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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2920

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK(8.18) —During the Estimates committee examinations, quite a number of questions were directed to the Minister for Defence and to the Department of Defence concerning the armoured personnel carriers. As a background to what I am about to say and the questions I am about to ask, I point out that the armoured personnel carriers are 30 years old and therefore, in anybody's language, antiquated. Also, during the Fraser Government's era, it was decided that they were obsolete and that they should be replaced by new kinds of armoured personnel carriers and the Waler project was developed. When the Hawke Government came to office, it scrapped the Waler project and decided that it would do something about the existing APCs, of which I think there are about 596. I draw attention to the fact that last year or the year before the Auditor-General put in a very detailed report damning the present armoured personnel carriers. He said that they were grossly inefficient and dangerous. He pointed to defects in their armour, that is, in their protection of the troops, defects in their armaments and defects in their propulsion. It was a report as stringent as any I have seen an Auditor-General make. That has been raised and discussed in previous Estimates committee hearings and a rather cavalier approach was taken.

At the Estimates committee hearings, I asked what was happening and when any upgrading would be done. I draw attention to the fact that some four years have gone by during which an assessment of what is wrong with these carriers should have been made and a new plan brought forward. We were told that it would take another three years to determine what form of updating, or modification, there ought to be for the armoured personnel carriers. All who heard that would have been horrified. It would take another three years-after the four years-to decide what to do. They thought that after they had determined what to do it would take another two years.

So from the time the Hawke Government came to power until this procedure is complete nine years will have elapsed. That would be perfectly all right if we were dealing with toast racks, bunks, hammocks or something like that. But we are dealing with primary protection of our troops in the field, who could be engaged in all sorts of small scale warfare, or even large scale warfare. The fundamental job of a government is to ensure that its troops are properly protected. One thing is certain. The present armoured personnel carriers do not measure up. They do not protect even against the most primitive kinds of weapons that could be used by an opponent. They do not offer efficient protection. Their turrets are virtually inoperative. Their propulsion is bad. I cannot believe that any government would allow public servants to give this kind of evidence. Lest anyone have any doubts about this matter, I asked how long it would take before the Department could make up its mind. The answer was:

We would seek to have a progressive program rolling through the fleet, commencing as soon as possible after the decisions are made, which I would expect may be able to be commenced in about three years--

so the decisions are to take three years from now, after four years already-

but going for a number of years to cover the total operational fleet.

I have not heard anything so outrageous. I ask the Minister: Does the Government believe that it is good enough for Australian soldiers to have personnel carriers which the Auditor-General, previous governments and service officers have condemned as being both inefficient and incapable of providing adequate protection? Does the Government believe that this is good enough for the Australian people? Does the Government honestly believe that it is good enough for it to take another three years to decide what kinds of modifications ought to be made and then to take a couple of years after that to make them? It is extraordinary. It points to the quality of the evidence we have been given.

During the Estimates Committee discussion on the estimates for the Department of Defence questions were asked about the reported loss of ammunition. For a while the answer given was that there was no loss of ammunition. When pressed, the officer indicated that he understood that the loss concerned a particular ammunition depot and nowhere else. My own question had been plainly answered. I asked whether there had been a loss of ammunition. It turned out that at Maribyrnong there had been a loss. We received this answer only when I put the quaint situation that if there had been no loss of ammunition why was the Government in the process of prosecuting someone for stealing ammunition. It seemed a little quaint. As in Alice in Wonderland, it became curiouser and curiouser.

Answers do not appear to be forthcoming. They appear to be-if I may say so without reflection on the officers-grudging and limited to the tightest possible corner. I do not understand why. In the end we were told that 19 bags of black powder and a box of cartridge cases had been stolen from the Commonwealth Munitions Factory at Maribyrnong. Yesterday Senator Evans, with good intention, in answer to a question said that the ammunition stolen would not be useful for a terrorist. I have had a little to do with bags of black powder in my day. I do not think a real terrorist effort could be made with it, but I could make a big explosion with it. It is not something to be treated lightly. It is not sophisticated ammunition but if someone can come away with 19 bags of black powder it indicates that the security in these places is not very good. Apparently, as a result some kind of metal scanner has been hotted-up.

