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Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 2151

Mr GEAR(10.54) —Before turning to the Defence Housing Authority Bill, I will respond to some of the points that were made by the honourable member for Lyne (Mr Cowan). I noticed in his contribution to the House that he did not criticise the Government's legislation even though the Opposition has moved a meaningless amendment. The honourable member indicated that certainly members of the armed forces have been underpaid, although he was gratuitous enough to say that that has not been the case in recent years. I take that as an endorsement by the Opposition that at least this Government has put some policies in place to remedy the longstanding policy of the Opposition, when it was in government, of not paying the defence forces what they were due. He also alluded several times in his speech to inadequate accommodation. Certainly, I do not think anybody on this side of the House would disagree that in many cases accommodation is inadequate. By bringing in the Bill we are debating today, this Government is acting to make sure that the defence forces have adequate accommodation.

The honourable member for Gilmore (Mr Sharp) made the interesting point that the Government was changing members of the defence forces around quite substantially-that is, as a result of having a two-ocean navy and of moving defence forces into the Northern Territory; in other words, getting the defence forces away from Sydney and Melbourne out to where they might do the most good. Certainly that will place a strain on servicemen when there is no accommodation in those areas. By bringing in this legislation we are looking at remedying that situation. I do not think it should be a constraint on the defence of this country that we should not adopt those relevant policies just because we do not have houses to house the defence Services personnel.

The honourable member for Lyne also talked in his contribution about the costs of servicing land. He made some reference to the situation in New South Wales. I can report to the House that, as the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell) said, the Department of Housing and Construction is looking at ways of putting up more affordable accommodation. That relates not only to the houses themselves but also to the way in which we can site houses to make more efficient use of both the land and services such as sewerage and drainage and electricity supplies. We are looking at ways of minimising the cost not only of defence housing but also of housing across the private sector. This Government is moving in those areas and the cost of servicing land will drop as a result. The honourable member for Lyne also talked about minor irritating repairs such as painting, and power points which in the past have taken so long to remedy. As a result of this Bill at least one authority will have responsibility for those repairs. I am sure that the minor repairs that have caused some inconvenience in the past will belong to the past as a result of the legislation before the House today.

In his second reading speech, the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) talked of the three essentials of the Bill. The first was the guaranteed level of funds. We all agree that that is an essential. The second essential is the bringing in of business enterprise and expertise. The Government has moved to take that into account. I think we all appreciate that the expertise is out in the private sector where people have to make a quid. They will know how to put up defence housing in a way which can save the Defence Housing Authority a significant amount of money. The third essential the Minister spoke about was the need for a single organisation dedicated to the management of defence housing, free from bureaucratic controls. I alluded earlier to the minor repairs as one of the symptoms, of the bureaucratic controls which in the past have hampered the maintenance of Defence Force housing. This policy continues this Government's rational overhaul of Australia's defence under a person who I believe is Australia's best Minister for Defence.

One of the essentials which are central to the purpose of this Bill is the need for a guaranteed level of funds. I will take up that point in some detail. This Government has committed $750m over 10 years which will mean a contribution in this financial year of $66m.

Mr White —Can you guarantee that?

Mr GEAR —It is guaranteed in the legislation. Let us have a look at the alternative. The divided and confused Opposition shattered itself yesterday after trying to keep the corpse of a coalition alive. What does it promise on the front page of today's papers? It depends on which Opposition we are talking about, whether it is the National Party of Australia, which is out on its own, or whether--

Mr White —Don't you worry about that.

