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Monday, 29 May 2000
Page: 16466

Mr MARTIN (8:40 PM) —This evening on the appropriation bill debate I would like to make some comments about the budget measures which have been put in place by this government in the area of defence. I have been on record in this place, I have been on record through media releases and I certainly have been on record in speeches that I have given in a number of fora in respect of defence as saying that, if there is one issue which generally enjoys something like 97 or 98 per cent bipartisan support in this parliament it is Australia's national defence. I have said this because, firstly, I believe it; and, secondly, you do not play politics with national security.

Just before the handing down of this year's budget, I was full of anticipation and expectation because those people in academia, those defence experts that work within think tanks in Australia, those people who work within the Australian Defence Force organisation—indeed, many people within the government and certainly within the opposition—who study issues associated with national security and the Australian Defence Force believed that there would be a substantial increase in this budget for defence initiatives. Sadly, those hopes were dashed. Again, it is not a question of our looking for someone to blame, other than to say it is no good the present minister or the Prime Minister saying that commitments in terms of allocations in the budget for Defence will not be made until such time as the government delivers its white paper on Defence.

I wish in the course of my debate contribution tonight to elaborate on those issues, because I do think that fundamentally there are some very important matters that need to be discussed. But, first, let me go through some of the issues that were covered in both the budget speech and which do appear in the budget papers in respect of Defence. We all noted in the last 12 months that Australia has—for all the good, strong, right, ethical and moral reasons—participated in the deployment of Australian troops in East Timor. We also know that there was outstanding public support for our troops in East Timor. Certainly I cannot recall a time when the efforts of the military in this country gained the level of support across the entire political spectrum that this particular deployment managed to warrant.

I think what it did also was to elevate defence issues in the public psyche for the first time since Vietnam. I think since Vietnam we have tended to put a lot of those sorts of considerations behind us. Since that time, we have seen the Cold War come to an end. People have started to think, `Well, maybe we don't have to worry so much about issues associated with the defence of Australia. We have to have adequate defence, most certainly; we have to have an adequate budget to meet the concerns of Australia for its defence. But maybe there are not so many other things in our region that we have to worry about.' Regrettably, that is not case.

I know that, when honourable members turn their attention to what they see on television news programs every night—the present circumstances in Fiji; the powder keg situation that potentially exists within the Solomon Islands; the continuing difficulties in Papua New Guinea; the continuing and worrying developments in parts of Indonesia, with the very real and courageous attempts by the democratically elected Wahid government in terms of trying to maintain the coherence of the nation—we understand in our immediate neighbourhood that there are enormous problems which raise issues for Australia and Australians about defence and, by implication, the defence budget which is necessary to meet some of those complications, some of those developments, some of those security difficulties.

This budget, therefore, in the light of our commitment to East Timor, was disappointing. This budget, in the light of unfolding circumstances in our immediate region, in our neighbourhood, was disappointing. When one also factors in the problems associated with potential conflict situations in different parts of our immediate region, a little further afield than our immediate neighbourhood, of course we also have to raise some questions about the commitment of the government. I say that again, as I indicated earlier, with a degree of disappointment because we have had the Prime Minister say there will be an increase in the budget for Defence, but not just yet. It may be in next year's budget, but there are no guarantees. We have heard the Minister for Defence say there will be, because there needs to be, an increase in the Defence budget, but not just at the moment. They are going to wait until the white paper comes down.

I know, Madam Deputy Speaker Gash, that you have a particularly strong interest in this not only because you have a very important defence facility within your own constituency but also because of the role that you play within your party's defence committee. But, in the last three to four months, we have had people no less than the Secretary to the Department of Defence virtually screaming from the rafters about the problems associated with the defence budget of this nation. Dr Allan Hawke has been talking about the parlous state of defence in this nation, and a couple of months ago, after his first 100 days, he gave a very courageous speech, to which I have referred previously in this place, that pointed out the problems. But, most recently, in yet another speech entitled `Money matters' that he gave to the Royal United Services Institute of Victoria for Defence Studies on 27 April, again he highlighted what difficulties were being posed for this government, for this nation, in terms of meeting the commitment for a defence budget as we continue into this new century.

