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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1574

Mr SINCLAIR(5.40 p.m.) --I would like to endorse the remarks made by the honourable member for McPherson (Mr Bradford) and commend him for them. In the few minutes available to me I want to look at a number of aspects of defence. It is apparent that we are debating the estimates of the Department of Defence. It is quite impossible in 10 minutes to range over all the inadequacies of the estimates now presented. I use this occasion to say that on other occasions there have been more adequate procedures for examining estimates than there are in this chamber. I am disappointed that they do not exist now. This estimates debate is a bit of a farce, and that is a great tragedy in a matter such as this where the Defence Force structure review essentially should be able to be matched against the resources available within a proper estimates scrutiny. It is a great pity that that cannot be done.

The obvious concern that we in the Opposition have--I suspect it is a concern of many, not only in the defence community but in Australia at large--is that the Minister for Defence (Senator Robert Ray) has recently brought down a Defence Force restructure without having in any way revised the 1987 White Paper or produced new strategic bases from which we could make a judgment on it.

Enormous changes have taken place around the world in the defence alignments. Only last week President Gorbachev responded to President Bush's initiative with respect to further movements in nuclear disarmament. Australia is certainly an interested observer in those disarmament processes. Perhaps of even greater importance to us is the consequence of the Mount Pinatubo eruption. It closed Clark Field. As well, we have the rejection by the Philippines Senate of moves by the United States Administration to retain the Subic Bay naval base.

We have these reduced tensions resulting from both the disarmament talks and changes within the Soviet Union itself, including the undoubted economic difficulties that plague the Soviet Union. Anybody looking at our part of the world would be foolish if he thought they necessarily could be translated into reduced security or defence requirements here. Because of that Subic decision and the problems in a number of nations in our region, in my view there is probably an enhanced requirement for defence within Australia.

In these estimates we have been given at best a maintenance of funds for this year's defence expenditure and a projection of reduced funds in the future. It is from that base that the Government has propounded its concept of a Ready Reserve. I thought that the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel (Mr Bilney) showed a bit of common sense in his reported comments last weekend. There is no doubt that the Ready Reserve will not work for the Navy and it will not work for the Air Force. When my colleague the honourable member for Warringah (Mr MacKellar), in his role as acting shadow Minister for defence, commented the other day on the problems with the Ready Reserve, he quite properly referred to the fact that now is not the time to embark on a new defence initiative unless we provide the Department of Defence and the ADF with the resources to allow it to be implemented. That has not happened. We are not only going to reduce or eliminate two battalions of Regular Army personnel but we are going to introduce a new instrumentality at the cost of the regular forces by transferring resources from the regulars to the Ready Reserve.

I frankly do not think now is the time to try a Ready Reserve. I am not against the concept, but I am very apprehensive about the impact on the availability of regular personnel. I certainly do not believe that we can take it from the existing Army Reserve or, for that matter, the reserves of the other two forces. Now strategically is not the time to embark on a new venture when there are demands which even this week the Government has announced which ensure that there will be a greater obligation on the regulars at a time when we are going to diminish them. We need to be conscious of those other demands and try to work out where we should go. I suggest to the Government--I will not have time to expand on it in the few minutes I have--that it is quite critical that it understand and investigate to a greater degree what sort of role it believes Australia should have in the United Nations and other multinational peacekeeping roles around the world.

We have heard this week, initially from an announcement last week or perhaps three weeks ago by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Senator Gareth Evans), that we are going to send some signallers to Cambodia. We already have a number of units participating in various peacekeeping roles overseas. In the past we have always said that we are not going to develop our force structure according to our peacekeeping obligations. We are not going to be like Canada which always allows for those peacekeeping obligations. For all that the Chief of the Defence Force, General Gration, has said that he thinks we could allow for some commitment in the Gulf and a commitment in Cambodia without it unduly affecting our defence capacity--according to the evidence tendered to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade which in May 1991 produced a report on Australia and United Nations peacekeeping--I do not believe him. What is more, that comment was made before the announcement on the Ready Reserve. I think we are creating an impossible burden relating not just to maintaining our ordinary exercise commitments, but if there were to be any sort of defence threat to this country we have no capacity to have forces stationed all over the place on peacekeeping roles. Whether they are signal units or any one of those other units that we have overseas at the moment, they do impinge on our present defence capability.

On top of having those peacekeeping forces away we are also going to have an additional commitment to divert resources to create the Ready Reserve. We are stretching what we have far too far. I do not believe that it is practical or desirable or within Australia's defence capability to undertake what the Government is doing without providing more resources. I am most concerned about the general presentation of these estimates and the fact that we are committing ourselves increasingly to a peacekeeping role. Honourable members should not get me wrong; I am all in favour of maintaining our peacekeeping role, but we can only do it with an adequate resource. There is not an adequate resource. There is not sufficient funding to undertake the commitments in the 1987 White Paper which the Minister still says is the basis of our present forward defence planning.

We certainly do not have the new revised strategic bases on which the Defence Force task can be set, yet we have these fundamental changes in the strategic situation, fundamental realignments between the superpowers and the potential withdrawal of the Americans in one year's time, not only from the Clark airfield but from the Subic naval base. It will create an enormous problem for us at a time when the strategic situation is more difficult.

I move from there to two other factors that concern me. There was recently a corporate plan produced on defence communications. Defence communications is critical. There is still a totally inadequate network of communications within the Australian defence forces. There has been significant development as far as Discon and Parakeet are concerned and project Raven is still under way, but at the moment we are still using World War II type telephone communications in many instances. I am worried that we do not seem to be providing enough resources to permit the modernisation of our defence network as we should.

I will give honourable members an idea of how inadequate the Government's planning is. The Government says it is going to take over, and fund and operate, the North West Cape communications base. I am all in favour of maintaining international alliances.

The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is long on rhetoric. The absolute nonsense today about the priority he gives to defence just does not ring true. What he has got to understand is that we, under his Government, are more dependent on overseas support and coordination than we have ever been. He should not come to the business of designing and manufacturing defence equipment in Australia. This Government has maintained design capability abroad to a greater degree than we did and now it is going to take over North West Cape entirely.

I do not know the final terms of the funding arrangement. I would be very interested to hear them. I think this House should be told exactly where those negotiations are. We have been told there has been a bit of a wink and a nod and the Americans have come to the party. Frankly, from my point of view, the funds that are going into North West Cape to operate it entirely would have been far better spent upgrading our ordinary on-ground communications and defence communications network. We must maintain that North West Cape facility. We are absolutely dependent on it for our submarine communications. It is not something hidden or subtle, or something that is going to encourage nuclear war. It is providing an essential communications base for our maritime requirements around Australia and in peacekeeping roles.

The Prime Minister ought to realise that we still have ships in the Gulf. He referred to one of them today--HMAS Sydney. North West Cape provides a vital link in that area. If we are going to provide money for things, for goodness sake let us plan how we are going to do it, let us take notice of forward requirements and do not let us impinge on other requirements.

I am most concerned about the state of the defence forces today. These estimates are totally inadequate and I do not believe this Government is adequately meeting the defence need.