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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 2119


Mr TICKNER(8.59) —I speak in the debate on the Defence Housing Authority Bill tonight not only as the member for Hughes, representing the important defence constituency of Holsworthy, East Hills and a whole range of other defence housing areas throughout my electorate, but also as one of the co-conveners of the Government Members Defence Force Action Committee which has been so often referred to in the course of this debate. In my remarks I will have something to say about that Committee. Before turning to that, I place on record the fact that this reform by the Government in establishing the Defence Housing Authority is but one of a number of significant reforms that will, in totality, transform the life of service personnel and their families in years to come. I refer to the establishment also of the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal which, for the first time in the history of this country, takes conditions of pay outside the hands of politicians and gives service personnel the same recourse to an independent tribunal as other wage and salary earners. That of itself is, I believe, one of the most important reforms that the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) has undertaken.

Another reform has been to institute the Australian Defence Families Information and Liaison Staff. That service will, I believe, bring great benefits in future years. It came about because of the pressure applied by service personnel and their families throughout Australia, which also led to the formation of the National Consultative Group of Service Spouses which the families from Holsworthy in my electorate were so instrumental in supporting. They were indeed driving forces towards the establishment of that Committee. Another reform has been the establishment of the Armed Forces Federation of Australia which was given active support in its formation by Minister Beazley. Very few countries have such a federation to advance the interests of serving service personnel. Scandinavia, Germany and the United States of America are other examples. That Federation has already made its mark and will, I believe, also be effective in future years in drawing the attention of members of parliament and the wider community to the need to improve conditions for ser-vice personnel and their families.

It is in that context that the Government's initiative to establish the Defence Housing Authority comes before the Parliament tonight. My experience of service life is limited to my experience as a Federal member representing the seat of Hughes, but I am very pleased to say that as soon as I became aware of what service life was all about and the difficulties encountered by service personnel and their families I sought to involve myself in the very just cause that those families and servicemen and women have in advancing their conditions. I literally could not believe what I saw when I first went to service housing in and around my electorate, at Holsworthy. I went there with the former Minister for Defence, Minister Scholes. In my tour of defence establishments I found servicemen living literally in slum accommodation that was built as temporary accommodation about the end of the Second World War. It was absolutely pitiful to see what servicemen had to endure, crammed into inadequate accommodation with poor heating and forced to suffer what I think were Third World conditions.

I do not seek to make political capital out of those many years of neglect because I do not think that that neglect is the responsibility of any one party, although it is true that the Australian Labor Party historically has not had as many years in office as have the coalition-or former coalition, I should say-parties. Nevertheless, it seems to be that all of us have a responsibility to do something to redress those very many years of neglect. When I went to the East Hills naval estate for the first time I found an isolated community inadequately serviced and suffering in many respects similar conditions to those which have been described by others earlier in this debate. It is those kinds of problems that I have seen in my electorate which have caused me to become, I hope, an outspoken and public advocate of improved conditions for service personnel and their families.

The Bill before the House is part of an overall strategy of this Government to address the conditions of its employees, not only in the Defence Force but also in other areas. It often happens in government employment that people are placed in circumstances where they are not easily able to rent accommodation on the open market or where, because of their employment, they are forced to live immediately adjacent to that employment. In that light we believe three essential steps are necessary to remedy the housing problems faced by government employees, and, in this case particularly, service personnel. Firstly, a guaranteed level of funds must be committed to defence housing. Throughout this debate and in earlier statements we have heard that this Government is committed to a 10-year, $750m expenditure program to redress those very many years of neglect. Secondly, business enterprise and expertise must be brought to the management task. We see in this Bill before the House that that is precisely what is being done. Thirdly, a single organisation must be established which is dedicated to management of defence housing, free from bureaucratic controls. It is those three principles, I believe, that are given effect in the Bill.