So the short-term bandaid measures that were contained in this budget to relieve the pressure on immediate funding are really selling out what this country needs to embrace at the moment in terms of defence spending. I refer particularly to the selling off of Defence buildings—the Russell Offices, the hydrographic office in my own electorate in Wollongong and office blocks in Sydney and Melbourne. They are short-term bandaid solutions. Assets are being sold and those new buyers will be paid rent by the government because, clearly, we are not going to move out of the Russell Offices—after all, it is defence headquarters and there has been a tremendous amount of investment in all sorts of equipment there. But there is no long-term strategy contained in this budget, nor does there seem, in terms of where the government wishes to go, to be a flag where continuing expenditure is going to be needed in the coming several years.

I am particularly concerned, once again, that the issue of block obsolescence has not been identified and given serious consideration by this government. In this budget only three new projects were announced, and they were relatively minor. A whole range of other projects announced previously by this government are actually funded in this budget, so once again it gave the minister an opportunity to put out a number of media releases talking about how in each of the states these projects were receiving new money. It was not new money because the simple fact is that something like $250 million in the capital budget is less than what it was according to the forward estimates last year. So there is no new money at all. In terms of those capital assets and the projects that are needed, as I have said, a number of them have been announced at least once and a couple of them a number of times.

Also, the $20 million initiative in this budget for the reserves is yet to be allocated to a specific program. Much has been made about this government's commitment to a new policy for the reserves, but we have not seen anything. We have not heard anything about it since at least last year. I remember the minister made a Christmas Eve announcement about a new plan for the Australian reserve forces in this country. Where is it, Minister? If you are out there listening and watching, Minister, where is it? When are we actually going to see it? You have put $20 million in this budget, but what is it for? We have no idea, and I do not think you do either. Yet, in the past, private members' bills standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition have been laid on the table in this House to give security to employers and employees so they can take their legitimate and active role in the Australian reserve defence forces, so they can participate in deployments such as East Timor. Yet this government chooses not to pick up those, but it has put $20 million in the budget for some unspecified program. We would like to know what that is all about.

We also know that there are tremendous difficulties in not only retaining people within the Australian Defence Force at the moment but also recruiting. I think there was a press announcement today by Minister Scott, the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, to the effect that, once again, a private contracting agency was given the opportunity to try to recruit more men and women into the Australian defence forces in at least three states in Australia because, according to the minister and this government, the defence organisation itself is failing in that respect. But the fact is that you cannot get away from the very real assessment of this budget that has been held constant in real terms—that is, there has been no fundamental increase in the budget. Yet, as I have said, people from as lofty a position as the Secretary to the Department of Defence, Allan Hawke, through to defence experts have been saying that this government is missing, and continues to miss, a golden opportunity to make a commitment to Australia's future defence.

As I indicated a little earlier, the minister said it will all be revealed next year because a white paper on defence will set the strategic goals and strategic guidelines for what this government intends to do for defence. In turn, that will embrace things like the block obsolescence problem. What are we going to do about the fact that a whole bunch of our equipment is coming to a screaming halt at the same time? When you start to run through the issues with block obsolescence—I have done this before, and I know the minister is particularly aware of each of these—you see that the FA18s and the F111s, our major strike air capacity, are both coming to an end of their economic life pretty soon. Our destroyers are again up for replacement. The patrol boats and a whole range of new equipment that we need, such as the airborne early warning and control system, all need a commitment. But is there any sign of anything like that in this budget?

Madam Deputy Speaker Gash, you know that the answer to that is no and you know that facilities are being constructed in your own electorate because there is some expectation about improvements that might take place to keep up with the technological changes that are happening around the world when it comes to defence acquisition. And, if Australia is to play a real role as a good neighbour, if we are to keep a genuine concern about defending Australia first but also having an opportunity to be involved in United Nations sanctioned deployments such as to East Timor, we have to have the wherewithal to do it. If we are going to defend Australia against some of the sophisticated levels of weaponry which may or may not be being acquired by a variety of people in our neighbourhood and a bit further afield, we have to start to make those allocations or at least plan for them now, and that simply is not happening.

We see in this budget that something like $1.5 billion will be raised from the sale of Defence assets over the next four years. And do you know how much of that the actual defence department is going to get to keep, according to the budget and budget papers? Of that $1.5 billion that will be raised over four years through the sale of assets, the Department of Defence will get to keep one per cent—one per cent. We need the block obsolescence issue tackled, we need to provide equipment for our working men and women in the Australian Defence Force, and we need to do something about improving our recruitment—yet only one per cent will be retained. Where is the long-term vision for defence? It simply does not exist in the mind of this minister or of this government. If it does, it certainly does not appear here.

