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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10476

Mr PRICE (12:42 PM) —Thank you for reminding us of that. It is perhaps one of the most important resolutions that this House has considered. It is the largest deployment of troops in peacekeeping since the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments have taken office. Like all members of the opposition and all members of parliament, I believe I can say, we wish our troops who have been dispatched to East Timor all the very best. They can be reassured of not only our support and interest in their welfare but also our concern and anxiety for their families.

I rise to participate in this debate not only as the current deputy chairman of the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in this parliament, but also having been chairman of the defence subcommittee. When I was chairman, Mr Sinclair, the member for New England, was the deputy chairman and then, when he became the chairman, I was pleased to serve under him as I was to serve under Senator McGibbon and do now under the member for Wannon, Mr Hawker.

It is true to say that the subcommittee really does reflect a bipartisan attitude to matters of defence. I have often said that perhaps we have not been critical enough of what has occurred. As momentous as this decision has been, and notwithstanding the unanimity of support for it, it behoves an opposition to raise questions where there are doubts and to seek answers where questions need to be answered. I regret to say that this is one very such occasion.

I could dwell on the lead-up to the deployment of troops. There has been much comment about it. Of all the commentary I have read in the papers, the most objectionable has been the line fed out and peddled by Laurie Oakes in a magazine that this was `the massacre we had to have'. If the government will not accept the criticisms starkly put by the opposition about the lead-up to the deployment, it needs to re-examine what has happened to understand if mistakes were made. If mistakes are made and you do not learn from them, you will repeat them. The East Timorese have paid an awful price, notwithstanding the fact that we are going in.

I want particularly to raise concerns about defence issues. At the briefing that Laurie Brereton gave our caucus this week, and indeed at our caucus meeting, I raised the issue of troop rotation. We are sending over more than 4,000 troops. I congratulate the government—and I did so at the time—on getting the 2nd Brigade to an increased state of readiness. It was quite clear that we had to plan for a worst-case scenario where peacekeeping troops would be required.

Whilst we would all hope that these troops will be deployed and returned with great haste, we have been given no idea of the duration of this commitment. This government has broken new ground in peacekeeping, both in Bougainville and in East Timor. When you look at peacekeeping deployments under Labor, you see that clear objectives and a finite period of time were set. There were pleas to keep the Australians longer in Somalia, but we brought them out. This time, I believe, the troops are not being sent with the clearest of objectives. Certainly there is no clear idea of the duration of the deployment. I think it is fair to say that there was a great deal of planning made on the basis of sending such numbers in for a short time before bringing one brigade back to be rotated with another. It is becoming clear that that is not possible.

When asked about this yesterday in the House, the Minister for Defence said, `We will address rotation issues when it is appropriate.' Wouldn't you need to plan for rotation now? Forty-five minutes later a colonel, the spokesman for the Defence Force said, `Yes, we do have plans. Our plans are to fire up the 7th Brigade.' This is the brigade that was re-formed after the axing of the Ready Reserve. The Ready Reserve provided 12 months of full training for recruits, 60 per cent of whom went on to university studies. The Army was delighted to be getting a different type of recruit, with different capabilities from what they had normally been used to, into the Reserves. But the government axed it. I have always said that was a mistake. The Army was not dissatisfied with it, but the government axed it. This was clearly a reserve that would have enabled the government to deploy troops overseas.

We also have the conundrum that, notwithstanding recommendations from the defence subcommittee, reserves cannot be mobilised overseas. We have 23,000 full-time soldiers and 27,000 part-time soldiers who can be mobilised for Australia but cannot be sent on peacekeeping missions. So we ask platoons to nominate how many are prepared to serve. Not only do we have to get the platoon up to readiness, but we have to pick and choose from those who volunteer, regroup and re-form them and send them out. General reserves are on 365 days readiness. That is the doctrine; that is the state of preparedness. But what that means—if it is accurate—is that you have to pull them out full time for a year in order to send them overseas. Does that mean the deployment is going to be for 12 months? Clearly, everything we have learnt is that 12 months is too long.

With great fanfare, the Prime Minister said, `I want a report into the reserves.' And where is that report? That report was due in June of this year. I am a fan of the reserves, and I heard the chief of the Army at his national press conference say that the reserves are playing a marvellous role overseas. Indeed, they are. But the reserves we are using are doctors. That is what he was referring to. And for those doctors who are in private practice, we pay practice payments. But if you are not a doctor, if you happen to be working for a small business or you happen to be a farmer or you happen to be self-employed, you do not get a practice payment. Why not? If it is good enough for doctors, why isn't it good enough for the rest of the reserve?

I believe that the general reserve, as we know it, is reaching the limit of its usefulness. That is not to deprecate them, but when you have a government that will not guarantee job security for the reserves, that will take them out of award conditions and then out of firms for considerable periods of time—and I do not blame the firms, because they feel very keenly the loss of any employee—then the notion of reserves that we have been used to is running the limit of its usefulness. But do not accept my view on this. What about the former head of the reserves and his comment about the problems that exist with the reserves.

Let me make another point. When you are mobilising the reserves to get them up to a higher state of readiness you not only have to spend 365 days in training them but also have to provide more equipment. Do we have that equipment? I think these are issues that are deserving of answers. I thought it was outrageous yesterday when the junior minister talked about the allowances and the family support he was providing for the troops being deployed overseas but could not answer the critical question: how long would each tour be—would it be three months; would it be six months; was it going to be 12 months? He would not provide the House, the people of Australia or the families of the servicemen with that information.

I want to say this about the Minister for Defence: at the time the situation in East Timor was coming, he was preoccupied with sacking his secretary; and he is the only defence minister for some time—either conservative or Labor—whose Indonesian counterpart would not accept a return telephone call from. Such is the depth of the breakdown of our relationship with the second most important country with which we have a strategic relationship—the United States being first and Indonesia being second. (Time expired)