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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 1956

Mr SINCLAIR (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(12.30) —In the time that is available to me, which is going to be split by the grievance debate at 12.45 p.m., I would like to open the debate on the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill by outlining briefly what is included in the Bill. Before the grievance debate I shall try to deal with the principal provisions of the legislation with respect to reserve call-out. When I resume later this afternoon I will deal with the balance of the Bill.

To start with I should tell everybody that this Government is making an absolute mess of defence. There is an appalling lack of recognition by the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) and by the Government that personnel, as much as equipment, constitute an important element of a strong defence force. The Government does not seem to understand that. The whole nature of its operations has been to encourage a situation where we saw in January 1,068 resignations from the service. Obviously, one has to maintain within a voluntary service a capability to attract quality service men and women and to retain their skills so that it is possible to operate the increasingly sophisticated equipment that is necessary for the overall capability of the Defence Force today.

I want to say a little about resignations from the forces because they very much relate to the changing nature of the reserves. The extension which this Bill provides for in the call-out provisions has the total support of the coalition. Our attitude towards the change was reflected in the debate that followed the presentation by Tom Millar some years ago of his report, the report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Citizen Military Forces. However, there are problems in the degree to which the Government still, in our view, has not broadened sufficiently the call-out provisions for the reserves. I will address that matter a little more in the Committee stage.

The degree to which the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill has changed the restraints on the use of the Australian reserve forces in circumstances other than a defence emergency has the total support of the Opposition. We seek, however, firstly, to ensure that there is a recognition within the Government that reserves are no substitute for maintaining an adequate regular military force right across the three Services. Secondly, whilst we endorse, and indeed introduced, the system of integrating reserve elements into the normal operating strata of the Services, we want to make sure that that facility will extend the operational capability of the defence forces and not impose restraint simply because of the way in which those reserve elements are integrated. By that I mean that if people can serve as reserves only in certain circumstances, or if the training days are so few and money available to them is such that they cannot undertake broader responsibility, then the very purpose of broadening that responsibility can disappear. I want to consider that matter, too.

The other elements of the Bill which I will come to later are mainly of a general character. They embrace such matters as changes to defence disciplinary provisions, Defence Force retirement and death benefits entitlement, and long term enlistment for soldiers, sailors and airmen. There are a number of other general matters about which I will also say a few things later in the debate.

I come to the areas where to date we believe that the Minister has failed abysmally in his responsibility. He does not understand the extent to which it is essential that there be a recognition of the genuine personnel problems of the Services. These problems cannot be solved just by transferring responsibility to the reserves. The responsibility of the reserves as an integrated element of the Australian Defence Force has our 100 per cent endorsement. The broadened responsibility this legislation envisages is a move in the right direction, although it is not quite wide enough.

Two elements, which I will reiterate to the Minister, are absolutely essential. Firstly, it must be possible for the reserve forces to be called out in circumstances, for example, of natural disaster. I do not believe that the present definition is sufficient for that purpose. In the Committee stage of the debate I will suggest that the broader definition which was originally available for the regular Army emergency reserve seems more satisfactory than the definition the Minister is providing in the present instance of the broadening of the call-out provisions.

Secondly, it is absolutely essential that if one is to provide for a call-out of the reserves, funds are available sufficient to enable those who are called out to be paid and for the days that are used during the period of call-out not then to be withdrawn from the elements of which those reserves are members to the degree that levels of required proficiency are prejudiced. Let me explain that within most reserve units there has been a reduction in the permissible number of training days for nothing but monetary reasons. If sufficient funds are not available at present for members of the reserve forces to achieve required levels of proficiency, what chance will there be for them to attain those levels of proficiency if they are expected to go off, under some sort of an obligation under a defence call-out, without some extension of the pay available?

It has always been the view of the National Party that the reserves are a very important part of the Australian defence forces. Reserve elements around Australia have been particularly well supported in regional areas. One need only see the honour rolls following World War I, which contain an incredible number of people from relatively small communities who often gave their lives as well as significant periods of their lives in the service of this country. That is a reflection of the total commitment of Australians in regional and rural areas to Australia's defence.

I return to my concern about the resignation of personnel from the armed forces. It is my view that the Minister, in his lack of recognition of the problems of the personnel and the families of servicemen and women, and the difficulties that they have in this day and age, is failing the Defence Force. When one reads that 1,068 members of approximately 70,000 voluntary members of the armed forces resigned in January, one knows how bad things are. After all, that figure is more than double the 444 members who left in December. There was a 300 per cent increase in the number of officers leaving. In January 143 officers left, compared with an average of 41 who left each month during the previous three years. Of the officers who left, only one female and six males left after reaching retirement age. In other words, the overwhelming majority of those leaving were younger men and women of the equivalent rank of captain or major. There are problems, not only in the officer corps but right through at all levels of service.

