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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 2021

Mr FITZGIBBON(6.15) —I came into the House tonight to speak on the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill. Instead, I found myself listening to a debate which ranged right across the spectrum of Defence Force matters. We have moved from Defence Force housing-the subject of legislation to come before the House shortly-to privatisation. Both of these matters are totally irrelevant to the debate. The honourable member for Gilmore (Mr Sharp), who is now departing the chamber, said that following the White Paper the Government delivered recently the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) and Government members should not be patting themselves on the back. I assure the honourable member for Gilmore that it is not necessary for the Minister or Government members to pat themselves on the back because the Press has done that for us.

The White Paper tabled recently by the Minister for Defence is one of the most significant statements of strategic realities every produced in this country, said one newspaper. As a guide towards the achievement of Australia's independent national defence objectives the document is perhaps the clearest indication yet that Australia would defend itself against any military challenge. That it was received with general approval by interests such as the Australian Defence Association, the Returned Services League and other trenchant critics of defence policies indicates that it was cast in the right mould. Even the Federal Opposition-some members of which are more sincere and genuine than others-though faced with a parliamentary duty of probing for weaknesses, has paid the Minister for Defence full compliments, and so should every Australian. The Defence Minister presented a study which could have grave implications for the future well-being of Australian children and their children. It is a good, sensible White Paper. It pays proper regard to financial constraints. The nation can have confidence not only in the paper but also in the Minister and this Government.

Tonight we have heard much criticism from the Opposition of Defence Force conditions. I guess that those criticisms are fair enough. However, the Opposition should be aware of one fact. We know of the conditions. We know of the deficiencies. That is why this Government commissioned the Hamilton Review of Effect of Service Life on Spouses, why it has formed a spouses consultative group and the Government Defence Force action group. We have had numerous discussions with Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Copley, the President of the Armed Forces Federation of Australia. We know all about the problems and the deficiencies. It is important for everyone to recognise that these deficiencies and problems did not suddenly spring up overnight. As everyone here would be prepared to admit, I am sure, they are of long standing.

When I visited homes in my electorate occupied by Royal Australian Air Force personnel from Williamtown and when I see some of the shabby conditions which exist on the base at Singleton I am appalled. But these problems have not eventuated overnight-and not just in the last four years. It is obvious that there have been years of neglect and the problem goes back a long time. Blame can be laid at the feet of Opposition members. When they had the opportunity in government to do something about it they showed a total neglect. They had no concern at all for defence personnel. The honour- able member for Gilmore comes in here and says: `Reforms are needed'. But let me ask the honourable member for Gilmore, although he has left the chamber, whether he is aware that reforms cost money. I am sure that he is. Why were reforms not carried out and why were there not improvements of great magnitude in Defence Force housing when the present Opposition was in government-in the good times? The good times are when it is possible to carry out major reforms and improvements in conditions. In the good times when we were getting $3 billion per annum from our exports of crude oil from Bass Strait, when the world was crying out for our agricultural products, when our coal and iron ore was reaping in great monetary benefits from overseas, nothing was done. Now, when this nation faces the greatest problem it has faced since World War II, when we have lost up to $9,000m worth of income from the export of our commodities, and at a time when there is a need for belt tightening, those rabbits opposite say that we should be doing all the things in the bad times that they did not care a hoot about doing in the good times. How ridiculous that is. I suppose the honourable member for Gilmore would say: `What we should do immediately is spend $1 billion on improving the housing conditions of Defence Force personnel'. Would that not be wonderful? Instead of having a $16 billion credibility gap, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) would have a $17 billion credibility gap. What nonsense has been spoken in the House tonight.

I do not have very long to speak before the suspension of the sitting for dinner, but I have exposed those matters and the hypocrisy of the honourable members opposite, and I have the knowledge that in future months I will have regular visits to my electorate by the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer), because he is free from family obligations, and so on. He will be able to trip the light fantastic and come down to my electorate. I would welcome him, as I welcomed the Leader of the Opposition when he visited my electorate recently.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in support of the very significant Defence Legislation Amendment Bill. Honourable members opposite, in their desire I guess to try to bring a great deal of criticism on the Government, have not dealt at length with various aspects of the Bill. I am very pleased that the Opposition supports the Bill. It is like everything else. Members of the Opposition criticise everything that we do but, when it comes to the crunch, they eventually come around and support our legislation because, when it comes to offering sensible, logical, alternative legislation, they do not have a thing going for them.

Mr Hodgman —Have a look at the amendment to section 50f. Have you seen it? It has been circulated.

