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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2540

Mr WHITE(8.55) —As the newly appointed shadow Minister for Defence, I welcome the opportunity to enter this debate on the defence White Paper. I see my old sparring partner, the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism (Mr John Brown), seated at the table and I wish him well in his efforts to develop the tourist industry.

Mr Downer —He is the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence.

Mr WHITE —Yes, but he is also the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, as we all know. I wish him well in developing the tourist industry in this country. He knows that he will get the support of honourable members on this side of the House if he does the right thing. I also congratulate the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Lindsay), who has just spoken, on his speech. I know that he is firmly in support of more efficient defence forces with a better capacity.

For many years the defence debate in this country has not exactly been characterised by a high profile, and I think that that is a great pity. There is no doubt that the rot set in at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. I say without equivocation that the Government, as it is now, has a lot to answer for in regard to its attitude during those final days of the Vietnam War and its attitude to defence. I well remember Dr Cairns, who I think was Treasurer at one stage, actively encouraging the Vietnamese at a time when we had troops in Vietnam. No one who served at that time will ever forget what amounted in many people's eyes to be an act of treason when our own troops were serving and giving their lives in Vietnam. I certainly will never forget it and I will never forgive.

I think most people who have an interest in defence would welcome the general thrust of the White Paper. It seems to me that, after four years of this Government, it has determined the direction in which we in this country wish to move. I think that generally that statement would be supported by honourable members on both sides of the House. It is appropriate to thank Paul Dibb for the work he did in the lead up to the White Paper. There is no doubt that, although not all his recommendations were accepted-thank God-he put a lot of work and a lot of intelligent thought into the development of his report which focused people's attention on defence. It is with some relief and a great deal of satisfaction that we see the White Paper, which followed the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities, rejecting a lot of the recommendations he made. I think the White Paper came forward with a more realistic assessment of the defence needs of this country. There is no doubt that Mr Dibb raised the level of the debate on defence in this country.

The White Paper puts a lot of stress on self-reliance and I very much hope that the Government is serious. Of course, Australia needs a capacity to look after itself at a low level of threat-a capacity which has been absent for many years. We have never really fought a war on our own; we have always fought in conjunction with someone else. We have to make sure that that self-reliance is inherent in our defence forces, not only in our fighting arms but also in the support that we are able to provide. That also means not just being able to defend Australia but also being able to reach out, if required, to help our friends and allies in this part of the world. The thing that concerned most of us about the Dibb report is that it suggests we sit back and do nothing about things that may be happening in our region, whether in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, any of the Pacific nations, or any country allied to us. The question is: Having reached the conclusion that we must now be able to reach out in that effort to defend ourselves, do we have the capacity to do so? The answer is no.

It seems to me that there are two fatal flaws in the White Paper. The first is that it depends very much on a high level of funding to provide the equipment and that self-reliance that is so inherent in the White Paper, and the second is the almost total lack of emphasis on the personnel who make our defence forces work. People are very concerned-certainly I am-about threats in next week's mini-Budget to enabling the White Paper plan to be put into effect. If the funds are not forthcoming, all the promises and plans spoken about by the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) two or three weeks ago will come to nought.

One of the things that concerns me most about defence is the high rate of resignation, and in some cases the low morale, of the personnel in the defence forces. It is disappointing that in the tabling of the White Paper and in the Minister's speech there is hardly any mention of personnel. There seems to be an obsession with equipment, but all the equipment in the world will make no difference if there are not trained, efficient and keen personnel to man it. The problem is in recent years people in the Services have been seen as second-class citizens. When one looks at the Government's attempts to oppose any pay rise, at housing and at some of the other conditions of service, it is no wonder service personnel have said: `If the country does not want us, if we are not required here, we will go and do something useful'. Servicemen and women by nature, by the very fact that they have joined the Services, are active people. If their talents are not employed properly they will go. In recent years the position of the Services in the community has been eroded. We live in a competitive world and, if those talents are not being put to use, the personnel will go.

