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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2914

Senator NEWMAN(6.08) —On the estimates for the Department of Housing and Construction I drew attention to the problems with defence housing and to what I believe to be waste in the area of construction costs. So I do not intend to canvass that area again. I recognise that in the last week the Government has finally announced the establishment of an interim housing authority. That is well overdue as the Government announced six months ago that an interim authority would be established. It is welcome even though it is so late.

We are also awaiting the review of the defence service home loans scheme. I hope that the answer I got from the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) the other day will produce a final public result of that fairly shortly as well. As Senator MacGibbon just said, the conditions of service in our forces are of great concern to anybody who studies the situation. There is an alarming resignation rate in all the Services. Something like 12.3 per cent of our servicemen are signing off. We cannot accept this with equanimity. Ten per cent of the Army officer corps has left in the past year. A number of things are being done and I give credit for that. Those things are being done, but they were neglected for far too long.

Nevertheless, recently this Government introduced a cut of two per cent in service pension entitlements as well as those of retired servicemen already receiving pensions. It was a real cut of 2 per cent in money previously in their hands. That is quite disgraceful and there can be no justification for it. If the Government is prepared to do things such as that, the establishment of back bench committees to monitor the conditions of service of our servicemen will be for nothing. I read the defence that the Minister put into the Army newspaper about a month ago over these defence force retirement and death benefit cuts. If I was a serviceman reading that, I would say something fairly vulgar, but I do not suppose one can in this chamber.

Senator Grimes —Oh, have a go.

Senator NEWMAN —No, I might get thrown out. I would not like that to happen because I have too much to say. I would like to quote from a letter I received this week from a mother who has children in the Services. She referred to the article I wrote in the defence supplement in the Australian last week:

Your comments verify what our children in the services have told us, and as parents we are most concerned at the low morale developed following a period of high expectation and dedication on enlistment.

What a sad comment that is! I also draw the Committee's attention to the comment of the Defence Ombudsman that a large part of his work over the last year has been concerned with conditions of service. I also draw the Committee's attention to the fact that ministerial complaints for the Department of Defence have risen since 1982 from something like 5,000 to something like 8,000 last year. I know from past experience that a large number of those complaints result from problems with conditions of service. That is an alarming jump over such a few years. I recognise that the Government is trying to do something but it cannot do it fast enough for the servicemen of our country.

It is not just the cost to the individuals; it is the cost to the nation. In answer to a question I asked at an estimates Committee I was given information which enabled me to make the calculation of what the wastage in this past year will mean to Australia. It represents an extra charge of $91m basically just to replace the people we have lost. It will cost about $27m for advertising and recruiting. The balance is made up of charges incurred in simply giving basic training to our service people. It does not include their corps training or officer training. It is big money we are talking about and we cannot afford to waste it because nobody seems to want to spend enough money on defence in this country at this time. In the light of that, the Defence Department has to be very careful about how it spends its money. I fear that we are being penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to allowing our service people to live in such poor housing, with such poor pay and with such poor conditions of service for their families that they are walking out and causing us to spend unnecessarily a minimum of $91m to replace them.

I also ask the Government to tell me why we are now recruiting so very few apprentices. Over about the last five years the recruitment of apprentices has gone from 700-odd to a very much smaller figure. In fact, the number of apprentices in the Services over the last five years has gone from something like 2,000 to 1,000.

Senator Kilgariff —We can't afford them; the generals are getting all the money.

Senator NEWMAN —From what Senator Hamer said tonight, maybe the money has all gone to the top brass. But I am seriously concerned, both for the Services and for the youth of the nation. We have been going through trying and economic times and have a lot of young people unemployed. We are looking for ways to get them trained and into meaningful jobs and we need to have a lot of well trained apprentices going into trades. What are we doing if we are decreasing, by such a dramatic percentage, the number of young people being trained in apprenticeships in the Services? That is surely one area where government policy can ensure that we do the right thing. I would like to have an explanation as to why this is happening.

I draw attention in passing to the high number of resignations from the Army Reserve. Honourable senators who attended the Estimates committee hearings, both recently and earlier in the year, would agree that the explanations given by the Department for the wastage in the Reserve were not very satisfactory. It took nearly six months to get a potted version of the study into the Army Reserve wastage, and a most unsatisfactory potted version it was. Anybody with two legs could walk around the Reserve establishments in this country and get a better coverage of the reasons for resignation than was provided to honourable senators in that potted study. The Department really has let us down in the way it dealt with that question, which is a question of great seriousness to us all.