I also have to say, Madam Deputy Speaker Gash—and it might be of concern to you because it certainly is to me—that I read something today on the wires that suggested that there is some thought in the government that they may not now release the discussion paper that was to come out as a prelude to the white paper and which was supposed to be released this month. It was supposed to be released in March and then before that it was supposed to have been released last January, and I understand it is now supposed to come out in June. And that came from the Senate estimates committee on defence today. The government are reconsidering whether or not they will actually release a discussion paper ahead of the white paper. Instead they will just bring down the white paper and they are saying that it may not come down until next year. Where does that leave us in trying to work out what we need to do not only for the defence of Australia but also to tackle this ever growing problem about assets that we need to acquire to give us that strategic edge? Do you think that because of the Asian economic crisis some of our regional neighbours simply said, `That is it. We're not going to bother about re-equipping our defence force now'? They did not. They simply deferred a number of those purchases. And what have they done now? They are back in the game. Not only are they back in the game but they are purchasing the most sophisticated weaponry that one could imagine. And Australia's strategic edge in this region has always been on the basis that we had better equipment, better skills and better trained men and women in the Australian Defence Force. All of that is at risk because of the short-sighted nature of this government's approach to defence planning and to the question of the Defence budget itself.

One of the things I thought was interesting was the $128 million allocated in this budget for bringing two Collins class submarines up to operational capability. What about the rest of the fleet? What about the other four? Is there a secret agenda of this government to mothball some of these submarines? That would be one of the greatest follies that this government could ever inflict on the defence of this nation because, putting aside all the media hype about dud subs, the fact of the matter is that the Collins class submarines—and anyone who knows anything about them will tell you this—are going to be an integral part of the defence of this nation. They will be the best conventionally powered submarines of any country in the world, and the capability they possess already and will have when the combat system is improved and remedied will render them second to none. Why would we want to mothball that? Why would we not want to take the decisions about ensuring that these submarines are brought up to operational capability—all of them, not just two of them? Again, I find that this is part of the short-sighted approach this government takes.

There is no doubt that the big issues that need to be addressed by this government simply are not being addressed by this minister. What we have found through questioning is that he is prepared to spend something like $2,000 on office design sketches because he wanted to have an office at the Russell complex and then decided after spending all the money, `No I'm not going to bother to do that. I will just move into a vacant office instead.' We found that he was quite happy to sign off on $5,000 to celebrate the Prime Minister's birthday last year at the taxpayers' expense at Victoria Barracks. He does not mind spending $1.8 million on consultants so that all the spin doctors can come in and say what a great job certain people within the Defence Force are doing. But when it comes to the hard decisions about where we need to see some real increases in money for this defence organisation so that we can be at the leading edge of technology, so that we can be at the forefront of revolutionary military affairs, so that we can be in strategic partnerships with people within our immediate region and, once again, be assured that the defence of our nation is in safe hands, where is any of that vision? It is absolutely lacking. It just simply does not exist.

We all know that our strategic environment can change so quickly. A couple of weekends ago the Minister for Defence said, `Well, we couldn't really envisage what was going to happen in Fiji. We didn't see it coming.' With our eyes taken off the game of our immediate neighbourhood, places such as Fiji and the Solomon Islands, what is going on in those other strategically important areas such as Korea—and isn't it great to see the two Koreas finally agreeing to sit down and talk sensibly in June? What about the Taiwan Strait difficulties? Who is going to come to terms with that and is there an expected role that we might play? And we saw the spectre only last week of a notable academic release a book that talked about the need for Australia to keep up with the United States—our most important ally—in terms of spending on military equipment, hardware and bringing our military up to standard again.

We have lost a perfect opportunity in this budget and, regrettably, it is because the views expressed by people in the ADF—those experts whom I have referred to already—are simply being ignored by this government, and it is a shame that that is the case. What we are seeing from Allan Hawke, CDF and other people is some genuine concern about the future of this organisation under the government. It is an opportunity that was lost. It is an opportunity that needs to be addressed. It is an opportunity that may be addressed with the publication of the white paper, and that white paper should have been published over 18 months ago when we were calling for it. It is an opportunity lost and it must be addressed now. (Time expired)