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Wednesday, 24 March 2004
Page: 21813

Senator HOGG (2:21 PM) —My question is to Senator Hill, the Minister for Defence. I refer the minister to the announcement by the Prime Minister on 19 December 2002 that the government was to accelerate the acquisition of additional troop lift helicopters. Wasn't this commitment the centrepiece of the Prime Minister's response to the Bali bombings? Doesn't the new Defence Capability Plan in fact make it clear that the new troop lift helicopters may not be delivered until 2009, three years later than originally planned? Isn't it also true that the budget for this project is now almost double what it was two years ago? Why does the minister expect Australian taxpayers to wear a three-year schedule delay and a $400 million increase in the cost of this project?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I think I have actually answered this question once or twice before, but I am happy to do it again. The government are committed to purchasing additional troop lift helicopters. I think, for the benefit of Senator Evans, that is Air 9000 phase 2. We wanted to purchase the helicopters as soon as possible; we believe that there is a real need. That is why the Prime Minister made that statement about accelerating the purchase.

When it came to assessment of the helicopters that were available, it was put to the government that to achieve our objective would be to purchase a helicopter that was, in effect, not contemporary best standard. The technology, particularly in avionics, glass cockpits and that type of thing, is changing very rapidly and there was a concern that the helicopter we would purchase would be very quickly out of date. Most likely if you were going to do that, consistent with the fact that the balance of the fleet is Black Hawk, to purchase urgently you would purchase an existing Black Hawk. That would leave us with three different types of Black Hawk helicopters—

Senator HILL —and, as Senator Evans reminds us, phase 4 is updating the last, the majority, of our Black Hawk helicopters. The advice then came back from Defence to government that to procure the helicopters on that basis would be unwise and that it would be better to take a little longer and get the helicopter that was of the new standard. That would not only give you a greater capability with the additional helicopters you were purchasing but also ease phase 4, which is the update of the balance of the fleet, to ensure that you got consistency at the best price. That is why phase 2 and phase 4 are being considered. That will mean that the helicopters will be delivered a little later than was anticipated. My recollection is that we said late 2006 and that it might slip to 2007. That is my recollection without referring back to the detail.

That information was taken on board and accepted by the government. So what we have is a competition. It has been reduced to two players: Eurocopter and Sikorsky. We are hoping for a decision on that, a recommendation from Defence, by the middle of this year. That will be for a helicopter that is of the contemporary standard, and the decision will also take into account the upgrade of the balance of the fleet in the most cost-effective way and in the way to achieve the best capability. I respectfully put to the Senate that that is a very sensible way to approach this project.

Senator HOGG —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, you did not address the part of my question which went to the almost doubling of the cost of the project from its original price two years ago. Further, isn't it the case that the increase in the budget has been caused by the marinisation program which is to protect the helicopters from rusting in maritime conditions? Wasn't the helicopter always designed to operate in a maritime environment? Who forgot to include this most basic element in the program costs in the original budget?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I have answered this question before as well. It is true that the cost has increased, but the capability has increased as well. To be fair, if you are going to accuse somebody of making a mistake you should acknowledge the fact that what is being costed now has greater capability, in particular the flexibility for maritime operations, than what was included in the first estimate back in 2000. What we are interested in is getting the best helicopter we can afford to provide support for our troops in the whole range of functions they have, including, in this instance particularly, protecting us from terrorist threats. I think it is about time now, after eight years in opposition, that the Labor Party started telling us what their alternative is. Are they going to invest more money in capability for the ADF, or are they going to continually knock the upgrades of this government? Yesterday we had them knocking the tanks; today we have got them knocking the helicopters. (Time expired)