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Thursday, 5 March 1970

Mr BARNARD (Bass) - by leave- Mr Speaker, the last occasion on which a Minister for Defence made a hurried visit to the United States of America was in 1963 to order the F111. Now, 6 months after the last federal election to be held in this country - that was in October 1969 - the Minister for Defence (Mr Malcolm Fraser) is to make a trip to the United States ostensibly for the purpose of investigating the F111 but quite obviously, from what the Minister has said, for the purpose of cancelling the project.

The Minister for Defence has had his nose well and truly rubbed in the whole sorry mess of the F111. After only a few brief months in office, he has been humiliated and made foolish by an overenthusiastic commitment to the F111 aircraft. It is just over 3 months since the Minister, in the first freshness of his accession to this office, committed himself with incredible gusto to the F111. In a spurt of showing himself to be a man of action and decision, the Minister said that the Fill would be delivered early this year. He announced an expedited programme to obtain the plane and have it operating from Australian airfields. Like his illustrious predecessors, including Sir Robert Menzies, Sir Allen Fairhall, the late Sir Shane Paltridge and the late Mr Athol Townley, he has been hopelessly frustrated and belittled by the albatross of the Fill. He has to appear in this House tonight and admit the complete failure of the expedited programme.

Mr Speaker,it has been obvious for at least 2 years that the Fill programme was futile, that the plane despite its great merits had very serious problems, that it was too costly and that it was not relevant to Australia's needs. For the first time, the Government has conceded all these points. The timing of this announcement is significant because another quarterly payment for the Fill is due at the end of this month. So far, this country has outlaid $207m of the purchase price without getting a single plane out of America. Another substantial payment, probably at least $10m, is due in 3 weeks' time. With training and other costs, this will mean that at the end of March this country will have spent at least $220mon the Fill.

In the United States, the plane is encountering tremendous difficulties and it is gravely open to doubt whether it will ever assume an effective professional role. I give as one example the future of the reconnaissance version to which this Government is committed. Quite obviously, the effectiveness of the FI 1 1 will be nil without a reconnaissance version. To develop this version - the so-called RF1 1 1 - an appropriation of $US15m was made in the United States defence budget. This was rejected by Congress which refused to allocate funds for a reconnaissance version in the 1970 budget. This reveals the lack of faith of American legislators in the plane. It also indicates the very limited role envisaged for the Fill even if it overcomes the present severe structural deficiencies outlined by the Minister.

There has been an immense volume of debate on the Fill in this Parliament. I believe that we are rapidly reaching the situation where there is little more to say on the suitability or the viability of the Fill. But the Minister for Defence must clearly understand that the Opposition in this Parliament and the people of Australia will want to be informed, indeed they should be informed, on what arrangements this Government will make if it decides not to proceed with the Fill purchase and what arrangements will be made to recover the $207m that has been committed by the taxpayers of this country towards the purchase of the Fill. So the Minister can expect that the Opposition will need to be further informed on these matters.

I think the implications of the Minister's statement are very plain. The hint of con.cellation is very strong. The inescapable conclusion is that the Minister is going to America to scrub the Fill and to find an alternative. The Opposition agrees that this is the only course left. We have been saying it for at least 2 years. It is tragic that this Government has rejected opportunity after opportunity to get out of this mess before now. The whole Fill exercise has been a very tragic one. The best that can be hoped for is that something can be salvaged from a sequence of events for which the Government must accept complete responsibility. The Opposition hopes that the burden on the Australian taxpayers will not be too great. Certainly, in the event of cancellation there must be some considerable losses.

The only course open to the Minister is to try to negotiate an acceptable alternative, and this means the purchase of an aircraft already in service. I do not want to make any predictions, but there must now be an overwhelming probability that this alternative will be the Phantom aircraft, which has been rejected repeatedly by the Government. I have said repeatedly in this House, on behalf of the Opposition, that this was the most suitable aircraft for Australia's needs. I pointed out in this House more than 12 months ago that, if it was suitable for West Germany, if it was suitable for the United Kingdom, if it was acceptable to Israel and if it could be made under licence in Japan, then quite obviously it was suitable for Australia's requirements. The Government is now confronted with the unpalatable task of accepting the Phantom as an alternative.

The Minister for Defence has had to make a very abject about-face from his confident remarks of December. With a little caution and forethought he could have avoided this humiliation. The country can only hope that he possesses the negotiating ability to extricate the Government from this fiasco with as little financial loss as possible and with a suitable alternative fighter-bomber to assure Australia's security.

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