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Wednesday, 24 October 1984
Page: 2376

Senator WATSON(9.40) —The establishment of a Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal, the amendments to the Defence Force Discipline Act and the establishment of a Defence Force Advocate are all welcome but overdue measures. In examining the functions of the Advocate, there is a problem of conflict. One of the functions of the Advocate is not only to advise the Chief of Defence Force Staff in relation to matters referred to the Tribunal but also to represent the defence forces in proceedings before the Tribunal. I think there is a very serious conflict of interest. Matters of concern to the Chief of the Defence Force could be at variance with the interests of the rank and file who are supposed to be represented before the Tribunal. I think the Government will have to review this position in light of future events.

The other matter that concerns me about the Defence Force Advocate is that he shall be appointed by the Minister on a part time basis. He must be experienced in industrial matters and have a knowledge of the nature of service in the defence forces, and that does not really amount to very much. I would have thought that to cater appropriately the appointee should be a legal officer operating within the Services. That would be much more realistic than having an outsider. If one looks behind the scenes, one of the concerns within the defence forces is the ever-present push by Public Service personnel to exercise authority over Defence. This is one of their major problems at the moment. We see it in trifling little issues such as the charging for sporting fixtures after hours and so on-nitpicking areas. I wonder whether this could be interpreted as a fairly obvious push by certain Public Service personnel to exercise even more authority over the men in uniform. The plight of the defence forces in terms of low morale and a deterioration in conditions of service has become common knowledge right throughout the community. However, it is a little late. This legislation contains no specific capacity for revitalisation for overcoming these problems of low morale. I remember a long time ago Mr Killen, as he then was, foreshadowing amendments to and describing some of the archaic provisions of the original legislation. The legislation now before us could well be a recipe for the creation and/or exacerbation of tensions within the services .

The augmented powers of the Minister for Defence in the determination of financial conditions of the Services are quite extensive, albeit that they will be carried out through a defence forces tribunal. The fact that the Minister will be vested with the power to authorise, for example, deductions from salaries or allowances in respect of an alleged debt while the member is denied a means of statutory disputation should these impositions be unduly harsh or even invalid will surely imperil already tense relations. Yet appeasement gestures which allow for an increase in the proportion of the retirement and invalid benefits which may be commuted will prove cosmetic rather than substantive. While they initially minimise lump sum payment taxation anticipated under imminent legislation, subsequent pension rates will necessarily be lower. Hence the notion of benefit is to my mind spurious. Financial prospects do not encourage recruitment or long service within the forces, nor do the conditions themselves, and that is to be regretted.

Let me give the Senate an example. Although priority has been given to the construction of facilities to house jets at Tindal in the Northern Territory the planned construction of accommodation for personnel has been delayed. In fact, the accommodation facilities are inferior. It is little wonder that there is unhappiness and that there will be a spate of resignations unless these conditions improve and until the housing and welfare needs of servicemen are put in proper perspective and balance. Once the new facilities are completed and personnel are transferred to the base it will not be surprising to find a spate of resignations and early retirements. I believe that it is within the Government's hands to rectify this problem. The Government needs to get its priorities right and to look after the men as well as the equipment. I think it is unjustifiable that families should be expected to compromise their standards and tolerate a quality of life that is by no means satisfactory and, what is worse still, is deteriorating.

It is hardly surprising that an impetus for unionisation has emerged because of this disgraceful disregard and neglect. Yet, receptive responsible legislation which ensured improved conditions and pay could have and should have offset the need for an association or union. The legislation should have done that but it has not. We must consider the potential repercussions of Defence Force unionisation. This Bill, if it had gone far enough and was adequate enough, should have prevented the need for members of the Defence Force to seek to band together in an association, federation or union. The fact that it has not satisfied their needs is an indictment of the neglect by the Labor Government of the defence forces of this country.

Labor Party policy recognises the right of Defence Force personnel formally to belong to associations which agitate for betterment of pay and conditions. However, I think we must ponder the future repercussions which could be quite serious. The situation at the moment is not serious. Unionisation legitimises organisation and strikes and invariably could lead to other associations, for example, an attachment, liaison or association with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Hence, it would not take very much imagination to follow a scenario of events of what could happen. For example, the stance of the ACTU in relation to anti-nuclear policies could, in a few years, manifest itself in strike action by Defence Force personnel over the servicing of nuclear powered vessels. I know that there are provisions to stop this sort of thing from happening. But unnecessary tensions will be created within the forces, between the chiefs and personnel and within government. Whether the strikes are potential or actual the Government and the Defence Force establishment are both in a new vulnerable position. This matter is serious because unionisation provides the possibility for embarrassing both Government and the defence establishment in an international context. Therefore, externally we have legislation that is delayed and inadequate. We also have demoralisation and poor conditions. The problems that beset the forces and which prompted unionisation remain. The Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal has yet to prove its capability as any incentive to strike or take action has not diminished. The possible outcomes for Australia's Defence Force stability and credibility certainly do not warrant a great deal of celebration. I support the amendment moved by the Opposition noting the failure of the Government.

. . . to keep its promises to the men and women of the Defence Forces on taxation of lump sum superannuation payments, and for its attack on the ability of defence personnel to accumulate capital to provide for their retirement.

When the Labor Party came into government one of its first attacks was on Defence Force personnel, because they are the very people in society who are likely to retire with lump sums. The nature of their occupation in many cases demands early retirement. Therefore, defence personnel, perhaps more than any other group in society, are victimised by this Labor Government because of its attitude to lump sum payments. It will deny them the opportunity to pay off the mortgage back home in Melbourne or Sydney or wherever the wife might be. It will deny them the opportunity to go into business and to make a second start. In other words, this Labor Government wants to bring everybody down, to socialise them to a common denominator until everybody is in receipt of a government pensions.

We must say that the Democrats' fore- shadowed amendment is pretty much a nonsense because it is contradictory. No government is going to commit forces overseas unless a real emergency exists. So for all practical purposes paragraph (3) of the Democrats' proposed amendment would override paragraph (2). This contribution of the Democrats is naive and living in fantasyland. It demonstrates an unreal commitment of the Democrats to proper protection and defence of this country because it could lead to the intolerable situation of holding back, at a strategic and critical time, the ability of our forces to strike back, thus causing unnecessary loss of life within the defence forces because of their having to wait for this Parliament to deliberate and make a decision on the matter when it might not be able to get the full facts. Not only would it put in jeopardy the lives of members of the defence forces, but also it would put at risk the civilian population of Australia. This is an intolerable situation. To realise that one only has to look at the endless range of possibilities of attack on some of our defence establishments. Would they retaliate? Would they turn the other cheek? Or would they just get wiped out waiting for a decision to be made by the Parliament, or waiting for the recall of Parliament if an attack should happen over Christmas time? When is an enemy going to strike? The attack on Pearl Harbour happened on a Sunday. If anybody is to attack Australia it is likely to be over the New Year period when the Parliament is not sitting. The Democrats' foreshadowed amendment is impractical. It is not in the interests of the defence forces or the interests of Australia. I certainly will not be supporting it.