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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1580

Mr MacKELLAR —-(6.12 p.m.)--Before I start my contribution today, I should say that I notice that the tenor of these Estimates debates in the House of Representatives has changed enormously over the years. It is good to see the advisers in the box. They came in about half way through the second contribution during the Estimates debate and no doubt they have been assiduous in noting the remarks made by contributors to the debate.

I am disappointed to see that the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel (Mr Bilney) is not present in the chamber. I think it is a very unfortunate development that this Government has brought about; that is, that Ministers seem to take absolutely no interest in what members of parliament have to say about matters under their responsibility. We could hardly have a more urgent responsibility than the defence of the country and, particularly, the changes that have taken place in recent times due to the decision by the Government to initiate the Ready Reserve concept. We have a situation here where the Minister in this House who is responsible for this area simply has not bothered to turn up. It is a very poor reflection on the Minister and a very poor reflection on the Government.

Earlier, we heard the honourable member for Fraser (Mr Langmore). I have a modicum of respect for the honourable member for Fraser in that he should come into this House in a defence debate and take the leftish line that he did. The logical conclusion of his argument was that we should have no expenditure on defence whatsoever and that, if we did not have any expenditure on defence, obviously we would have a lot more money that we could dole out in various other ways. I find that people like this are very strong in this point of view when they do not feel under any danger themselves. It is a bit like the police. Everybody is very critical of the police until they need a policeman; and a lot of people are very critical of the defence forces and the expenditure in the defence forces until we are faced with a defence crisis, when people in the defence forces go out and risk their lives to keep the rest of us safe.

I was sorry that the honourable member for Fraser, in fact, took the line that he did. Whilst there is no doubt that the strategic situation in the world has changed very dramatically in the last few years, I am not aware of any indication that the strategic situation which Australia finds itself in is in any way more benign--to quote him--than has been the case in the past. In fact, I believe that it is less benign.

In my view, the very welcome developments that have taken place in the ending of the Cold War have brought about a situation where the risk of low level conflicts, which are no less deadly, is in fact heightened rather than lessened. I wonder how many people in this Parliament would have thought just a few years ago that we would be seeing the situation that we see today in Yugoslavia. There we have a very deadly conflict taking place. If we have a look at the entire area of central Europe and what used to be the Soviet Union, one could not say with any confidence at all that we will not be seeing some major civil conflicts as that push towards regional identities continues in its strength and form.

To suggest that, because of the very welcome changes in the relationships between the superpowers--the ending of the Cold War and the very welcome decisions in relation to strategic nuclear weaponry by both the United States and by the Soviet Union--we are somehow now living in a safer world and that Australia can pay less attention to the requirements of its own defence really flies in the face of the evidence that we see around us. We have to look only at the capacity of the defence forces of a number of countries in our region of the world to realise that that benign view is simply not in accordance with the facts.

I wanted to speak a bit more about the recent decision by the Government in relation to the Ready Reserve. I have found it quite interesting that in the past year or so the Government has known that a very detailed investigation of the Reserve structure is being undertaken by the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, yet it has made a series of decisions in relation to the Australian defence forces quite irrespective of the findings of that very detailed Joint Standing Committee review. The Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee will be meeting very shortly to finalise its report on the Reserve. I have no doubt it will be saying something very pertinent, as it does in all defence reports.

How nice it is to see Minister Bilney in the chamber. It is good of him to grace us with his presence at this late stage of the debate. Let me come back to the fact that the Government has made these decisions in advance of the findings of the Joint Standing Committee which, I might say, has a reputation for fairness and detailed investigation of all the submissions coming to it.

Let us get back to this Ready Reserve. It is, of course, the result of three distinct suggestions dealing with a Ready Reserve or a reserve militia which have been put forward in recent years. In response to a submission from the defence chiefs, the Government has now--if one can use the phrase--bitten the bullet and established the Ready Reserve. If one talks to very senior officers within the defence forces--the ones who are at the political end of the spectrum--one will find that there is support for this. They have to support it because, of course, they are very close to the Government and are senior advisers to the Government. But if one talks to the people away from the political end, if one talks to, for instance, the personnel in the defence establishments in my electorate of Warringah, one will find a very healthy contempt--that is not too strong a word--for the Ready Reserve concept. It is a contempt not for the concept of itself, but for the way it is being implemented and the way it is having a detrimental effect on other aspects of the defence structure.

Other speakers in this debate have paid attention to the fact, of course, that we are to have a reduction of two battalions of regulars and the effect that this will have on our capability. So far during the debate, not many people have talked about the effect that this decision will have on the already existing reserves. If one has the chance to speak to people who are already reservists, one will find there are an enormous number of criticisms about training days, ammunition and the equipment that is available to them. They are simply being neglected, and have been neglected consistently.

This most recent change by the Government will do nothing to assist those people who have joined and served well in the reserves of this country. I believe that some of the issues they have raised with me are major ones. Firstly, they doubt the effectiveness of the Ready Reserve. The Minister at the table does not know about its effectiveness--he has admitted it. He has these rushes of blood to the head when he comes out with very straightforward statements. He is quoted as saying that when it comes to the real thing it is possible it may not work. Does the Minister realise that he said that? Does he admit that he said that when it comes to the real thing it is possible it may not work? That is hardly a ringing endorsement of it.

The people in my electorate say that it will weaken combat capability and that it throws into doubt our ability to meet the peacekeeping commitments, let alone a limited conflict in our sphere of interest. The Army believes that it will cost a great deal more than the Government claims. I think this is the real crux of it. This is defence on the cheap. On the Government's figures, bringing in the Ready Reserve will cost about 30 per cent of what it would cost to keep the regulars going. The Army says it will be 50 to 60 per cent or higher.

So we are looking at a Government which has made commitments in the equipment area which are going to cost a great deal of money. The Government cannot afford to spend the required amount of money on the personnel side of things. So what do we do? We go for the cheap option. I believe very strongly that this Government knows it will not work, but it hopes it will get away with it for two or three years before it needs spend more money in the personnel area. (Time expired)