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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 2030

Mr BEAZLEY (Minister for Defence)(8.37) —in reply-I thank all honourable members who have participated in the debate. I want to thank particularly-apart from the people on our own side-the previous speaker, the honourable member for Hinkler (Mr Conquest). Of all those who participated in the debate from the other side it seems to me that he is the only one who has actually comprehended what the White Paper means for reserves, has identified the problems associated with it and has put forward a series of suggestions as to what the organisational problems are going to be. In most of the suggestions that he has put forward he is quite correct. I do not think I could fault his speech or any of the warnings that he put forward in regard to what we need to do with the reserves and what the dimensions of the problem are going to be. They are substantial. I thank him as the one member on his side of the House who actually said something to me that I might learn from.

I thank the speakers on our side of the House for their defence of what is a very important initiative put forward by this Government. When it comes to confronting defence issues Opposition members seem to have completely disaggregated minds. What I have said about the previous Opposition speaker does not go for his immediate predecessor, the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Connolly). I tried to tot up the positions as he ran through them. If he was suggesting that we should fill out those brigade headquarters with brigades and keep them at war scales on a permanent basis, which is what he seemed to be arguing for, the Opposition has just added about 50,000 men to its list of promises. In the current financial climate, it would be some achievement for a government to secure an additional 50,000 regulars or reserves for the armed Services, and it would be rightly accused of wasting money. That speech completely missed the point about what the reserves are involved in. The reserves are shifting their roles from an expansion base where we anticipated that the attention of the Army should be devoted to the capacity to expand rapidly to some 250,000 to 300,000 men to the circumstances in which the priority of the Government is the capacity of the Army to respond immediately to the most likely threat. This raises the sorts of problems that the honourable member for Hinkler spoke about, not the sorts of problems that the honourable member for Bradfield spoke about.

The Opposition's support for what we are doing in this regard is welcome. It had repeated opportunities to do it when it was in government, but it would not confront the problem. This has been an obvious requirement for the reserves since 1964. Had this requirement for the reserves been brought into being in 1964 we might not have had the very debilitating debate we had in this country on the issue of selective conscription for a portion of an age bracket in the 1960s. We could have avoided that debate and given the reserves a role which at that time they certainly sought.

There has been a question in the mind of the honourable member for Bradfield as to whether this Government honours the reserves.

Mr White —How do you explain the great reduction of reserves during your regime?

Mr BEAZLEY —Let me tell the honourable member about the trends that have occurred in the reserves--

Mr White —Downwards.

Mr BEAZLEY —It is not.

Mr White —Downwards for four years.

Mr BEAZLEY —No longer, I am afraid to say, for the Opposition's political purposes.

Mr White —I am delighted to hear it. Don't lecture us about--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) -Order! The honourable member will cease interjecting.

Mr BEAZLEY —In 1981 we had a massive expansion of the reserves. The numbers went up to something like 33,000 in rapid order, but at the best of times only 15,000 were effective. It was a complete mess. Nobody worked out what the reserves were supposed to be doing, nobody gave them a purpose, except that they ought to be there. That was the theory; they simply ought to be there. That totally maniacal piece of planning, imposed upon the Department of Defence by the then Australian Government, has made planning for the reserves that much more difficult ever since.

The fact of the matter is that the difficulties we have experienced with the reserves have turned around. They have turned around for a variety of reasons, not least because this Government is providing the material evidence that we take the reserves seriously. We should not underestimate the significance of this measure, in terms of the reserves sense of self-regard. This measure will make the reservist a soldier. For a very long period there has been a question mark in the minds of members of the public as to whether that is the case. In some sections of the defence forces there has been a question mark as to whether that is the case. If it is not the case after this legislation is in force and the purposes to which we will put the reserves are implemented, it will be a very sorry country indeed, because we will be putting the reserves in the front line. If they cannot perform we will be in some considerable degree of trouble.

The point about this entire exercise comes to the second of the reasons why the reserves are beginning to understand that they are honoured and appreciated by the Australian Government and the Australian public. It relates to the purposes to which they will be put. Some of them have expansion based roles and increasingly the reserves are moving into the areas, such as the tanks, which are clearly expansion based components of our armed forces. Those sorts of functions will be important for the reserves to perform, but in addition to that they will be providing other vital functions.

One of the interesting features of the Dibb report on the Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities is that when Paul Dibb was set to do his work, there was a general assumption among defence commentators that if we were looking for savings, there was a material possibility that the standing Army could be reduced by a considerable amount and also that the reserves could be reduced by a considerable amount. Paul Dibb defined what was meant by `a low level threat'. It had never been defined, in a planning sense, for any government for 40 or 50 years. It had never been comprehended. When he saw what a low level threat would mean-some of the things that a low level threat would mean were mentioned by the honourable member for Hinkler-Dibb said to me: `You don't have a requirement for 30,000 effective soldiers; you cannot cut them to 22,000 or whatever; you need about 60,000. There is only one way you are going to get that and that is if the reserves have real, material roles'. Being presented with that was a considerable lesson to the Government. There is no other way that this country can be effectively defended, unless we rely to a very substantial degree on the reserves.

We can step back from the Army, because that is not the only service in which reserves serve. We also have reserves in the Navy and the Air Force. The Air Force has done a very effective job of integrating the reserves into its day to day activities. In many ways, the reserves there have a well settled position. In the case of the Navy, one of the giant holes in the Australian defence capability is largely going to be filled by reserves as the years go by. That is in our mine countermeasures program. That is the most sensible way to threaten this country, if someone wanted to start off a low level escalation of a conflict.

