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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1568


Mr WEBSTER(5.11 p.m.) —-Today I wish to make some general comments on the Defence appropriations. I believe that it will be of assistance to remind honourable members of some of the main objectives of our defence forces, as a number of other speakers have already. One of the prime objectives of our naval defence force is to provide a maritime force capable of conducting effective maritime operations in the pursuit of Australia's interests using regular and reserve forces, and expanding in a timely manner against warning of more substantial conflict. Likewise, our Army is to provide land forces capable of conducting effective land operations in the pursuit of Australia's security interests using both regular and reserve forces. Our air defence force is to provide an air force that is capable of effective strategic and tactical operations as an independent, joint and combined force, including support of maritime and land operations, again in the pursuit of Australia's defence and internal security.

With these objectives in mind, I was most interested to note a Government decision that appeared in Budget Paper No. 1, on page 3.28, which said:

The Government has decided to maximise combat capability by reducing the numbers of service personnel.

This comment was in relation to the force structure review recently outlined by the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel (Mr Bilney).

It never ceases to amaze me that the Government really believes that Australia's defence forces combat capability will be improved by reductions which include abolishing two Regular Army battalions, one regular tank squadron and one regular engineer construction squadron. Our peacetime Defence Force must be kept at a high level of readiness if we are to have a credible deterrent. Our forces who went off to the Gulf had a lot to learn, in many cases learning skills en route to the area of conflict. Equipment was fitted onto ships in a great rush and the technicians and operators of new equipment were fundamentally self-taught.

We should reflect on lessons from our previous wartime experiences and remember that one of these lessons has got to be the importance of maintaining a well-equipped and well-trained Defence Force so that we may rapidly deter any aggressor and so allow our country to remain at peace. With this in mind, it is again disappointing to note that spending in the 1991-92 Budget is estimated to be slightly less than 2.4 per cent of GDP, well below the 2.6 per cent widely acknowledged as the minimum necessary to maintain an effective force and representing, sadly, a zero increase on the 1990-91 figures.

Unfortunately, as time goes on this Government continually fails to give our nation's security the priority it deserves, in spite of considerable amounts of rhetoric. An Australia Defence Association article on the appropriations now before the Committee concluded by saying:

Despite popular assumptions that defence outlays are driven by economic imperatives, defence commitments are actually driven by the Governments political priorities.

Sadly, I believe the author's perception is not too far from the truth. On page 3.34 of Budget Paper No. 1, it is stated that in 1991-92 there will be a forecast reduction of 966 ADF permanent forces when it is estimated that only 698 will be recruited into the new Ready Reserve during this same period. This means that we will lose a significant number of highly trained and experienced personnel who will be replaced with a significantly smaller number of untrained, inexperienced ready reservists. According to Government calculations, we will be better off and maximising our combat capability. I notice that the Minister got quite upset today with a newspaper report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 October, which stated:

The Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Mr Bilney, confirmed after the launch that the Ready Reserve plan may not prove viable.

He said that, among other things along the same lines. The Minister came into the House today to repudiate, or minimise, those comments. Yet we saw, with all the expertise that the United States has with ready reservists and their long experience, that in some of the reports on the response of its ready reservists in the Middle East it was very concerned that the ready reservists were not as ready as it thought they would be for such a very important occasion.

Another area of concern is the apparent contradiction in Government rhetoric and Government practice. I am referring to the decision to make large cuts to the funding of the defence science area. For quite some time now we have heard the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) exhorting the nation to become `the clever country' and to use our intelligence to rise above our present situation. In a practical contradiction of this principle, funding for defence science has been cut by a massive 5.5 per cent in real terms--from $227.2m to $221.1m. The coalition has a very clear policy in this area and it is worth quoting:

The Defence Science and Technology Organisation has made and is making a great contribution to Australia's Defence effort.

The Liberal and National Parties support the general thrust of the current re-organisation within DSTO, and in particular the increased emphasis on innovative research and the transfer of engineering work to Australian industry.

The Liberal and National Parties recognise the Australia-wide problem of the scarcity of science and engineering graduates which is faced by DSTO and other scientific bodies.

Particular attention will be given to measures to attract and retain the high calibre of recruits needed in the fields of engineering and science.

The coalition clearly recognises the need for Australia to encourage our young graduates to stay in Australia and dedicate themselves to the development of future technology within this country in order that Australian industry and indeed Australia as a whole will reap the benefits. By slashing defence science funding, all we will do is supply our bright young graduates with still more reasons to look at overseas opportunities.

There is one other area I would like to touch on before I conclude--the area of Australian Defence Industries Ltd. In December last year, ADI, Australia's largest defence manufacturer, announced a long term restructuring plan the purpose of which was to restructure and to consolidate manufacturing facilities to avert a projected future loss of $60m over the ensuing five year period. This restructuring includes the establishment of a state of the art ammunition plant of world standard later this decade but results in the closure of three existing plants, one of which is the St Mary's munitions plant, located at the far eastern boundary of my electorate.

The thing that amazes me and indeed puzzles me about this decision is that ADI has just spent at least $8.4m in the construction of a new shell filling facility on that very site. According to a report by the Joint Committee on Public Works in April 1989, this new facility was built to replace facilities which had been operating since 1958 and had reached the end of their economic life due to high usage and general wear and corrosion.

What I would like to know is why all this money was spent on these new facilities. I did not mention initially the additional $1.5m that was spent on consultancy fees for the same building. It is absolutely imperative that somebody come out and take responsibility for this decision. We are talking about $10m of taxpayers' funds, which would be very helpful in the defence budget. The Minister says that it was ADI's responsibility; ADI says that the decision to build it was made before it came into existence. So we still do not know who bears the responsibility for this huge $10m loss to the Australian taxpayer. My understanding at the moment is that in the not too distant future it will provide employment for people armed with bulldozers and other demolition gear to pull the building down.

The only defence that ADI seems to have is: `It wasn't our fault', and my question, again, is: who is going to be big enough to stand up and take the blame? (Time expired)