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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1582

Mr BILNEY (-Minister for Defence Science and Personnel)(6.22 p.m.) —-I am glad to be here to close this debate. Perhaps I should begin by responding to the points which have been put by my friend and colleague the honourable member for Warringah (Mr MacKellar), who seemed to think that the marvels of modern technology would not allow me to follow what was happening in this debate. In fact, I have been listening to it in my office while doing three other things of equally vital importance, but I certainly was following the points that were being made in the debate.

In general, I have been disappointed with the contributions of Opposition members. They appear to believe that the debate has not moved on from the days in which they conducted our defence policy, when the seriousness of our commitment to the defence of Australia was measured entirely by the amount of money that was spent and the numbers of people in uniform, as if the only area of modern endeavour that should not be subject to efficiency gains, that should be immune to those gains--gains which are a result of better management, higher technology, or a combination of those things and others--is defence. That is rubbish. It is a proposition to which the Government has given the lie not only in this Bill but also in others.

The Opposition has proceeded to debate this Bill as if the quantum of money has been reduced. It has not. The quantum of money has been maintained in real terms in this Budget and, in fact, has been increased as a proportion of GNP. It is astonishing to me that members of this Parliament who followed the Gulf war should have assumed that that was financed out of existing allocations. It was not; it was supplemented, as every member of this House knows, by an additional allocation of funds of the order of $100m. The Opposition seems to say that all we are spending on our defence and our peacekeeping is what is in these estimates. That is rubbish and nonsense. It astonishes me that people could have so limited an understanding of defence that they would fall for that proposition.

There are a number of matters to which I would like to respond. It seems to me that most of the criticism in the debate has related to Opposition claims that the Ready Reserve concept is somehow flawed, is somehow doing our defence on the cheap, and is somehow not what I believe it to be--an exciting, innovative and successful response to the defence problems which Australia faces. Let me run through some criticisms which have been made by the Opposition--including in this debate--about the Ready Reserve. I was very sad to hear my colleague opposite say that it was looked at with contempt by members of the military. I do not believe that is the case.

Mr MacKellar —-You haven't talked to any, have you?

Mr BILNEY —-`Contempt' was the word that was used. It is not a word that I believe ought to be applied to this concept. Let us look at the claims that have been made by the Opposition about the Ready Reserve. The Opposition has said that the Ready Reserve has not been properly costed, that Labor has no idea about how much it is going to cost. In fact, we have costed the Ready Reserve as precisely as we can. Working with the most complete knowledge of the scheme, the force structure review estimated the annual direct personnel cost to be around 42 per cent of the cost of regulars. That can be looked at as we go along, but it is pretty clear that people who serve on a part time basis--highly trained soldiers as they are--will cost less than regulars.

As for the claim that the conventional reserves will suffer, the Government has set aside $50m for equipping the Ready Reserve as well as $100m over the decade for operating costs and the upgrading of the conventional reserves. The Opposition has claimed that the key defence problem is the defence bureaucracy, and that it needs to be cut. In fact, we have cut not combat ready soldiers but the support elements. We are replacing two understrength, underequipped Regular battalions with three highly trained Ready Reserve battalions and, in the process, are getting rid of 3,800 service civilians, a reduction which adds to the 10,000-odd decrease in service civilians which has taken place in the time this Government has been in office.

It has been claimed that the Ready Reserve, which will serve only 50 days a year, will be as capable a force as professional Army regulars. These are professional soldiers who will have had one year's full time training. They will be the cream of the crop. As I said at Question Time, it has been most encouraging to the Government that people have flocked to join the Ready Reserve. In three days we have had 3,500-odd inquiries. We are looking to recruit 1,100 people this year.

Mr MacKellar —-How many have joined, though?

Mr BILNEY —-Of course none have joined this year, because we are going through a proper process of interviewing and assessment. We do not recruit people merely because they walk in off the street.

Mr MacKellar —-They haven't just inquired; they have applied?

