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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10415

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (4:05 PM) —It is a sad testimony to the gross inattention and incompetence of the Minister of Defence that we must have this debate today. On Tuesday this House, on a bipartisan basis, totally supported our contribution to INTERFET and we offered our best wishes and support for the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who are already in Timor or those who will be there in the near future. On that occasion, we highlighted the failure of the government to address a raft of issues regarding the Defence Force, and particularly the urgent need to rebuild the Australian Army Reserve. Our concerns have been met with denial and buck-passing by the government. The government continues to congratulate itself for acting in April to place a second brigade on 28 days readiness.

As I said on Tuesday, we have consistently supported the decision. But I remind the House of the time the minister told the Ten Network that placing two brigades on 28 days readiness would require a bigger base of reserves and improved cooperation from employers. What we need to know is what action he took on this very same requirement that he himself identified. The government continually had advice from military intelligence about what was really happening on the ground in Timor, particularly in relation to the integral links between the TNI and their surrogate militias.

Equally, it has been receiving advice for the best part of the past year about the poor state of the reserves. Indeed, a quick check through my own records reveals the following media releases and speeches of mine in 1999 on issues facing the reserves: 8 January, `Coalition policies harm reserve recruitment'; 15 February, `Army Reserve', in grievance debate; 20 April, `Liberals disown Reith on defence reserves'; 3 May, `Action needed on leave for defence reservists'; on 11 May, there was an MPI in this House with regard to the reserves; 11 August, `Scott unrealistic on reserve leave'; 20 September, `Government fails to recruit 2,300 defence reservists'. So there has been a long, hard effort by the opposition to alert this government to the problems of the reserves in this country.

Indeed, on the resumption of parliament for the budget sittings the opposition initiated a matter of public importance, highlighting:

The disastrous impact on the Defence Reserves of the Coalition's industrial relations and defence policies.

Then, as now, the government's response was denial on the one hand and, on the other, the false promise that it was, once again, looking into remedial measures for the reserves. This approach has continued this week, but in the changed context where we now have troops on the ground in Timor—troops potentially in harm's way who have a right to expect that this government and this parliament have in place proper contingency plans to support them and to replace them when the need arises. Yesterday my colleague the member for Cunningham asked the minister to:

. . . explain how Australia is going to rotate Australian troops deployed in East Timor, especially considering that the government abolished the Ready Reserve scheme, removed leave for Defence Force reservists as an allowable matter under the Workplace Relations Act, and allowed recruiting to the reserves to fall short by nearly half the target?

Most Australians would have thought that was an apt question, reflecting strong views widely held in this country, which needed a detailed response from the government. What was the substance of the minister's reply? The crux of it was:

. . . some 3,000 troops will be deployed in that province in the very near future, with full equipment, food, fuel and resources. As I said, the

question dealing with the reserves should be addressed to the minister assisting. The question of rotation will be dealt with when that becomes relevant.

It is not relevant now, apparently. What an appalling performance: fobbing off responsi bility for the reserves to his junior minister and implying that the question of rotation was irrelevant at present.

Unfortunately for the minister's shrinking credibility—but fortunately for the Australian people—the Australian Defence Force had other ideas. Within hours of the minister dismissing the matter, the ADF's official spokesman on our Timor deployment, Colonel Duncan Lewis, told the media that a new recruitment drive was under way `because of the urgency of getting a rotation in place'—quite a contrast to the minister's assurances—that the 7th Brigade was being mobilised, that the reserves would be looked at and that former defence personnel would be encouraged back into uniform. Apparently, all this was news to the responsible minister—the Minister for Defence. His spokesman was quoted on the front page of the Canberra Times as follows:

The Government had not made a decision on boosting the 7th task force. the army could sustain the East Timor force for some time and there was no rush to enlist recruits.

Today the minister played games of semantics to avoid confessing the true situation; namely, that Colonel Lewis was right and the minister was totally wrong again. So despite the denials last night we now hear that, while the reserves `generally' are not needed, `specialist' reserves, such as dental and engineering personnel, are needed and that the government was again looking into the need to increase the readiness of additional battalions.

Later in question time the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, Mr Scott, answered that the government was again looking into the reserves. This is an appalling state of affairs. The Minister for Defence does not know what is going on in the Defence Force. Every genuine problem raised is met with the response that the opposition is being alarmist—just like we were being alarmist for the last year with regard to what was going on in Timor on the ground. When they are finally forced to admit that there are unresolved problems, the two ministers say they are looking into a response. When they are finally forced to admit that there are unre solved problems, the two ministers say that they are again looking into a response.

Of course, it is not just in the past 24 hours that our military leadership has been trying to give the government soundly based—but unwelcome—advice. Indeed, I have here today a copy of an official Headquarters ADF minute that was sent to the former Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel, Bronwyn Bishop, on 24 May 1996—more than three years ago. It has a very unambiguous heading: `Inclusion of leave provisions for Defence purposes in the Workplace Relations Bill. The minute begins by noting that on 9 April 1996—not 1999; 1996—the author had discussed with the minister the concerns of the official Defence Reserves Support Committee. They are people who put a lot of their time into promoting reserves in this country. He had spoken to the minister about:

. . . the impact the [Workplace Relations] Bill may have on the availability of Reservists and the consequences that would have on the ADF, particularly if existing provisions for leave for Reserve training were removed from Federal awards.

The minute was very perceptive. It went on to say:

As Reserve members constitute approximately 40 per cent of the ADF workforce, their continued availability for training, as currently provided for in awards, agreements and company personnel policies, is essential—

underline `essential'—

to Australian Defence Force capability. Existing awards have been important in providing institutional support for Reserves through the inclusion of provisions which allow leave for military training purposes for members of the Reserves. Over one hundred awards include leave provisions for Reserve training provisions.

I am pleased that the member for Herbert is here today, because, unlike the Australian Defence Force, he does not understand that over 100 Australian awards and agreements had these provisions. He told his electorate that there was no such thing in the Australian industrial relations system. The minute—that brief that the minister had 3½ years ago—further told Bronwyn Bishop:

If not identified as a matter for inclusion in awards, Reserve training leave may not be picked up within either the Certified Agreement, Australian Workplace Agreements or other State Agreements which will increasingly supplant existing awards.

Although not one of the safety net employment conditions identified in the Bill, Reserve availability for training is critical to maintaining defence capability and award coverage of this issue is an important component of ensuring availability. The Bill should therefore include provisions which would permit awards to continue to cover Defence Force leave provisions.

So the people who actually know something about this in the Australian Defence Force—the people who actually have carriage of this, regardless of governments and regardless of the ineptitude of individual ministers—told this minister that he should stand up to the minister for industrial relations and basically stop that change.

Whether it was Bronwyn Bishop or the current minister, there has been a serious dereliction of duty with regard to maintaining Australia's reserves. No doubt when the then minister got that advice she said she would be looking into the matter—just like her successor said today, more than three years later. In the meantime, things have gone backwards. Defence leave has been taken out of awards, recruitment of reserves is at its lowest level in living memory—all at a time when the ADF is involved in its biggest overseas deployment since the Vietnam War. So, indeed, there is a need to condemn this minister for the gross inattention he has shown his portfolio. Quite frankly, the bonhomie that he daily produces and the friendly quips across the House are not good enough in such a serious matter.