The Government has not, either in the legislative packages-this package and the legislation that is about to come before us for the establishment of a housing authority-or in its presentation of the White Paper adequately addressed the problems of the personnel of the Services. Another problem the Minister has not addressed adequately is the whole problem of management. Within the defence forces there is still far too much bureaucratic intervention. We still have a teeth to tail ratio that cannot be endorsed. There are far too many people in the Russell and Campbell office complexes. Defence central deserves to be and needs to be decentralised. The Minister has to introduce a far greater measure of financial delegation to allow the people who have absolute power over the lives of thousands of Australians and others during wartime to exercise something like the ordinary responsibility which the boss of a Woolworths, Coles or Myers branch supermarket has during times of peace. The failure to provide that financial delegation means that there is far too much reference back to the civil servants who essentially control the purse strings of the Defence Force.

One of the inevitable consequences of the greater integration of the reserves into the overall operation of the Defence Force is the necessity for the call-out provisions to be changed. As I have explained, the Opposition gives complete endorsement to the Government's action in this respect. However, we will be seeking in the Committee stage to ensure that the call-out provisions are adequate in case of emergency, for example, another Cyclone Tracy in Darwin. Heaven forbid that it should happen, but regret- tably heaven can facilitate as well as forbid. It has happened before.

In my view, it is essential that, if there are elements-for example, the Norforce element in the Northern Territory-they should be capable of being called out to assist. Equally, the same position could apply if there were problems in one of Australia's territories. We all know that Christmas, Cocos and Norfolk islands lie in the cyclone belt. If damage were caused there by a natural disaster, given the integration of the reserves into the regular forces-not just the Army but the other two services also-it would seem common sense that, if we wished to provide the most effective and quickest involvement of the defence forces to assist in those circumstances, we should be able to call out the reserve forces and send them on that purpose.

There are implications. As I have suggested, those implications involve the absolute necessity of providing adequate financial resources to ensure that those who are so called out are not precluded from serving for the rest of that particular year in the ordinary operations of their unit. There has to be a flexibility to allow more days of service and to pay for more days of service for reserves if they are called out so that we can maintain the normal effectiveness of the units to which they belong. It must also be recognised that Reserve people have civilian employment. There needs to be an acceptance that, if people are called out, there should be some sensitivity to ensure that their own field of civilian employment is not so prejudiced that they can lose their jobs.

We all know that the Defence (Re-establishment) Act 1965 provided protection in relation to civilian employment. Within the legislation there is a protection to ensure that where a person who is a member of the defence forces resumes work or is reinstated in employment he should not be disadvantaged. However, the reality cannot be covered by any government legislation. We must find a way to ensure that, if there is a call-out, people within private sector employment, particularly those working for themselves in small business, are not so disadvantaged that they are denied a reasonable opportunity of being recruited into the reserves.

Another aspect of the legislation which I should mention concerns the implications that follow from the increased number of female recruits to the Defence Force. While all honourable members on this side of the House accept that there should be equal employment opportunities, our approach to employment in the defence forces, and indeed generally, is different from that of the Government. I am concerned, at a time of increased resignations and increased recruitment of women, that some aspects of female participation in the Defence Force are not understood. Their term of service generally is much shorter than that of males; therefore, the cost of training is higher because more people have to be trained to do the job over a similar period.

There are restrictions on areas in which women can serve. That places restraints on the flexibility that commanding officers, in whichever service, have in using their personnel as they would wish. It needs to be comprehended that any approach towards equal employment must be done with sensitivity. That is equally the case with the call-out provisions. Unless we recognise that there are restraints, we will find that the male members of the defence forces will have even greater demands placed on their time and, instead of increasing the flexibility of the use of reserves, the position is likely to be the reverse. That would be a great pity.

The reserves should not be regarded as an alternative to maintaining an adequate level of personnel throughout all elements of the regular services. The reserves must be complementary, but not an alternative, to the regular forces. I am concerned that the Government's approach in the legislation seems to be an excuse to say: `We will pass over the reserves because our general recruiting program and maintenance of people within the Services have failed. Therefore, we have to find an alternative'. That is not satisfactory. The reserves have a vital role, but it must be complementary to that of the regular forces. With the increased measure of sophistication of equipment within the Australian Defence Force, it is essential that they work together in a harmonious way. I will move an amendment at the Committee stage to ensure that the reserve forces can be called out in times of natural disaster. It now being 12.45 p.m., I presume it is a convenient time to move on to the grievance debate. I reserve my right to resume my remarks at a later hour.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Drummond) —Order! It being 12.45 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with sessional order 106a. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The right honourable member for New England will have leave to continue his speech when the debate is resumed.