The Bill creates the Defence Housing Authority, as I have indicated, to undertake the management of defence housing. The Authority is designed to streamline existing arrangements. The primary function of the Authority is to include the management, construction, upgrading and maintenance of defence housing and the disposal of surplus stock. The objectives of the Authority are to provide adequate and suitable housing to meet the operational needs of the Defence Force and the requirements of the Department of Defence as determined by the Minister. The Authority will be given maximum flexibility and commercial freedom to meet its objectives. Arrangements for the appointment of the chairperson and members to the Authority will ensure that the business acumen to which I referred is brought to the management task. Furthermore, the planning and oversight arrangements will ensure a proper degree of ministerial responsibility and accountability and that the Authority will remain responsible to the Government. The Authority's activities will be guided by a corporate plan which will include forecasts of receipts and expenditure and financial targets for profit. Furthermore, the Authority will have the option of employing staff under the Public Service Act or engaging consultants.

Those are the main points that are relevant to the operation of the Bill. Very importantly, I believe that the personnel of the board of management must reflect the objects that I have outlined. I am very pleased to note that the membership of that board of management has been structured to ensure the application of necessary skills for housing management and proper co-ordination with defence policy and planning. It will include not only four part time members selected on the basis of business expertise and a wide knowledge of housing and social planning but also four members to represent each of the Services and the Department of Defence and there will be a full time managing director.

The Minister for Defence is to be further commended because he did not wait for this Bill to come before the Parliament before he acted to give effect to the Government's policies. The establishment of the interim Defence Housing Board last year, in November I believe, was a very important step towards giving effect to those policies. The Minister has referred to the personnel who will be considered for appointment to the Authority when it is established. They include people who are highly respected in business and in the commercial world, including Mr John Graham, a former National President of the Housing Industry Association and director of the Sydney building firm of Civic Constructions Pty Ltd, who accepted the position of Chairman of the interim Board.

It is in that light that the Bill comes before the House tonight. A number of comments have been made in the debate which seek to disparage the political will of this Government to do something about those years of neglect of Defence Force housing. The honourable member for Macquarie (Mr Webster), I think, spoke with some disdain about the Government Members Defence Force Action Committee. My colleague the honourable member for Jagajaga (Mr Staples) clearly refuted the arguments put by the honourable member for Macquarie, but for the record let me reiterate what the Government Members Defence Force Action Committee is about. For the first time in the history of the Commonwealth Parliament we now have an organised group of Government members committed to taking a public stand to advance the interests of Defence personnel and their families. We stand solidly behind the Federal Minister for Defence and his policies to do something in a very tangible way to meet that need.

We make no apology for the fact that we are prepared to stand up to some of the elements of the bureaucracy. We make no apology for the fact that we stand shoulder to shoulder with Defence Force personnel and their families. We are here to represent their interests in the Parliament, and we are going to ensure that our voices are heard at the highest level of government. It is a tragedy that such an important initiative, which has been welcomed, I might add, by the highest echelons of the Defence Force, should be so disappointingly disparaged by the Opposition.

I refer to the view of a former senior member of the Defence Force about the Government's Defence Housing Authority, which is the subject of the debate in the House tonight. We in the Government do not suggest for a moment that, with the establishment of this Authority, we will immediately transform defence housing and redress and remedy those decades of neglect, to which I have referred in the course of my speech. But what we do say is that we are establishing the best possible administrative mechanism to do something about the problem that exists and we are making a financial commitment that will give the resources to that Authority to enable it to do its job.

I refer members of the House to the soldiers' newspaper the Army Fortnightly of 16 April, in which the retiring Chief of the Defence Force, General Sir Phillip Bennett, spoke of his views about important matters concerning the Government's initiatives in relation to defence personnel and their families. I could speak at some length about what I think are the laudatory remarks offered there about the Government's initiatives. However, I want to concentrate on one element only. General Sir Phillip Bennett, of course, was the Army's longest serving soldier. The article to which I have referred states:

Establishment of a Defence Housing Authority will benefit many of you [he said to the soldiers] as the standard of housing and the way the housing stock is administered improve. Although the total impact of the Housing Authority may take some time to become apparent, in the shorter term the improvement in the timeliness and standard of maintenance will quickly become evident.