Moving on to the way questions were answered, Senator MacGibbon spoke earlier about the desirability of improving the system for the Estimates committee hearings for the Defence Department. I am not on that committee. Consequently, because of my responsibilities on another committee, I took the opportunity to put all my questions on notice. It is not a procedure that I would choose to follow again because I do not believe that I got very satisfactory answers. I think Sir Humphrey is alive and well and living in the Department of Defence. I accept that, on the grounds of security, I did not get answers to my questions on the Special Air Service Regiment. I trust that the security of this country is in good hands. I am concerned about the issues I raised about the SAS but I have been assured that I should not be worried. I hope that that is an accurate answer. There were other questions that could and should have been answered better. I refer first of all to an answer which concerns the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. I draw the Committee's attention to my question, which was:

Is it a fact that the Antarctic Division has requested supply of freeze-dried ration packs from the Department, and that this request has been refused? If so, why?

I do not want to take up the Committee's time, but I have to say that, although it is a fairly long answer, it really did not answer my question at all. I was told in passing that the Armed Forces Food Service Establishment at Scottsdale is not set up for large scale manufacture. I know that area and the establishment very well. It used to manufacture a great deal more than it does today, so it has quite a lot of spare capacity. Therefore, I do not accept the answer on that. The Department also said:

We are not aware of any such request having been received by Defence Central to date.

I understand that the Antarctic Division has had a letter from Defence-I am not quite sure whence it came because Defence has many heads-but its requirements for freeze-dried rations was refused this year. In my opinion there was a good reason for it but I was not given that. The reason given was that there had been a typhoon in the Pacific and the Department had re-directed ration packs for emergency assistance to our Pacific neighbours. Consequently the AFFSE organisation was working hard to supply the Services' needs and did not have spare capacity.

I understand that the Antarctic Division has a requirement next year for $200,000 worth of freeze-dried rations for long term storage at the Pole. The AFFSE at Scottsdale has great hopes of successfully tendering for that job. There is a requirement for a subsequent expenditure of about $10,000 to $12,000 per year in the provision of freeze-dried ration packs. I understand that AFFSE is intending to tender for it. I cannot understand why I got all this gobbledegook and not a plain, straight answer. I cannot see what the reasoning behind it was. I welcome the opportunity for AFFSE to do this work. The objectives of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation have just been reviewed. In fact, the recommendations suggest that the work of the Organisation should be widened. But there is a very real opportunity for it to undertake tasks which would not interfere with its defence work. It could expand its operations. I think it is very appropriate that the Organisation should practice doing large scale work because any bugs that there may be in the system will only be discovered in a wartime situation. So the answer to that question was most unsatisfactory.

I also asked the following very specific questions concerning restrictions on exercise resources for the Australian Defence Force:

What were the bids for exercise resources for 1986-87?

Has the Government applied restrictions?

What restrictions if any have been placed on flying hours for the RAAF.....?

Have any reductions been made in steaming time for the Navy....?

Have exercise hours for the Army been cut?

If in fact restrictions have been applied, is it not true that they will seriously impair training for the next financial year?

Once again, I received a quite long wordy answer which ends up saying:

Overall, the major activities of the Services are expected to be held at about the same level as achieved in 1985-86.

I asked a specific series of questions and I expected to receive specific answers. I ask again for my questions to be answered. By way of example, could I please be told what was the average number of exercises held per infantry battalion in the last year? What is the average number of exercises per infantry battalion intended for the coming year? How many times will the brigades exercise and when will the next divisional exercise be held?

I pass on to another answer which was unsatisfactory and that concerns the total training and recruitment costs. I do not want to elaborate on that now because from the figures that I was initially given and with the help of the Parliamentary Library I was able to arrive at the figure I quoted earlier as to what the replacement cost would be for the number of personnel who have to be replaced this year.

It seems to me that the Department comes into Estimates committee meetings on the defensive. It cannot seem to understand that there are people in this Parliament who care very deeply about defence matters. They are very concerned for our service personnel and the better defence of our country. If the huge number of officers who attend the Estimates committee hearings simply spend their time trying to give us wordy answers that do not come to grips with the questions asked, one has to be suspicious of what they are here for at all. I want to close by drawing their attention to an excellent article written by the Senate Clerk Assistant, Anne Lynch, and which appeared in the last issue of `The House Magazine' in which she described the role of Senate Estimates committees. I suggest that every member of the Defence Department who attends Estimates committee meetings should take that article away and study it.