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Tuesday, 16 October 1973
Page: 2149

Mr SINCLAIR (New England) - I think that over the last 10 months all of us have become more and more concerned about the degree to which there has been in Australia a marked run down in our defence capacity. This is something which is perhaps hard to identify in short form other than by an examination of the equipment availability, the morale of the personnel and the numbers of personnel in the forces. However, it is important that this House be given an opportunity to consider just what this Minister for Defence (Mr Barnard) has done for the defence of this country. He has claimed that this is a frivolous motion and that we are depriving this Parliament of an opportunity to debate adequately matters of importance. Is he suggesting that defence is not a matter of importance? This I believe marks one of the tragedies of this man's appointment to this portfolio. Throughout his administration he has not just accepted that in circumstances it is necessary to utilise to the maximum degree financial resources and to allocate those financial resources wisely, and that therefore, perhaps, there is some reason to look at the level of the re-equipment program for the armed services and to contain it in relation to genuinely expressed and overtly explained financial purposes. On the other hand the Minister has said that there is a meaningful reason for us to run down our defence capacity because there is no foreseeable threat in the next 15 years. But I wish to goodness that he would make up his mind about just what he does mean. He told us this morning that he has over the last 10 months looked at the debris of a decade of inefficiency of administration by the preceding Government. Yet as recently as 22 August 1973 he commended in very strong words the action taken by the preceding administration. He stated:

But the favourable strategic prospect allows us an opportunity to review and rationalise, to promote more efficient and economical defence capabilities. After the more or less continuous defence expansion of the last 10 years, it is a time for taking stock, for pruning back activities whose original purpose has changed and for eliminating redundancies that have crept into our force structure. lt is quite obvious that this man does not really know where he is going in the administration of Australia's defence forces. I believe that he has set into his own particular responsibility a desire to run down our defence capacity in a way which does not coincide with the expression of foreign policy that his Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) is asserting. That is one of the tragedies of the administration of the Defence portfolio. The Prime Minister is asserting Australia as a middle ranking, thrusting power. He has advocated to this House the degree to which, through resource diplomacy, it is necessary for us to assert ourselves in the international arena. Yet in the alienation of our relations with the United States, in the marked withdrawal from Singapore and Malaysia, in the withdrawal from our ANZUK commitments and in the presentation of a strategic assessment that comes down as there being no defence threat for 15 years, the Minister for Defence is denying Australia the capacity to meet the foreign policy stance which the Prime Minister is asserting. On the economic basis we find that there will be an even greater run down than the people were led to believe prior to the election. My colleague, the honourable member for Barker (Dr Forbes), already has referred to the 3.5 per cent promised by the Australian Labor Party in its policy speech as the percentage of gross national product that would be allocated to defence expenditure by its regime yet here in its first Budget allocation we have a 2.6 per cent expenditure - a marked reduction on the 3.5 per cent promised. It is interesting to note the expenditure of a number of other countries with a low defence expenditure. Ethiopia expends 1.4 per cent, Colombia 1.2 per cent and Tunisia 1.5 per cent of their gross national product on defence. This is the sort of arena into which the Minister for Defence seeks to put Australia in terms of the defence financial allocation.

Another real problem that must be recognised within the administration of the Defence portfolio is the rampant inflation that this Government is inciting. This means that although there has been a reduction in actual allocation of percentage funds for the defence forces, the amount to be gained from the expenditure of the money allocated is likely to be further reduced because of the inflationary spiral which the Government is inciting by the level of government expenditure in other domestic areas. So in the field of finan cial allocation the defence forces are to be seriously threatened. But that is not the core of our concern. Our concern lies in 3 areas - in the equipment availability for the armed services, in the manpower components of the armed Services and in the resultant impact that there is on the morale of those in the Services.

For a few moments I advert to the position with regard to equipment. The right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton), in making a personal explanation a few moments ago, adverted to the program of preceding administrations, stating the necessity for taking into account the extraordinarily long lead times needed in equipping adequately a highly technical defence corps which is necessary in terms of the sort of military engagement to which Australia might be committed in the future. In respect of the Navy the Government has already taken a series of significant decisions which materially reduce not only the present capacity of the Navy but also are likely to mean that our Navy will be unable to fulfil its allocated task if a defence threat were to emerge not tomorrow but in five or even ten years time. The DDL program has been cancelled. The Sydney' has been withdrawn from service without any replacement being envisaged and. indeed, without having made adequate alternative provision for the withdrawal of the forces from Singapore or for the ferrying of helicopters that would have been brought by that vessel from the United States either later this year or early next year. In terms of the naval capacity to build vessels in a short period or even to repair them, the dockyard activity itself is already seriously affected. I understand that during the last 8 months there has been something like a 60 per cent increase in industrial disputes affecting the dockyards that are used by the Australian Navy, so there is not only a reduction in the equipment that is being ordered by the Government but also a lack of ability to repair the equipment that is currently available. Nothing is being done to rectify that position.

Regarding the Army, the sort of defence effort that is considered necessary has seen the equipment available in terms of defence and army personnel, carriers and helicopters all denied from the viewpoint of long term planning. There has been a cut back in the number of helicopters provided for the Army. There has been no forward provision for the re-equipment of the Army in order to meet a task it may have to meet at some future time. With respect to the Air Force there has been a cannibalising of the Mirage squadrons which has seen the number of serviceable Mirage aircraft cut down since the Labor Party assumed office from 99 to, 1 understand, about 87 aircraft. In terms of equipment there has been a significant reduction in the present and future capacity of the armed forces to meet any task placed on them.

In terms of manpower we have seen and heard of the conflict between those who are the responsible executive officers of the Army particularly and who have stated their manpower requirements and the Minister for Defence and the Government who have applied marked reductions. The result has been that the morale of members of the armed forces is seriously impaired. Numbers of senior officers have tendered their resignations and the whole of the confidence of this nation in a defence corps which has enjoyed such a high and outstanding reputation has been prejudiced. The Minister has made some laudable statements in this House. He said, as the honourable member for Barker expressed earlier, that he would see our defence forces designed to ensure our security and independence. Yet he has denied the capacity of our armed forces to do just that. He has opted out of the region. He has ensured that the Australian foreign policy role will henceforth be prejudiced by our inability to match on the ground the demands that any future conflagration might impose.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Luchetti)Order!The honourable member's time has expired.

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