister has actually achieved is just hot air, and until he can deliver the goods he is prematurely patting himself on the back.

We have a number of things to be concerned about in the area of defence, and I am pleased we have the opportunity to debate them tonight. I am concerned about Australia's defence capabilities. I think it was about three years ago that the Chief of the Defence Force, General Sir Phillip Bennett, said in the Cross report that was tabled in the Parliament that Australia's defence forces could not cope with even a low level threat to our shores. The situation today has not changed. For that reason I believe that Government members patting themselves on the back about their defence initiatives is very premature. We are still incapable of properly dealing with a low level threat to our shores. There are a number of things we have not done.

Our forces are very thinly spread. They are ill prepared. We have not overcome our lack of intelligence and early warning surveillance capability. If there was any military activity on Australia's shores it would virtually tie up the entire capacity of the Royal Australian Air Force just to keep up the supply of stores and ammunition to our Army and Navy. That highlights the fact that if the Air Force were engaged in any activity at present, within four weeks it would most likely run out of ammunition. We just do not have sufficient stores available to keep up what anyone would expect to be a reasonable effort if there was ever a threat to our shores. Also, the ability of the Royal Australian Navy to survive, let alone operate effectively, in anything other than a very low level threat scenario without proper air cover is very much in doubt. Since the axing of the fixed wing component of the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has been very disturbed about its ability to defend itself properly at sea. I am afraid that without an aircraft carrier the Navy is very naked to air attack and does not have sufficient ability to carry out anti-submarine warfare techniques. We have not addressed that problem properly. They are the sorts of things the Government has to look at.

I am pleased to see that in the legislation before us tonight the importance of our reserve forces is properly recognised. I am very pleased that in the electorate of Gilmore there are a number of reserve units. In Cowra, Young and Nowra there are some very active reserve units. I was at the reserve unit in Cowra not so long ago with Robert Drew, who is in charge of it. I had an evening in the new mess which had been opened just that night and was able to present the unit, very proudly, with an Australian flag. I am pleased that these people are prepared to participate in our defence forces but I am disappointed-indeed, I think Australians should be alarmed-at the rundown in the personnel levels in our defence forces. We are losing record numbers of personnel from our forces. That should cause every one of us concern, not only from a financial point of view but also from a skill point of view. We are spending a lot of money on training, people are leaving our defence forces prematurely and that means that the investment that Australian taxpayers have made in the training of those individuals is not being taken to its full potential. We are getting people to a certain level of skill and they are then wandering off and using those skills outside our defence forces. We should be addressing that. To date, the Minister has not been able to come up with any satisfactory solution that will see the rundown on our defence forces' personnel levels stopped. Of course, our reserve units have had a severe rundown in their levels over the last few years. Admittedly, that rundown in the reserve forces has stopped and is now being made up, which is good to see.

Mr Tim Fischer —They had to pay tax on their pay.

Mr SHARP —The honourable member for Farrer is correct. One of the reasons why our reserve force numbers have run down is that this Government made a decision to tax the income that people in our reserve forces receive for their reserve activities, which was previously non-taxable. That is probably one of the principal reasons why the numbers in the reserve forces have dropped-a decision of this Government. Admittedly, the Government has recently reversed that decision. I am pleased to see that, but it also highlights the fact that the Government recognises that what it did previously was wrong. As a consequence, we are now having to turn--

Mr Fitzgibbon —What about this legislation?

Mr Tim Fischer —He voted for it originally.

Mr SHARP —I know; the honourable member for Hunter voted for that sort of legislation. He ought to be ashamed of himself because it was a disgraceful piece of legislation. Taxpayers are now having to fork out several million dollars in promotion to try to get people back into our reserve forces and our regular forces.

The defence White Paper that was introduced into the House recently dealt with elements of our reserve forces. There were some good aspects to it but I have some doubts about it. Firstly, I do not think the White Paper has given a sufficient allocation of training days to our reserve forces. Secondly, I do not think there is sufficient funding available to provide our reserve units with the proper resources they need to occupy adequately the people within them. While speaking of reserve forces, I think it is also appropriate to say that I am disappointed at the attitude of this Government in relation to school cadet units. I am fortunate in my electorate of Gilmore to have three very good cadet units-one in Young, one in Cowra, and another in Goulburn at St Patrick's College. They have all been struggling against the best efforts of this Government to close them down. They are operating as a result of strong support from the local community, Returned Services League branches, parents and individual schools in those districts. I am very pleased that those units are still operating, but I am very disappointed that the Government has not seen fit to assist by, properly, funding our cadet units. I believe these units provide a very worthwhile activity for school children in Australia. When I look at all the other youth activities that the Government is prepared to fund, I see that cadet units have a very great part to play in our overall youth activities. The Government really ought to be looking at increasing funding for the school cadets.