Mr BILNEY —-They have inquired and a number of them have applied. I have expressed two doubts in relation to our surveys of employers and potential members about whether people who had inquired would turn up to join. I said that a survey is a survey. As Mrs Haines found out in the last election, it is sometimes different when it comes to the real thing. People in this place are accustomed to saying that there is only one poll that counts--that is the one on the day. On the day, people are turning up to join the Ready Reserve. I know that the honourable member for Warringah is a betting man, and I would love to have a bet with him that we will get the numbers we need in a short space of time. The Opposition has claimed that four Regular Army battalions are not enough--as if to suggest that the four regular battalions will operate in isolation from the seven conventional reserve battalions or the three Ready Reserve battalions. We are talking about a total force concept, a better way of managing our defence, and it is ridiculous to suggest otherwise.

I think the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair) claimed that the Air Force and Navy ready reserves concept would not work. Is he saying that airfield defence guards are not necessary? They are necessary, and ready reservists will be used in this area. They will be employed in a useful capacity as will the similar number, the 450 people, who will be used to supplement our forces in the Royal Australian Navy.

It is claimed that it is not clear whether the necessary numbers of ready reservists will be obtained. As I have said already, the lie has been given to that by the number of people who have so far applied. I believe that more will come in.

The honourable member for Groom (Mr Taylor) referred at some length to the problems with the Nomad aircraft. Certainly the concern that he expressed is shared. The fact is that the Nomad has been in service with the ADF for around 16 years. There are 15 in service now and 10 will be acquired shortly. The additional 10 are being refurbished by ASTA under a $11m contract which was let on 25 March this year.

The accident rate of the Nomad--and in saying this, I do not in any way mean to suggest that we are complacent about the accident rate--of four in the 48,500 hours which have been flown by this military aircraft is quite consistent with the Army aircraft accident rate of nine per 100,000 hours for all types of aircraft over the past 10 years.

Some further tests are going to be carried out and a full review of Nomad airworthiness by the airworthiness board is planned for later this month. We will be awaiting that airworthiness report before taking any action. When that is available to us, we will consider what needs to be done. While echoing the sentiments expressed by the honourable member for Groom as regards the loss of life, I do not agree that we are faced with what I think he described as a scandal.

One aspect which has been raised in this debate and which is sometimes referred to outside this place is the view that the Government has not kept certain promises about the level of expenditure that it made in the 1987 defence of Australia White Paper. The fact is that since then the GDP of this country has expanded considerably and the amount that was then said to be necessary for our defence has been spent.

The honourable member for Aston (Mr Nugent), in what I thought was a very thoughtful contribution--I am sorry if I betray the fact that I listened across the table to what he said--asked whether the force structure proposal was simply a matter of cost cutting rather than a fundamental restructuring of the ADF. The capital programs which we have in mind--and they are considerable--can be funded, as was shown by events in the Gulf, with zero per cent real growth.

Mr Hawker —-His major concern was morale.

Mr BILNEY —-I know of no better measure of morale than people wanting to join and stay in the Australian defence forces. The last quarter was the first quarter for the last eight years in which the number of people recruited to the ADF has exceeded the number of people leaving.

Mr Hawker —-What about unemployment?

Mr BILNEY —-I believe that, while there are other factors which enter into that consideration, one needs to take account of the great improvement in conditions of service that have been achieved in the life of this Government. One also needs to take account of the better equipment and the better pay which, added to the state of the labour market, have brought about this result. One could also add the best superannuation scheme in Australia that this Government has brought down. A better housing scheme has also contributed to the greater retention of people in the ADF. It is no wonder that people are flocking to join the ADF and are staying in it.

All in all, it is fortuitous that today the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) outlined at Question Time the responsiveness of our current defence policy to differing conditions in the world. He referred to the ability that we have, not just to defend Australia but to contribute to the wider security of the Western Alliance and those countries with which we are friendly. I believe that that gives the lie to the sorts of negative carping criticisms from an Opposition which, while it has announced a defence review, has nothing like a defence policy.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Sitting suspended from 6.36 to 8 p.m.

Department of Primary Industries and Energy

Proposed expenditure, $458,011,000