Until we started to introduce some of the measures we have been introducing, that was one of our areas of greatest vulnerability. It is not possible within an affordable Budget to produce a situation in which all our ports are protected by a substantial number of purpose designed naval vessels served by regular naval personnel. We can all sit down and say that there may be a need to do that, and I would agree that there is a need to do that, but it cannot be done. The finances are not there to do it. The people who will have to do it with ships of opportunity will be those in the naval reserve. In another service, there is a front line function performed by the reserve.

Mr Young —A very good point.

Mr BEAZLEY —I am glad to see the Leader of the House in here; it is always nice when he puts in an appearance. I will divert slightly from the legislation, because there was a very broad ranging abuse of the Government's defence policies, particularly of our alleged treatment of service personnel. Let us go through exactly what this Government has done since it has been in office. The Opposition operates, with one or two honourable exceptions, with a completely disaggregated mind in public policy. We have a presentation from the Opposition about the need for massive cuts until, as one National Party member from Queensland put it on one occasion, the pigs squeal or the pips squeak. With hairy-chested breast beating, it was claimed that this was necessary in order to be able to achieve the sorts of tax cuts we wanted.

When Opposition members talk in a defence debate they always present the Government with a billion dollar wish list and tell us to get on with it. That is point scoring of a particularly dishonest variety, because they know that when they get into office they will not break the habit of a lifetime and spend money on defence. They will conform to the normal performance and not spend it, but they will be different from us. They will arrive without a plan. They will mess up the plans we have and they will wander around waving flags and achieving nothing except the material weakening of this country. When Opposition members talked, as they did, about what we have done for the defence forces and abused the Government for its alleged treatment of defence personnel, that needs to be borne in mind.

In the last decade and a half only one party has introduced a wage freeze on the armed services-one party; no other. It was the party on the other side of the House that did it. Indeed, a reference that was supposed to go to the committee of reference for the determination of wages to take place, was not put before that committee, even though there were recommendations about that, until the wage freeze was brought down and the Minister of the day said: `I hope at the end of this wage freeze we will have a bit of a look at what ought to be done'. The wage freeze was put on before anything was done about wages. We put in a Remuneration Tribunal provision so that Ministers could not do that in the future.

Members of the defence forces now have the same rights as any other member of the Australian community to have their case heard before a Remuneration Tribunal. They have no more rights to win their case than has any other member of the community, but they do have the right to put it before a tribunal, as has any other member of the Australian community.

That is a reform that we have introduced. I suppose that the fruits of it have been seen for the Services in the 5.9 per cent increase that they got when the rest of the Public Service got about one per cent and when the wage claims on similar sorts of anomalies never exceeded 2 per cent. Just the other day that tribunal doubled the submarine allowance. It also extended to the defence forces the $10 increase that the rest of the country got. The Services have got, via the wages policy of this Government, the same as the rest of the community, and something better. Of course, that does not mean that they will win their claims before the tribunal any more than any other member of the Australian work force will win claims before tribunals; but they will be there.

The question of defence housing has also featured in the criticisms made of this Government. Let me just say something about that. Only one party has placed a freeze on expenditure on defence housing-and for a three-year period-in the last decade and a half of our political history, and it has not been from this side of the House; it was from the other side of the House during the latter part of the 1970s and early 1980s. In the most desperate budgetary circumstances, we have substantially increased expenditure on defence housing in real terms-last year by 17 per cent. In implementing a program that we have devised of some $750m, that is a very significant step by a government in straitened circumstances. I wish that I had been Minister for Defence from 1975-1981. In a period when this country confronted no substantial balance of payments deficits, when there were substantial opportunities for sensibly placed expenditure to take place in the defence area, life would have been an awful lot easier than it is now.

The problem for me now, and for any Minister for Defence in any government, is how to meet one's priorities in circumstances in which one will not be given the money that one would like. Of course, the problem that that poses is one that every politician hates, that is, if he wants to give something, he has to take something else away. That has been the situation that has been imposed on us since we have been in government. It is the situation that will be imposed on anyone over the next decade who wants to look seriously at the defence needs of this country. The failing Ministers over that period will be those who decide that the easy course is to leave everything in the Defence Department and defence establishment as it stands and simply keep postponing the things that they ought to do so that nobody's vested interests are seriously offended. The problem will be how to confront the potential laziness in the character of the average politican who will wish to take the line of least resistance.

As we confront these problems over the years, we will be very substantially dependent upon what the reserves will do for us. As well as being potentially a very good soldier, in budgetary terms the Reserve member is also very cheap. Members of the Reserves are well motivated. They are as well motivated as anyone else in the community. They are often highly skilled. The challenge is to make expert use of that skill and that good motivation. I agree that that will require a lot more planning than simply is involved in 13 lines in the White Paper. In the policies that we will pursue that will be done.

One thing that we are not going to do is to massively increase the reserves. Having checked the slide of large numbers of reserves out of the reserve forces, I hope that we will create a situation in which many of the reserve units will experience long waiting lists. I regard that as highly desirable. To have long waiting lists to join the reserves is a highly desirable situation because it means that the training days that can affordably be assigned to them will be spent not on training in basic soldiering skills or skills in the other forces; but in training for our requirements for the sorts of tasks that we have been outlining in the White Paper and in this legislation.

I thank honourable members of the seriousness with which they have treated this issue in debate. I understand that we are to have a Committee stage, so that debate will probably proceed for another few minutes yet.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.