Call-out of the reserves is now to be permitted only in war time or in a proclaimed defence emergency. The amendment that the Leader of the National Party will be moving later tonight highlights the fact that there needs to be a provision within these amendments that allows for our defence reserve forces to be called out in a natural disaster. He will use the example of what happened in Cyclone Tracy. When we have a natural disaster such as that it is absolutely and utterly imperative to get all hands on deck. Anybody who can help, who has any skills, resources or training, should be able to be put to use immediately. Unfortunately, reading the legislation as it stands at the moment, it would appear that there is no facility for our reserve forces to be called out at the time of a natural disaster such as Cyclone Tracy. Our regular defence force are not able to get to certain parts of Australia immediately. Sometimes we have reserve units available on the spot that could act and possibly save lives and the loss of property. They have all sorts of resources such as communication equipment which could be used on the spot to help out. I hope that the Government will pick up this amendment and act upon it, because I think it is necessary.

A question I must ask the House is: What will happen if the Parliament rejects a proclamation? I believe that to ratify the call-out of our reserve forces we will require a proclamation from the Parliament. Will that be done retrospectively? What will happen if it is done retrospectively and the Parliament rejects it? There are issues which require clearing up. This is not clearly spelt out in the legislation. I hope the Government will address that aspect.

There are a number of reforms in this legislation. I would like to see a whole list of other reforms included in further legislation brought down by this Parliament as soon as possible. One of the reforms that I think is absolutely vital is in the area of defence force housing. I have a very large contingent of Defence Force personnel in my electorate of Gilmore based at HMAS Albatross. I am very concerned about Defence Force housing. I believe that some radical reforms are necessary. I would like to see the Government bring those reforms into the Parliament very shortly.

Mr Tim Fischer —An authority is not an automatic solution.

Mr SHARP —The honourable member for Farrer once again is correct. The creation of the Defence Housing Authority is nothing more than a window dressing exercise unless it can prove that it can actually achieve some goals. I am prepared to give it some time to prove its worth. However, I hope that people will not be fooled by the Government creating this Authority because until it does something it is nothing more than window dressing.

I am pleased that measures concerning long term enlistment have been brought into the House. I think they will do some good for the defence forces. They will substantially boost the quality of life of people in the defence forces and particularly of their families. They will give the flexibility which is very much needed in our defence forces and help to retain some of the skilled personnel in the forces. The measures will also offer some security of employment for people in our defence forces, a matter which is very much of concern to them. Having witnessed the rundown of personnel at HMAS Albatross over the last couple of years-about 1,000 personnel have been chopped out of that establishment-I can understand the tremendous concern experienced by people in our forces when they do not have security of employment.

The Defence Force retirement and death benefits provision in the legislation has raised a storm in my electorate and right across Australia over the last few months. The Returned Services League, the Regular Defence Force Welfare Association and individuals throughout my electorate have been lobbying me-and I know that other members of parliament had been lobbied very heavily-because of what they see as the horrifying act by the Government of taking 2 per cent off the pension benefits of retired defence personnel. These people believe that they justly deserve the full benefit and that the Government should not be able to reduce it. They believe that the contract of their employment has been broken, that there has been a breach of faith and that the 2 per cent ought to be returned to them as quickly as possible. I hope that the Government will address this matter when economic circumstances improve and that the 2 per cent reduction will be made up to our retired defence personnel. They believe that not only have they been cheated but also the money they contributed to the fund has not been properly distributed to them. This is also affecting morale, not only amongst retired defence personnel, but also amongst present active defence personnel. The measure will throw into doubt our ability in the future to get people who are prepared to serve our country and our defence forces.

Other aspects of this legislation are praiseworthy. For example, I am pleased to see that the Government is prepared to privatise a number of the defence facilities it currently owns. It is interesting that the Government is acting in this area because so often it criticises members of the Liberal and National parties for suggesting that any government-owned operation should be sold off. We witness the hypocritical situation of the Government now selling off a number of government-owned corporations and bodies. Yet it still tells us that this is something nasty we will do when we gained office. I have no complaints with the Government's decision to sell off certain Defence Force factories and other support facilities. I believe that it is a good idea and highlights the common sense of privatising all sorts of government owned bodies. It is a recognition of the fact that private enterprise can so often do much better than government facilities and factories.

I am pleased to offer support for this legislation tonight. I certainly will support the amendments which will be moved later in the Committee stage. Once again I remind Government members that they should stop patting themselves on the back and saying what a wonderful defence situation they have created for Australia. I do not think they have done so. I do not think their Defence Minister is the best Defence Minister Australia has ever had. The Government ought to be getting on with the job of improving our economy so that the things the Defence Minister has been talking about over the last few months have at least some hope of being put into action. If the Government does not get on with ensuring that the economy is in good shape, then all the White Paper and amendments will just be so much hot air.