I have always been interested in this type of situation. One cannot blowup Parliament House with metal devices but any kind of plastic device or plastic explosive is legal. That is because of our nicely inflexible rule that if our metal scanners do not know anything that is legal. I suppose that knives and steel weapons cannot be brought into the place, which is very comforting. I say this not to ridicule the Department of Defence-I have the greatest respect for the Department-but because the situation is so limited.

The Government announced that the Malabar Anzac Rifle Range is to be sold. Outrage has been voiced by the hundreds of people who use the range but who have not been offered any alternative. A bicentennial world function is to be held there. The Government has not even paid these people the courtesy of telling them what is to happen. When I asked about this matter I received two very interesting answers. I asked: `What about the use of this place?' The brigadier answered:

The Anzac Rifle Range is used by the Army on approximately 180 days a year and by the other two Services on around 50 days a year.

The fact that the range is used for 230 days a year-leaving aside weekends because one does not get travel allowance on weekends, even in the Army-suggests to me that the range is used on virtually every day of the year. Having spent a number of days in my youth at the range trying to hit targets and missing them most of the time I can tell honourable senators that it is fully occupied. When I asked what had been done for the Army and the other Services in regard to this matter I was told quite solemnly:

I believe that the requirement, which is now 180 days for the Army, will be partly taken up by maximising the ranges at Holsworthy and by using other ranges, either at Singleton--

which is 130-odd miles to the north-

or Majura, here in the Australian Capital Territory.

The Government is to save money by selling a rifle range which cannot be sold as a going concern because, firstly, a lot of the land is reclaimed, unfilled land which has not settled and is a rubbish heap and, secondly, because there are all sorts of restrictions on its use in terms of environmental impact statements. When we asked what arrangements had been made for others the answer consisted of a single word- none. No arrangements have been made for the hundreds of people who use the range. In the first place, the idea is monstrously stupid. The range has a vital role to play, both for the Services and for civilians. It is part of the military and sporting life of the people. It is an area which, of its essence, cannot be developed as residential or industrial land because it has not settled in itself. It would also be fairly lively in terms of stray ammunition. A decision was cavalierly made in the Budget to sell the range without deciding where the Army or the other Services would go and without determining the cost effectiveness of taking people to Singleton. I have to tell the honourable senators, having been a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence which visited Singleton, that the people there said: `We have to limit the use of our ranges because the people in Singleton do not like the noise'. On the one hand, when we go to Singleton the people there say `Do not use the ranges any more' and, on the other hand, when we go to Holsworthy the ranges are fully used and making noise.

I will deal with one other thing. When we came to an analysis of what was happening to the forces we found some extraordinary things that even Lewis Carroll would not have believed. The Government had set out on a multi-million dollar campaign to get re-enlistment in the Services, particularly the Reserve. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) was hopping out of helicopters Lord knows why. Perhaps he was eager to join the Reserve. What was the result? At the end of the public advertising campaign there were fewer people in the Reserve than at the start of the campaign. The Reserve wastage in 1984-85, according to the estimates, was 36 per cent. The wastage in the Australian defence forces is at a high of 12.3 per cent. The officers who are going out of the Services, valuable officers, are causing the gravest trouble. In other words, the Government and the Defence Department are incapable of maintaining the defence forces.

I do not want to be a critic of the Defence Department or the Defence Force. Over the years they have served Australia well. I have no doubt in the world that most of the serving officers and public servants in the Defence Department are first class people doing a good job. I have to say that the quality of the evidence given before the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence and in the Estimates committee hearings over recent years in this chamber and the way in which material has been forthcoming have been far from satisfactory. That is sad. It is not because we are asking too much but because there is a failure to understand the importance of Parliament and the importance of dialogue in this regard. I rose tonight basically to point out some of the major errors in the system. I could go on all night on this matter. The APCs are a classic demonstration of the muddling, the lack of planning and the lack of doing primary things that is going on. The Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities calls for light mechanised vehicles for our defence forces, not the Leopard tanks that a former Labor Government acquired. The forces want them but we have quite inefficient ones. I report therefore that as we examined these estimates we found a less than satisfactory flow of evidence to us. I hope that the Government, the Ministers and the Department will rectify that in the months ahead.