Mr GEAR —The honourable member who interjected would be worried about that because, as was pointed out yesterday by the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Mr Young), the Nationals are after his seat. It does not matter whether it is the National Party or the Liberal Party of Australia; the Opposition is saying that it will have lower taxes. The other side of the coin of lower taxes, of course, is lower spending. When we are talking about the Defence Force housing situation, if we do not have the funds to contribute to that policy we cannot carry it through. I have asked in this House time and again, and it has been taken up by other speakers on this side of the House, where the money will come from. In the past, the Treasurer (Mr Keating) has put out Press releases, quite often, calling on the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) to explain where he will find the money to make up the substantial deficit that he would incur if he were to institute his policies. Let me just read a few of the Opposition's taxation policies to the House. The Opposition proposes income splitting of $2,700m and a flatter tax system by dropping the 49c tax rate to 40c, with the loss of $1,600m revenue. The Opposition proposes to abolish the fringe benefits tax with a loss of $325m of revenue and, at the same time, to give back the taxpayer-funded Mercedes Benz cars to company directors. The Opposition proposes to abolish the capital gains tax, which would result in a loss of $5m of revenue, and it proposes to reinstitute entertainment expenses so that we would have the taxpayer subsidised business lunch.

Mr Spender —Mr Deputy Speaker, I take a point of order. We are debating a Bill which deals with the Defence Housing Authority. We are not dealing with any other matter. Although relevance in this House has been very widely construed there is no basis on which the honourable member can go down this track that has been so well worn by others in relation to the issue and the Bill which is before the House and he should be brought back to the path of rectitude.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Keogh) —I uphold the point of order. I am sure that the honourable member will be returning to the subject matter of the Bill and was illustrating a point that he wishes to make by the matter that he was referring to.

Mr GEAR —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It seems as though I have touched a raw nerve in the Opposition by exposing some of the ludicrous policies it is putting up. But, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you have pointed out, I am certainly speaking to the Bill. In fact, as the Minister for Defence pointed out in his second reading speech, we have to have a guaranteed level of funds. I am talking about the way in which the Government raises those funds and I am pointing out to the House that if we do not raise those funds, we cannot commit them. I am pointing out that the Liberal Party is going down a certain track and all the measures that I have been reading out are firm commitments by the Leader of the Opposition. On the taxation side, the measures I read out, plus others, add up to $5,900m. Other measures, such as repealing the assets test, add up to $600m. On the spending side--

Mr White —On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: The honourable member for North Sydney has just pointed out that the speaker is ranging fairly widely from the Bill. Everyone in this place wants a fair go. I do not think that we on the Opposition side mind some deviation, but it is quite clear that when we get too far off the Bill, we get pulled up-I suppose rightly so-and I would expect your request to the honourable member to get back to the Bill to be observed.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —As I said when the earlier point of order was raised, I am sure that the honourable member for Canning was illustrating a point and that he will be quickly returning to the subject matter of the Bill.

Mr GEAR —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I will. I was pointing out all the measures which lead to a credibility gap of $16 billion on the Opposition side. The Opposition has also said that it will not have a Budget deficit-currently running at $3,500m. The Minister has said that we have to have a guaranteed level of funds. I have indicated to the House that we have said that we will commit $750m to defence housing over 10 years with $66m being contributed in 1985-86. We have made that firm commitment and it has been costed. Can we believe that the Opposition would contribute those funds to this very worthwhile Bill, given the fact that it has no fiscal discipline at all? In fact, if we add up all the Opposition's promises, we arrive at a combined deficit of $16,000m. The Opposition has no tax policy, so we do not know whether it will raise this $16,000m somewhere else.

Honourable members opposite are getting twitchy. We can understand their discomfort, because every time it is pointed out that fiscal rectitude is an essential part of making promises, they get twitchy. They cannot hold their heads up and talk about any Bill with credibility, let alone the Bill before the House today.

Mr White —Defence housing is the subject.

Mr GEAR —For the benefit of the honourable member for McPherson, let us have a look at housing. What is the Opposition's policy? We certainly have not heard one. None of the speakers on the other side has spoken in any detail about the Opposition's policy because it does not have one. But certainly one policy that we should have a look at and view with some alarm is the policy of the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey), who is on record as saying that he wants to privatise all Commonwealth-owned housing. If we include in that rather sweeping statement not only housing by government instrumentalities but also defence housing, the effect would be to raise the rents paid by defence service personnel to $70 a week. At present they are paying somewhat less than $50 a week. Mr Deputy Speaker, you will understand that when that commitment was made the Opposition was about to privatise everything. We have not heard a lot about the Opposition's policies relating to privatisation ever since it was decimated in the South Australian election when it ran very heavily on privatisation. Honourable members on this side of the House and indeed the people of Australia have a right to know whether the commitment made by the honourable member for O'Connor to privatise all Commonwealth-owned housing is still the official policy of the Opposition.

