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Wednesday, 27 February 1985
Page: 273

Mr WHITE —My question is addressed to the Minister for Defence. In light of the continued rundown of the Australian defence forces as revealed by the latest Defence Force employment statistics which show that the number of Service personnel fell by another 331 in December and that our regular forces are now some 1,500 below target strength, I ask the Minister: What action is he taking, at a time when ANZUS is under threat, to ensure that our defence forces are maintained at their full potential?

Mr BEAZLEY —I thank the honourable gentleman for his question which I propose to answer at some length, as he covered a fairly broad area. In fact, the basic premise of his question is incorrect. There is no general rundown of the Australian defence forces as he implied. There have been among the Services fluctuations over a period between a couple of different levels from the point at which our predecessors came into office until the point at which we find ourselves today. There is no essential difference between the position then and the position now.

I take the Army as an example of that process. In 1976, for example, it had 31,430 personnel. The level rose to 33,072 in 1983 and is between the 1976 and 1983 points now. All battalions are operating at much the same authorised peacetime levels that have applied since the reorganisation following the Vietnam war. The operational deployment force, for example, has been maintained at a high degree of readiness. Other elements are maintained at lower levels of readiness but at levels sufficient to maintain a core of skills for timely expansion should that be required. In particular units at particular times when we determine that there is a need to increase strength we do so. For example, the Special Air Service Regiment is in the process of being increased by an additional squadron. So there are fluctuations in levels of Service personnel by a few hundred at different times.

One of the factors that are in application at the moment, for example, is the overall strength of the officer elements of the armed services. From a state of experiencing a lower level of resignation in the first year of office of this Government than was achieved in the previous several years to that point we have now gone back to the average that applied during the previous Government's period of office. I do not say that the previous Government's performance in that regard during its period of office was inadequate at all. The point is that other factors impinge on the situation. The factor which most seriously impinged to keep the levels of resignation low in our first year of office was the general state of the economy, coming to office as we did when the economy was in a state of some decline. Naturally enough, the response to that among the military personnel was to stay perhaps a little longer than they intended. We have now returned to the position of achieving resignation rates at much the same level as our predecessors.

If there is any area of neglect in the defence forces the honourable member will know, as his predecessors know, that nothing much happens to change the state of affairs in a short period such as 18 months. The strength of the military is related to plans and structures that are of a much more long-standing nature than 18 months. The most significant problem we now confront is directly related to the budgetary policies pursued by our predecessors when they were in office, when successive Ministers for Defence effectively became Ministers for defence statements. They were great on proposing additional expenditures for the defence forces and that additional items of equipment come in but very bad on planning their introduction in a sensible and orderly fashion. They created quite serious bottlenecks, the consequences of which we now confront. Having made those very generous statements, they never at any point backed them up with the appropriate levels of defence expenditure increases. In fact, there has been only one year since 1976-that includes the two Budgets for which we have been responsible-in which there has been a real decrease in defence expenditure.

Mr Sinclair —For very good reasons which you know.

Mr BEAZLEY —I notice that the Leader of the National Party of Australia feels a certain enthusiasm for this subject. However, there was only one year when defence expenditure decreased and it was not one of ours, it was the first year of stewardship of the Leader of the National Party. However, to let him slightly off the hook, it was a split year of stewardship, so he can bear that problem with his predecessors.

One of the problems we confronted as a result of the defence policies pursued by the previous Government-I come to the final part of the honourable gentleman's question in dealing with this matter-was that in that regard our predecessors never seriously addressed the changing nature of our strategic environment that occurred when the United States announced the Guam Doctrine which made its allies in this region responsible for their own defence. Our predecessors never addressed the problems of defence self-reliance. It is now necessary for us to review our capabilities to provide that capabilities that we would regard as essential are able to be introduced. We must not keep them rolling off the end of five-year defence programs in the way they rolled off the end of five-year defence programs under the right honourable member's stewardship of the defence forces of this country. For that reason we have instituted a thorough-going review of our Defence Force structure and equipment requirements, in order for us to be able to make the adjustments essential to establishing genuine defence self-reliance in this country.

It has been said by the Opposition in public comment on our announcement in that regard that we are, in fact, too late in instituting that review. In a bipartisan spirit, I agree with the Opposition. We are indeed too late. Unfortunately, we are about five or six years too late because that review ought to have been done by our predecessors.

Mr Sinclair —We did.

Mr BEAZLEY —We have been doing it since we got into office. We will be a government that takes hard decisions in the defence area-

Mr SPEAKER —Order! If the Leader of the National Party ceased interjecting the Minister might round off his answer.

Mr BEAZLEY —We will be a government that takes hard decisions in the defence area, not in the area of instituting defence cuts. We will be a government that takes hard decisions in terms of making sure that our capabilities fit our requirements. What we will not be doing is engaging in the embarrassing and mindless exercises that have been indulged in by the Leader of the National Party and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition during the election campaign last year when, from the great enthusiasm of the defence announcement there was a gradual muttering away to nothing by the time the poll was called. We saw the Leader of the National Party parading across Australia in his admiral's suit-the poor man's Napoleon-announcing to the world in general: 'We are going to have an aircraft carrier'.

Mr SPEAKER —Order! I suggest that the Minister address the Chair--

Mr Hawke —He is enjoying it.

Mr SPEAKER —I know, but he has had seven minutes so far and I wish he would round off.

Mr BEAZLEY —Mr Speaker, the Leader of the National Party said: 'We are going to have aircraft carriers. We are going to have nuclear-powered submarines'. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition said: 'What you are going to have is another $80m'. If all that he was going to get was another $80m-I conclude on this note-it compares pretty miserably with the $437m increase that, under our defence budgets, the armed services enjoy. It was simply a reflection of our predecessors' incoherence as opposed to our coherence on this matter and I am not surprised at the right honourable member's embarrassment at my answer.