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Wednesday, 21 September 1983
Page: 1091

Mr WHITE(4.07) —I think the first thing that has to be said in this matter of public importance is that it does not do the Minister for Defence (Mr Scholes) or the Government much credit to attack the policies of previous governments or Ministers. He should tell the defence forces and the servicemen and women of this country what he is doing for them because he knows as well as I do that in the three Services in Australia there is mass confusion and mounting unhappiness about the conditions of service and about what this Government is doing or intends to do about them. I do not blame the Minister in particular for that. I believe that he does try in Cabinet but the fact is that he gets rolled every time he goes there.

Australia's defences are running down. It is not an exaggeration to say that this country is in danger-not today and not tomorrow but in the long term. Once we run down our defences to an unacceptable level it will take years and years to build them up. That rundown will encourage overseas adventurers and land acquisition experiments by countries which might be tempted to try to take something that is now ours. At a time when Australia should be more independent and should be stronger, as announced by the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) and the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), and playing a more independent role, the plain fact is that we are becoming less independent and more dependent on other countries.

For six months there has been a continuous assault on the armed forces of this country. Firstly there was the cancellation of the new aircraft carrier and, secondly, the abolition of the Fleet Air Arm. Now we see, whether the Minister likes it or not or whether it is planned or not, a manpower reduction in the Services. I find it very curious when people argue that it is not really a manpower reduction in the Navy because we have not bought a carrier or because we have abolished the Fleet Air Arm. On that sort of logic, all we need to do, if we are to continue the reduction in manpower, is to decommission a few more ships. Then we could say that we are not reducing manpower that we are reducing the number of ships.

There has been a fuel reduction across the board in all the Services, particularly in the Navy. There has been a reduction in the number and scale of exercises. There is to be an assault on the pay of the Army Reserve and all regular servicemen by way of taxation. The proposed review will cause their pay to go down, not up under the Defence Force retirement and death benefits scheme. The loss of confidence and drop in morale in the services is massive. Servicemen are rightly asking: What is the plan for the Services? What is the Government's policy? They are asking themselves: 'My God, what am I doing here?' It is silly for honourable members to say that there is no concern in the defence forces. We have only to look at Air Force retirements in the last month or so.

I think it is pertinent to ask: What are the Government's objectives? I must confess that I do not know, and I suspect that the Government itself does not know what are its longer term objectives for the defence forces of this country. I do not know what the objectives are but I can tell the House what is happening . We are losing our capacity to assist any friends and allies we might have in the immediate area. We are becoming a joke amongst the Association of South East Asian Nations countries, ANZUS, and the 36 countries within some 3,000 miles of our shores, most of whom look to us for some assistance in defence matters. It is a joke that the Minister for Foreign Affairs sees ANZUS as no automatic safeguard for Australia. He proposes a more independent role for this country and advocates, as the Deputy Leader of the National Party, the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair) has outlined, an increased presence in the Indian Ocean. What a joke! What will the Government do it with? The Government makes these grand statements: 'We will do this. We will take a more independent stand', but at the same time it runs the Services into the ground. Specialists in all services are leaving. Mark my words, others will follow if the economic situation picks up.

If honourable members opposite want to talk about a reduction in manpower they should look at the Budget Papers, where the service projections for manpower are down by 700, I think. The number of civilians, and there are already 21,000 in the Department of Defence, is projected to rise. In many areas our equipment is being run down. In short, our armed forces are becoming a very second rate home- based service without the capacity to intervene or assist any friends overseas. Unfortunately, the problem is that the Australian Labor Party, as it did before, thinks of the armed forces as it might think of a car factory, perhaps. If more people are needed the employer goes out on the streets and gets a few more to put on. Then when he does not want so many he just puts a few more off. I should have thought that, at least after the experience of the last few years, the Labor Party would have learnt that the defence forces cannot be turned on and off like a tap. It has taken something like 40 years to get the Fleet Air Arm to the strength and level of expertise that it had achieved, and this Government abolishes it overnight.

Referring to the Army, as of yesterday it has stopped recruiting, despite what the Minister might think. It is not taking any applications at the Brisbane Office. It is reducing manpower. There is a reduction in units and there may be a reduction in bases. What is to happen to the one regular division we have in this country? There has been a review to consider reducing the number of brigades from three to two. As I understand it, that will not happen. By maintaining three brigades, of course, we must inevitably spread out the manpower amongst the fighting units in all those brigades. Already the manpower is dangerously thin. We are developing in the Army not only an Australian home base mentality but a mentality that says: 'Stay in your bases, boys. Do not cause us much trouble. We need active men in the Services but we will not give you enough money to do some decent exercises'. Why should they stay? While our operational deployment force, which is based in Townsville, north Queensland has the bones of an effective force, it has very limited mobility; none within the brigade itself. It has no amphibious capacity and none, or maybe a very limited, parachute ability and a limited number of armoured personnel carriers. We must ask: What can it do and where can it go without a lot of warning and a lot of lead time?

Let us consider the Royal Australian Navy. It has no carrier. On that basis it has no capacity to intervene overseas. It has to rely on another service for air cover. There has been a reduction in fuel. In order to save a few paltry dollars the Government has reduced training capacity and mobility, and certainly there is no naval presence in many areas where Australia should be showing a presence. The Kangaroo 83 exercise has been greatly reduced. Referring briefly to the Fleet Air Arm, it has had 40 years of specialised training. Why do we run down and abandon the A4s before we even have the F18 aircraft? There is no logical reason. The trackers could well have gone to a surveillance role. This is a joke in north Queensland, and I have spoken about this matter before.

The Government promised to maintain the base at Nowra. What a joke! Sixty people have already gone out of the service and others are waiting to go, not to Australian forces but to forces in the United Kingdom and Canada. As far as I know none has gone to the Air Force or the Army. The Government promised also that there would be no base reduction. Already the number is down by 300 since that promise was made and there are more to go. The parachute unit which is to make up the numbers, is a unit of less than 200 and is not scheduled to go there until 1985.

The Deputy Leader of the National Party has already covered the defence force retirement and death benefits scheme. What a joke! Each year 7,500 service men and women leave the Services. Six thousand get no benefits and 1,500 might become eligible for benefits. The lump sum of $40,000 which they need to re- establish themselves in civilian life is under threat of being taxed, or will be taxed. The average service pension is something like $8,000. If this Government is going to assault these special conditions of service of people who must leave the forces before they are 55-a handful would stay on over the age of 55-it must expect that confusion and uncertainty will exist while it is in government.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Child) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.