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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 2025

Mr CONNOLLY(8.14) —I join this debate with very great satisfaction. As a serving officer in the Army Reserve I am delighted that at last, after many years of effort, we have an amendment to the Defence Act which will enable the Army Reserve to be utilised and called out for service in situations short of a full scale war or defence emergency. Nevertheless, I support the amendment which will be moved by the Leader of the National Party of Australia (Mr Sinclair) which makes the important point that there are other times, not necessarily defence emergencies, such as national or natural disasters when the reserve forces must also be utilised in support of the civil power. To give a very good example, in the town of Mount Isa we have an army engineering squadron element. The people who are members of that squadron are no doubt miners, but as the Act currently stands, in the event of a mining disaster in a place such as Mount Isa there is no provision to utilise both the physical and the human resources available in that particular unit.

The real issue is somewhat more fundamental than that because there is a real weakness in this Government's proposal. The weakness lies in the fact that the Government seems to ignore the current reorganisation of both the Regular Army and the Reserve Army-a reorganisation which has as its very base the need to include in Regular Army units a significant component of our Army Reserve. That means simply that, if we are talking about the Regular Army field force component in a time of war or in a time of national emergency, this provision does not permit the field force to be able to call on that element of the Reserve in its service. In the circumstances where this amendment does permit units of the Reserve to be used, it opens up a very fundamental question which, regrettably, neither the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) nor any other member of the Government bothers to answer in this debate. The question which arises is simply this: How can one effectively call up part of the Army Reserve? That question goes to the very heart of what the Army Reserve is meant to be. It also draws into question the other difficulty that in both the First World War and the Second World War the whole issue of call-up became a major national debate. In both cases, as I recall, the issue was never really satisfactorily settled in favour of a national call-up in the armed forces, certainly at a time when they may have to serve overseas.

The order of battle of the Australian Army as it is now developed requires the utilisation of significant elements of the Army Reserve battalions throughout Australia for the fundamental reason that, with the exception of one unit, there is not a single Regular infantry brigade up to strength in Australia today. The implications of that are extremely serious. Nobody should allow the Government to escape from his horrible statistical fact. My colleague the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman), who spoke before me, said that our armed forces today in numerical terms are probably weaker than they have been for many years. We are told in the White Paper that the Army Reserve strength will be a total of over 30,000 men and women. At present it is well below 26,000-a significant shortfall. But it is not just a case of raw figures; it is much more than that. We have to look at the attrition rate among the junior and middle-ranking officers and among the junior and middle-ranking non-commissioned officers because it is from that cadre that the very quality and base of any Army expansion must be found. The regrettable fact today is that it is not there. What is worse, it is going fast.

One of the reasons why the Army Reserve has fallen on such hard days in recent years is the nonsensical and narrow minded approach taken by the Government on the question of taxing the very minimal incomes of men and women who are prepared to give significant periods of their time in the service of the defence of Australia. Fortunately, late last year the Government retracted its earlier decision and reservists are now once again entitled to tax free salaries. But, in many ways the damage has been done. The Government has broken what traditionally has been an umbilical cord between this Parliament and all parties in it and the need to sustain at all times a viable Reserve component upon which the Regular Army could depend at times of national emergency, whether they be short of war or in times of war.

I wonder how many members of this House are aware of the condition of the Regular Army and the Reserve at this time. For example, we have Norforce, based in Darwin. It is essentially a reserve unit and a very competent one. The Government is creating a new similar regiment in northern Queensland. It is integrating the Seventh Brigade in Brisbane with the First Division. The First Division is a regular division, the Seventh Brigade is a reserve brigade. The First Division comprises three regular brigades, but only the ODF in Townsville is up to strength and available for operations at seven days' notice.

There are two other regular brigades in the Australian Army. Both are significantly under strength, to the extent that A Reserve battalions have now been added to the Sixth Brigade to bring it up to strength. Therefore, in a situation short of defence emergency, the A Reserve battalions would not be able to take a field unless they were able to take with them a significant element of the Army Reserve as well. The Seventh Brigade in Brisbane, which is now part of the First Division, faces the same problem.