They are not my words; they come from Australia's longest serving, and very distinguished, soldier. I wish Sir Phillip and Lady Bennett the very happy retirement that they have so deservedly earned for themselves.

The amendment before the House tonight is rather puzzling, as it seems to bear no relationship whatsoever to the Opposition policy about defence housing. It is, in the words of the Opposition Leader-and this word, of course, is often associated with him-a wimpish amendment, because it does not, I believe, do anything to significantly alter the substance of the Bill. The Opposition does not oppose the Bill. Its amendment does not seek to make any significant alteration to it. The Opposition has not outlined to the Government or the people of Australia its hidden agenda for Defence Force housing, because in this area, as in every other area of Liberal and National Party responsibility, it has adopted an extremist view in respect of the policies that it is putting forward-and the view on this issue involves privatisation.

That is not only my view on this issue. I refer to the Australian Financial Review of 16 October, in which the shadow Minister for Administrative Services at that time, the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey)-and I think he still is, at least until tomorrow-went on public record and said that the Federal coalition would sell off most of the 22,000 properties owned by the Commonwealth to the private sector. He, in fact, was very charitable and he gave a list of the properties to the Real Estate Industry Association. I might say that he did not have such a close and cordial relationship with service personnel and their families. An article in the Melbourne Herald of 21 October stated:

Mr Tuckey said not all of the properties would be suitable for privatisation, but properties such as defence owned houses could be sold to the private sector and then leased back by the Government.

Make no mistake: No serviceman or service woman in Australia or their families should be under any illusion about the consequence of that policy. It is all about market rents; it is all about `killer' rents for service personnel and their families-because we know that service personnel and their families simply could not pay those market rents. So, let everyone be aware of the hidden agenda of the Opposition in relation to Defence Force housing.

I hope that the change in personnel on the Opposition front bench will lead to a more constructive debate about a range of social and political issues in Australia. Regrettably, in all the circumstances, I do not think that my hopes will be borne out, as the people who have taken the positions on the front bench are out of touch with middle Australia. There was no better example of that than when the shadow Minister for Housing, the honourable member for Deakin (Mr Beale), visited my electorate, in fact only two weeks ago. Let me tell the House that, following his visit to my electorate, I was telephoned and I received a barrage of complaints-not from people who are members of the Australian Labor Party-about the total lack of comprehension and rapport that the shadow Minister had with service personnel and their families. The local newspaper, the Liverpool Champion, poured scorn and contempt on the shadow Minister's visit. The servicemen and servicewomen and their families in my electorate were so irate about that visit that they literally came to me with their complaints. That indicates how members opposite are so completely out of touch.


Mr Cohen —Who was the shadow Minister?


Mr TICKNER —The honourable member for Deakin. I have only a limited amount of time remaining to me, but I want to draw to the attention of the House a couple of other points. I believe that the Government Members Defence Force Action Committee has a crucial role to play in coming years in securing real advances for service personnel and their families. One of the things that I have sought to do as the local Federal member is to have a completely open door policy for those servicemen and servicewomen and their families. I received telephone calls at home about a whole range of issues that affect those people in my electorate. For years, when the Government Members Defence Force Action Committee was not in operation and they were not able to voice their views as they now have the opportunity to do, they experienced great frustration. I now get telephone calls at home not only about broad matters of defence policy but about the little things-about blocked drains and about things that affect mothers and their children, the everyday matters that are the heart and soul of the morale of the defence forces. Those people have a voice in this Government and a voice in this Parliament. The Defence Housing Authority is yet one more significant reform to advance the interests of ser-vicemen and servicewomen and their families. The Minister and the Government should be commended for that initiative.