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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 2044

Ms FATIN(10.06) —It pleases me very much to be able to contribute to this debate tonight. Under discussion is perhaps the most significant statement about the defence of Australia ever submitted to the scrutiny of the Australian people. A decade of debate about the defence requirements of this country has finally gelled into a coherent strategic plan. It is enormously significant that the comprehensive document tabled in this House for discussion has been put together under the guidance of my colleague from Western Australia, the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley). His capacity in the defence portfolio has long been recognised and acknowledged, and I am proud to reiterate praise for him here tonight.

I would like to open my remarks by noting the great significance of the defence White Paper for people in Western Australia. I was born and grew up in Western Australia, so I know how strongly Western Australians feel about having a substantial part of the Defence Force in their State. We are very isolated in anyone's terms, but we feel quite frighteningly remote when we perceive Australia's defence forces being concentrated on the eastern seaboard. This was the case for so many years during which all the requests and lobbying for an effective presence in Western Australia seemed to fall on deaf ears as far as Canberra was concerned. Under this Government things are changing. Western Australia has been given a major role to play in the defence of Australia.

The White Paper outlines a defence strategy based on the concept of `defence in depth'. This involves giving priority to meeting credible levels of threat in Australia's area of direct military interest. I want to stress that this does not mean that we are to become an aggressive or expansionist nation. Although there are both defensive and offensive aspects of the military capabilities detailed in the White Paper, the emphasis is on discouraging potential enemies from escalating attacks rather than the mounting of macho displays of military prowess. As I say, `defence in depth' gives priority to the ability of the Australian Defence Force to mount operations capable of defeating enemy forces in our area of direct military interest. Given this priority, the logic of basing significant operational forces in Western Australia in inescapable. One particular aspect of this new focus on the defence capabilities of Western Australia has very important ramifications for the people in the electorate of Brand.

Before I examine the implications of the development of HMAS Stirling, I want to look briefly at the White Paper's proposals for the north of Australia in general. The White Paper recognises that the strategy of `Defence in depth' requires military superiority across the land, air and sea in the north. This entails the use of airfields at both Learmonth and Derby in Western Australia, as well as Tindal in the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. It involves the construction of a network of up to three over the horizon radars in the north to maximise the effectiveness of our surveillance activity. An essential part of this new strategy is the development of a highly flexible mobile force across the whole of the north of Australia. With this in mind, the Government has started a detailed study on the possibility of relocating a brigade to the north. Should such a move take place, it would mean taking anything from 6,000 to 10,000 service personnel, dependants and support workers up to the north of this country. The new emphasis on the north also means a far more active role for the Reserve units currently stationed in the south.

Obviously, the impact of an operation of these dimensions on the families of the men and women involved is going to entail very careful scrutiny. However, before I talk about the Government's concerns in this area, I want to turn my attention to what for me and the people in my electorate is one of the most significant aspects of the new strategy for the defence of Australia. It has been one of the highlights of my time in this place to be able to take back to my elector- ate the news that the notion of a two ocean Navy is about to become a reality. Of course, it has been recognised for many years that there is a need for the Navy to operate from both the east and the west coasts. Up until now, however, historic, strategic and economic factors have kept the fleet fairly solidly anchored on the east coast.

Over the next 10 years this is to change drastically with the home porting of major fleet units at HMAS Stirling. This decision follows the recommendations of the fleet base relocation study conducted by the Department of Defence. The study reported that the development of HMAS Stirling for up to half the fleet would be a sensible planning objective to be achieved progressively. A few weeks ago, the Minister for Defence announced that the Federal Government would adopt this recommendation and move half the fleet to HMAS Stirling. The White Paper explains the rationale for the move in these terms:

It will enable the Navy to more readily develop expertise in areas in which it would need to operate in contingencies that could arise in shorter timescales. Ships operating in the strategically important areas of the north and north-west and supported from HMAS Stirling will gain a substantial increase in their effective operating time.

I probably do not need to describe to honourable members the pleasure with which news of the relocation has been greeted in Rockingham and neighbouring Kwinana. For the benefit of people who are not familiar with the region, we are talking about an area of Western Australia which has been badly hit by the slump affecting industrial centres. The work undertaken by the Rockingham Chamber of Commerce and the local government authorities of Rockingham and Kwinana has been very effective in attracting new light industries and tourism to the region. With the arrival of half the naval fleet, all these activities will receive a boost which, quite frankly, will be greater than many of us concerned with the local economy had ever dared to hope.

The relocation recommended by the fleet base study report and endorsed in the White Paper under discussion here tonight will see a total of $330m invested in the Rockingham area over the next 10 years. That is $33m each year, which is a massive commitment by any standards. The development that is going to take place in the Rockingham area is actually larger than any single mining venture in the north of Western Australia. We are talking about a boom which will bring the long sought after prosperity that the region so richly deserves. I think it is worth pointing out to honourable members that the news has not been welcomed by the Rockingham community solely on economic grounds.

The Navy already plays a significant role in Rockingham and there is widespread agreement that the Defence Force makes a good neighbour and a willing and effective participant in local affairs. Just one example that springs immediately to mind is the way the Navy participated in the `Bridging the Gap' employment project when it was first established a few years ago. Another point I think it is vital to make is that the Federal Government has taken the decision to move half the naval fleet to Western Australia at a time when the financial restraints on spending programs are extremely stringent.

The fact that the decision has been made now shows this Government's absolute commitment to making long term essential improvements to Australia's defence capability. It is a commitment which will hold firm as long as we remain in Government. It is a commitment which heralds a new era of defence strategy in that it recognises Australia's unique situation in the enormous strategic region to which we belong. It is a commitment which will be worked out during 10 years of progressive development towards self-reliance in the context of co-operation with our strategic allies.

Let me turn again to the development of HMAS Stirling. I have already referred to the fact that the project is on a larger scale than any of the State's mining ventures. The figures bear this out. The Minister for Defence has stated that up to 1,000 people could be directly engaged in construction. Even more significantly, some 3,000 extra Navy personnel, wives and dependants could be expected to generate an increase in demand for consumer goods and services of $50m annually.

Debate interrupted.