Mr FITZGIBBON —It is always a delight to welcome the honourable member for Denison into the House when I am speaking. As outlined in the second reading speech of the Minister for Defence, the Bill contains a variety of amendments, some of which are of a minor nature. But it also contains some very important amendments which fall into six groups-namely, provision for peacetime call-out of the Reserve forces; introduction of long term enlistments for sailors, soldiers and airmen; extension of the circumstances in which an accused member undergoing trial may have the option of being punished by a court martial or a Defence Force magistrate; amendments designed to clarify the operation of the defence force retirement and death benefits legislation; provision to enable transfer of employees from the Government Aircraft Factories to Aerospace Technologies of Australia; and termination of the Services Canteens Trust Fund.

Perhaps the most important amendment contained in the Bill, as other members have pointed out, to their credit, is that relating to the reserve forces. This Government recognises that Australians have a right to expect that their nation is able to defend itself, which is a daunting task given the vastness and harshness of our continent, the length of our coastline, the size of our fishing and resource zones, the distance from the mainland of our off-shore territories, the great expanses of water that surround us and the disproportionately small size of our population.

The obligation for Australia to provide for its own defence is spelled out in Article II of the ANZUS Treaty. American expectations in this regard have been stressed by United States administrations since the late 1960s. The Government considers that basic self-reliance is the minimum that any self-respecting country should contribute to an alliance. In keeping with this notion of self-reliance the Government sees a much larger and expanded role for our Reserve forces.

With regard to the Army, as stated in the policy information paper on the defence of Australia, the Government has decided-for the first time in peacetime-to strengthen our northern defences by basing major elements of the Australian Army permanently in northern Australia. That is quite a sensible suggestion, provided-as this Government intends-that a significant Army presence is left in the Singleton area of my electorate. But our requirements for land warfare cannot be achieved without extensive Reserve participation. Since World War II the Reserve has provided the expansion base for the Army. It will now, in addition, be required to contribute to operations which might arise in the shorter term as part of the total Army, at a level commensurate with achievable degrees of training and readiness. The Opposition should always listen when we use terms such as `achievable', because this Government is doing everything possible-gaining all possible achievements-in the light of our straitened economic circumstances.

A major role for the Reserve is the protection of vital assets in the north or north-west of Australia. The future holds very challenging prospects for the Army Reserve, which will give its members an abiding sense of purpose. I believe that every reservist in this country will welcome the fact that he is making a positive contribution to this country's Services. The identification of exciting and challenging new roles for the Army Reserve will help overcome in a most material way what has been a repeated and well-publicised difficulty in recruitment.

Existing legislation provides for Reserve forces to be called out, but only in circumstances of time of war, or proclaimed defence emergency. But this legislation will allow for the Reserve forces to be called upon to render continuous full time service in situations short of a defence emergency. The reserves will also be a major part of our capability to counter the more credible yet demanding lower level threat.

As to what constitutes a lower level threat, we need look no further than at the threat to Australian trade by attempted interdiction of shipping on our trade routes and in proximate ocean areas. Australia's overseas trade routes are diverse and, whilst their comprehensive interdiction would be credible only in the unlikely circumstances of protracted global conflict, disruption to Australia's trade could occur in a range of other circumstances and, in particular, in those contingencies assessed as being credible in the shorter term.

Important Australian trade passes through choke points in the archipelago to our north and these passages could be denied to us even during lower levels of conflict. The disruption to our shipping routes would have a serious affect on industries such as oil and petroleum, mineral ores, fertilisers and chemicals, coal, iron and steel. Some parts of Australia and some of our remote northern settlements are heavily dependent on supply by coastal shipping.

Having said all this, the Army Reserve will have a critical role in the early assumption of the protection of key areas, releasing Regular units to conduct more offensive operations. Such key areas would include protection of the Darwin-Tindal region and the Learmonth, Derby and Cape York airfields. Specific regional wartime tasks will be identified and allocated to particular Reserve units for their peacetime training. This will greatly facilitate their effective use in time of war and, as an important bonus, give them an increased sense of purpose which will foster morale.

For the Navy Reserve, as stated in the Minister's second reading speech, the Government has endorsed a significant role in mine countermeasures. For the Air Force Reserve, the Government will encourage commercial pilots to augment the Air Transport Force. Also there will be recruitment into the Air Force Reserve of the necessary maintenance personnel to provide sufficient backup should higher rates of flying be required from the RAAF.

It is almost time to suspend the sitting for dinner. Rather than consider many other aspects of the Bill, I believe that it would be more sensible for me to conclude on that note, thus saving me coming back for a minute or two after the dinner break. As I have said, the Bill contains some very important amendments, the most significant of which would allow a much wider and changing role for those 27,000 members of our Reserve forces. I pay tribute to the Minister for Defence for his realistic approach and in creating a more efficient defence strategy with clearly defined priorities. I commend the Bill to the House. I congratulate those members opposite who have genuinely paid tribute to the Minister for bringing the legislation before the House.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.