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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1571

Senator MASON(7.05) —I rise to express my concern at a number of unsatisfactory aspects of housing provided to the families of Australian Army personnel at Holsworthy Army Base near Sydney, which, with about 25 per cent of armed forces personnel in Australia stationed there, is probably the largest single concentration of Army dependants in the country. I went to Holsworthy last week, held a discussion with a group of Army wives, and looked at a number of houses in which families are currently accommodated.

One of the aspects which worried me greatly and which I believe I ought to report to the Senate was the apparently deep-seated impression on the part of a number of soldiers' wives that their husbands would be discriminated against because they had raised the question of their housing with me. This was a matter I could hardly ignore. I asked what form this discrimination would take and I was told it could involve men being passed over for promotion, or being given unpleasant, heavy or unpopular duties. I have more faith in our Army command than to believe such things could happen without corrective action. I ask the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes), who is in the House, to convey that sentiment to the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) so some statement of reassurance to these people can be made.

Certainly many of the Army wives at Holsworthy have every reason to complain. The overall picture is one of discrimination. There are large, new, brick houses with wall-to-wall carpet, in which some families live. There are also very small, 40-year-old fibro houses which afford the most minimal accommodation and which I must say are a positive disincentive to the maintenance of a professional army.

There are people at the private and non-commissioned officer level who carry out very valuable functions, such as parachute training, who we need and need to retain in our armed services. Plainly, they have an incentive to get out of the Army and do something else if their families are unhappy with good cause. Indeed, this is happening. I intend to place some questions on notice to establish the extent to which we are losing these valuable people, but I already know from the reports made to me that there are very considerable losses.

It is also a fact that, because of frequent shifts in location and relatively low salaries without overtime, it is very difficult for Army families to build their own homes. Because of the location of bases, it is also difficult for them to find accommodation outside of that officially provided. With that in mind, it is difficult to understand the situation being continued, but of the 950 houses officially provided in Holsworthy and Anzac Village, 60 per cent are below the minimum Army housing standard set in 1972, which is, after all, 13 years ago. Thirteen years after the setting of the standard, 60 per cent of nearly 1,000 houses are below the minimum standard.

I saw several houses with bare, unfinished timber flooring and knotholes in the floorboards. Apparently the theory is that people who are unfortunate enough to be in the old houses will not be provided with carpets; they are supposed to provide their own. Of course, when they move from house to house when they are transferred, their carpets never fit. This, and the usual complete lack of insulation in the houses, makes them very cold and damp in winter. It was reported to me that some winter electricity bills are as high as $300. Maintenance of this already low standard of housing has apparently also been a very slow business. I was told of one case where a leaking pipe which had been dripping water down a bathroom wall was left for six months before a plumber was sent to fix it.

Inadequate housing conditions are not the only obstacles encountered by professional members of the Defence Force and their families. Other typically catch-22 situations apply. It was intended that the new, redesigned and, I believe, much better Army uniforms would be introduced in 1984 or 1985. To that end the old uniforms are no longer being produced. Unfortunately, it is now expected that the new uniforms will not be available until 1988. It is therefore extremely difficult to buy any uniform, old or new, and it will become increasingly difficult as 1988 approaches. Of course, one has to be in uniform in the Army or one is in trouble. Most extraordinary artifices are already being resorted to at Holsworthy with people buying four or five sets of uniforms, swapping with each other, in order that our Army can actually appear in uniform.

Senator Peter Baume —Did you raise any of these matters at the Estimates Committee hearings?

Senator MASON —No. Let us not discuss other debates now. I am raising them now in this adjournment debate. As I said, of course soldiers have to be in uniform in the Army or they are in trouble. How people can be expected to maintain their present standard of dress when they cannot buy new uniforms is a mystery to me, and it is becoming an increasing mystery to the people who are called on to do it. If we wish to maintain the high standard of our Defence Force, and indeed to stop the escalating number of resignations and the plummeting morale of those who remain in the forces, we must do something about these problems. We must provide incentives to people to join the forces and put up with all the problems that that entails. If we continue on the present course, we will find ourselves in a very short space of time with a vastly diminished and increasingly unhappy Defence Force. Those problems must be addressed now.