Mr White —Airport terminals?

Mr GEAR —The honourable member is going outside the scope of this Bill and I know that he wants me to stick to it. Airport terminals do not house defence personnel-except when they are travelling between postings. So I think the reference to airport terminals is irrelevant. I think we have one more speaker on the Opposition side. If he gets up to speak, he may be able to illuminate this House as to whether the honourable member for O'Connor still speaks for the Opposition when he says that it wants to privatise all Commonwealth-owned housing.

The Bill before us today also means that the new Authority will, in due course, streamline the existing arrangements for repair and maintenance. I have mentioned that before. Paragraph (3) of the amendment moved by the Opposition reads as follows:

Urges greater delegation of financial responsibility to base and area commanders for the acquisition, repair and maintenance of defence housing, with appropriate audit controls.

All I am saying is that the Bill before us allows for that streamlining because it is under one authority. That authority will have business enterprise and expertise within it to ensure not only the construction of housing for defence services purposes but also that the maintenance of those houses, which was alluded to a couple of times by the honourable member for Lyne, will proceed in a manner in which it has not in the past, and that has drawn criticism. The Government has also been criticised for the annual update of rents based on changes to commercial rents. Some of that criticism has come from the Opposition. It is just like the Opposition to criticise a policy which was once its own. That policy was introduced by the former Government. It was not opposed by this Party when we were in opposition because we believed that it was a fair system. Obviously, if we are to charge rents they should be based, at least in part, on commercial rents available elsewhere. If there is to be competition between those defence service personnel who wish to stay in defence service housing and those who wish to take advantage of private housing, I believe that there should be some link between the two.

The Opposition's amendment to the second reading motion is meaningless. I have spoken on other occasions about the fact that Opposition members have no policy. Are we to believe that what is set out in the amendment is the policy of the Opposition parties? The Opposition says that it does not oppose the Bill, but the first paragraph of its amendment states:

expresses concern that the establishment of this statutory authority may not best address the housing needs of servicemen and women.

It is fair enough too for the Opposition to say that, but it should spell out to the House and to defence service personnel what it would do in government. Last week we saw the promotion, if we can call it that, of some back bench Opposition members to the front bench. The one common thread that ran through those promotions, if I may call them that, is the fact that those promoted are all members of the Waste Watch Committee, the mental midgets who, apart from making a name for themselves by putting the boot into a number of worthy organisations, did not bend their minds to the real task of opposition, and that is coming up with alternative policies. I allude to the absence of policies in respect of not only the matter that is before the House today but also taxation. We have been waiting for an Opposition taxation policy for quite a few years.

The Opposition's taxation policy will impinge directly on the subject of this legislation. One of the three essentials put forward by the Minister for Defence in the Bill was the guaranteed level of funds. The Opposition's taxation policy will be central to the funds necessary to make sure that the objectives of the Bill can be pursued with the backing they deserve. The Opposition members I have referred to have not bent their minds to the hard task of coming up with that policy. We are still left wondering where all the money will come from.

The promises that are being made around the country by Opposition members, in the light of the costings that we have carried out, lead us to believe that the Opposition will not be able to afford to provide adequate housing for defence service personnel. I take that one example, but if one looks across the broad spectrum at pensioners or any other group, there is no way that Opposition members can hold up their heads and promise those people anything. At the same time as Opposition members talk of slashing taxes, they talk of spending more. The Opposition has no credibility whatever. This Bill continues the Government's objective and rational approach to looking after the defence forces and our defence. This is being done under the guidance of the Minister for Defence, who eclipses all previous Ministers for Defence, not only in looking after the personnel but in making sure that they are effectively used in the defence of this country.