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Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 2154

Mr WHITE(11.14) —I wish to take a few minutes of the time of the House to say a few words on the Defence Housing Authority Bill. As somebody who lived in 26 different houses when I was in the Services in a period of some 15 years, I have a certain amount of experience of defence housing. I wish to clarify one point that arose out of the remarks of the honourable member for Canning (Mr Gear). Did he say that he wanted to see the Authority charging commercial rents for all of its houses?

Mr Gear —No, that was not what I said.

Mr WHITE —I am glad to hear that. I would like to see him put commercial rents on the houses in some of the areas in remote parts of Australia and expect anyone to live in them. It was disappointing that service personnel, both in the second reading speech of the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) and in his statement in support of the Defence White Paper, received very little mention. There was a lot about equipment and the general thrust of defence policy, much of which I agree with-it was a job well done-but none of the policies will work if personnel continue to leave the Services at the rate they are leaving now. I am sure that the Minister for Defence is aware of this enormous problem, and no one is trying to score political points. We are talking about the manning of Services for the defence of Australia. There is a continual plethora of inquiries and scratching of heads as to why the resignations are happening. One reason is the low standard of service housing. This has gone on for many years. Unfortunately, successive governments have failed to do much about the situation, and I hope that this Authority will come to grips with the problems.

The problem is that for years it has been seen that service men and women somehow are different from the rest of the community and will put up with anything. Perhaps in time of war that it true to a certain extent. For the man who is overseas or who is training to go overseas accommodation is merely a place to sleep, but it is somewhat different for his wife and family. In times of peace accommodation becomes even more important, because personnel have time to look around and to compare their conditions with the civilian conditions that surround them. They find that they are being grossly disadvantaged. They say: `What the hell am I doing here, putting up with poor pay, poor housing and poor conditions, moving every couple of years or more, when everyone else seems to be enjoying a much higher standard of living?'. The fact is, as I am sure the Minister is aware, that times have changed and defence personnel will not put up with such conditions any more. There are more and more working wives who will not put up with such conditions. It is imperative to come to grips with the low, second rate standard of housing that has been offered to servicemen and women for years and years on end.

One has only to visit Darwin, for example-I am not sure whether this matter has been resolved but it was the case when I was there a year or so ago-to see two houses side by side, one occupied by a public servant and the other by a serviceman. The one occupied by the public servant has air-conditioning, but the scales and standards, as they were once referred to, do not allow for the serviceman to have air-conditioning in his house. It is no wonder that he feels himself to be a second class citizen. Not so long ago I visited a friend of mine in Townsville who is in a responsible senior position. He had just fallen through the floor of his bathroom because for months he could not get anyone to come to fix it. I understand from the figures tabled that 15,000 out of 22,000 houses owned by the Commonwealth for servicemen are below standard. It is too much to expect that this Authority will fix that accommodation overnight, but I wish to highlight the fact that the standard of service housing has to be improved. I very much hope that the Government's attempts will be successful.

It is not only the standard but also the places where such houses are built. I refer to the enormous ghettos of such houses where those who live in them are almost outcasts from society. The scales that exist have led to houses in tropical climates being built without verandahs-boxes on stilts which do not even have cement under them. However, people are expected to be grateful that they are given that accommodation, which is probably their tenth, twelfth or even twentieth house in their service career. The movement of personnel in and out of these quarters also causes much concern. The husband is usually posted off, probably sent to the bush; the wife comes later with the children. In many cases there is no one there to meet her, and she is dumped in a house and told to get on with it. I hope that we get from this Authority some recognition of these problems and of the fact that service men and women are not second class citizens. If they continue to be treated in such a way in their housing, they will continue to leave the Services in large numbers. All their training will have gone to waste and we will have a continuation of the present situation, of units being undermanned, not enough pilots to fly our aircraft and not enough sailors to man the ships; the personnel position will continue to deteriorate.

I congratulate the Government on the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities. There seem to be two fatal flaws: One is whether the Government can guarantee the funding necessary for the implementation, not so much of the Dibb report, but of the recommendations in the White Paper. That is a flaw and we wait with interest to see what happens in the Budget this year. The other flaw is in personnel. It is no use having grand plans and modern equipment if one does not have the men and women to operate that equipment. Unless we do something serious about housing, pay and conditions, the general attitude of governments to servicemen and the recognition of their role in this country, we will continue to lose them from the services.

In conclusion, I must say that I was delighted to see at last some recognition from this Government of the role of Vietnam veterans in the Vietnam war which for too long was ignored and neglected, in particular, by certain members of the then Government who actively encouraged the enemy while service men and women were still fighting in that country. That is something that many of us will never forget. Last Saturday-Anzac Day-I was delighted to see at least one government Minister give some recognition to the role those men and women played. I hope the Government will now turn its attention not only to the bigger aspects of our defence policy, which it has done successfully I believe, but also the men and women who make it work. In this regard I very much hope this authority will be successful. The big challenge will come not only in trying to make the existing housing better but also when the Government starts to plan and put in place, as is happening now, defence force housing in remote places such as Tindal. It will also happen in Darwin when elements of the regular forces are moved there and to the west so that we can have a two ocean navy. Let us see what imagination the Government uses in looking after people who have to move constantly and who deserve more than they have received in recent years.