There is this fundamental folly that goes right through the entire approach, and it is simply this: For the Army to rely on a partial call-out as part of its battle plan is a strategic absurdity. It is one which has not been brought forward in this House until now, and one which the Minister has totally ignored in his second reading speech. If we are going to allow this proposal to erode the mobilisation base of the Army Reserve, we will create another set of problems. As I said earlier, to expand the Army in a defence emergency we must have the ability to build upon the Army Reserve officer corps and the Army Reserve non-commissioned officer corps. Yet if we are to take both those elements out of the equation, if we are to persist with what the Government is currently doing-namely, taking so many of the Regular Army warrant officers and senior NCOs out of Reserve battalions as a means of beefing up the remnants of what it has got of a Regular Army-we are effectively destroying the capacity of the Regular Army to build on the Reserve and we are certainly helping to destroy the capacity of the Army Reserve to be the base upon which that expansion in times of war can be achieved.

All this adds up to a very sorry state of affairs. For example, if the Regular Army is to be placed on a basis where it has to be able to operate in relatively short terms, much of the Army Reserve at this stage is not able to achieve that. My division, the Second Division in New South Wales, has always been the body and the soul of the Army Reserve in Australia. It is the base upon which so many units have been drawn from what is Australia's largest State. We have two brigades of three battalions. We have now been told that two of those battalions are to be removed from the order of battle and integrated elsewhere. We do not know how that will take place. Once again, units in not only the Regular Army component of our defence forces but also the reserve component are grossly under strength. There are all sorts of ambitious intentions. For example, it is intended to place a brigade headquarters in Perth. But a brigade headquarters is not a brigade. This is the point that people tend to ignore. We can bring together odds and sods and bits of units from here and there and we can place them under the administrative command structure of a brigade headquarters-but we still do not have a brigade. The same thing applies for Adelaide, where it is proposed to establish another brigade headquarters. But again, that will not be a base in terms of actual units of the quality or the capacity at this stage to form a brigade in the real sense of the term. A new brigade headquarters is also intended for North Queensland. And so it goes on.

The Minister for Defence has now joined us. I hope that in his summing up he will say how this proposal which is a very important and significant proposal, will effect the capacity of the Reserve to back up and fill up the number of units of the Regular Army which are so significantly under strength at this stage. In the First District, as I understand it, it is proposed to disband the 12/16 Hunter River Lancers. That was the intention, until somebody discovered that it also happened to be part of the Hunter electorate, which as far as the Government is concerned is somewhat sensitive these days, so presumably that will not proceed. We have the Third Battalion in Canberra. The Second is on the North Coast. The Forty-first Battalion is also in that area. We have the Nineteenth Battalion in the south, in the State-wide area, and we have the Fourth Battalion based in Sydney. Of those five battalions, two are going to go. The Army Reserve has been informed of that. With the departure of those battalions we are told that the rest will somehow or other be able to make up the shortfall which now exists to a very dangerous degree in our very front line Regular Army battalions. As I said-I emphasise this point-we should not take from the Army Reserve its capacity to train NCO's and officers who in times of national threat will be the very basis upon which any expansion of the Regular Army can be achieved in the short term, and equally importantly, if not more so, in the long term, they will form the nucleus upon which any major expansion of the Army utilising personnel who had no previous military experience will be based.

We are not dealing with paper. We are not dealing with dreams. We are not just dealing with the plans of some political or military boffin over on Russell Hill. We are dealing with the simple fact that so many reservists believe that they are not respected in Australian society. They believe that they have not received from this Government any of the respect to which they believe they are entitled as men and women who are prepared to put aside a significant part of their private lives for the defence of Australia. These issues are of significance. They are issues upon which the future of this nation will depend. I regret to say to the Minister in my final remarks that the Army Reserve today, by and large, has extremely poor morale, it still remains inadequately equipped and, above all, it cannot afford at this time to face the reality of being expected to flesh out regular battalions unless it is also given the capacity to train and maintain the very reason for its existence.