I would very much like to see the Government lifting the position of personnel in the defence forces from what many consider to be a second-class position into a first-class position. The personnel should be told: `We need you. You are absolutely essential to the security of this country, and we will look after you'. The hangover from the Vietnam days, when people were described as hired killers-and I have been so described in this place by a member of the Government-and the sorts of ridiculous attitudes which prevailed must be put to one side. All the great welfare programs, which the Government puts forward and which we all want to see if there is enough money, will come to nought unless we can provide security for our country. Bearing arms in the defence of one's country is an honourable profession. I want young men and women who are considering a career to think about going into the armed forces as they would consider being a solicitor, an accountant or anything else. It is an honourable profession and it must be restored to a position of pre-eminence in this country.

I am also very much concerned about the loss of authority suffered by Australia in recent years in the region in which we live. This has happened because we have made it clear to our neighbouring friends and allies that we have withdrawn into our shell. Generally speaking, if one goes to our north or to the Pacific states and says that we are there if we are wanted, the people in those places will laugh at us because they know that we do not have the capacity or the will to reach out and do the job. That is a situation that we will have to reverse. We must make it quite clear to our friends and allies that we are prepared not only to defend ourselves but also, in our own interests, to reach out and assist them. One does not have to be too bright to realise some of the threats that exist in our area.

If there is one thing that is sure in a very uncertain world it is that in defence matters it is the unexpected that will take place. Who would have thought a few months ago that we would see the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) leaving Australia in the middle of the night, because of the urgency of the situation, to consult the New Zealand Prime Minister over the Libyan threat? Anyone who thinks that it is not a real threat is deluding himself. One has only to look at a map to see how far Vanuatu is from the coast of Australia. It is about the same distance from Australia as Norfolk Island is. Anyone who thinks that, if the Libyans were to establish a firm base in Vanuatu they would not cause us problems or cause problems to Papua New Guinea or to other Pacific states, is very foolish indeed. In addition, we have had the growing Russian influence based in Vietnam spreading quietly, slowly and surely throughout the Pacific, perhaps into Papua New Guinea, perhaps into Fiji, certainly into Kiribati recently and who knows into what other states?

Mr Lindsay —And into Vanuatu.

Mr WHITE —And into Vanuatu. No one is crying `Wolf', but we can be very sure that, unless we are prepared, we will in due course suffer the consequences of our own neglect. In the few minutes of this debate remaining to me, I wish to touch on one or two other matters. It concerns me very much that, despite the plans inherent in the White Paper, we are not seeing sufficient resources put into our capacity to meet a low level threat. Our task force in Townsville is almost moribund. It has no real mobility, no capacity to stay in the field for a long time. If, for example, it had to be deployed to Papua New Guinea, it would have great difficulty not only in deploying but in staying there for any length of time. If we are talking about a low level threat to this country as a most likely contingency, it seems to me that that is an area which has been very much neglected.

One of the great weaknesses of this White Paper is that it is based on what will happen in the future. It is based on new helicopters and on new over-the-horizon radar. It is based on new airborne radar, in-flight refuelling, new frigates, new developments in the north, new bases in the west, mobility for our Army and, not the least, new submarines. The plan is good, but it is not there-and it will not be there unless the will and resources are put behind it. We shall all look with great interest to see what happens to defence next week because if the resources are not made available, if the defence forward estimates are cut back next week, one can say that the whole White Paper will be in default.

In conclusion, I wish to mention the submarine program. I understand that the submarine decision will be taken to Cabinet next week. There are very few of us in this Parliament who can make a technical assessment of those submarines. I am very concerned that we have not stipulated a proven design. Whatever decision is made, the design, whether it is Swedish or German, will be new. I very much doubt whether Australia has the resources to accept a new design which is so untried and unproven. If the decision is for a Swedish design and a Swedish boat, I would very much like to know what guarantees we have that the provision of the resources from Sweden will be guaranteed. Some of us remember that, when Sweden disagreed with our involvement in Vietnam, it decided that it would not provide the resources.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.