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Wednesday, 7 February 2001
Page: 24174

Mr PRICE (11:22 AM) —Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak on the white paper, particularly with you in the chair because we all know of your great interest in defence matters. I understand you chair a coalition backbench committee, so it is an added pleasure to make a contribution. I had better be on my toes in what I say.

There is nothing worse than listening to whining opposition members that want to take a point to make a small point. I certainly will try to avoid splitting hairs as I do not have too many. I think there are some good things in this white paper. I do not know that I can be as enthusiastic as Professor Dibb has been in welcoming the white paper. Firstly, let me make the point that the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade brought down a very significant report into the Army. One of the things we were waiting for was the white paper so that we could see what the strategic guidance in the white paper would be. That was not to be, so we had to pick our own strategic guidance. In that report we indicated that Australia, in a significant departure particularly clarifying the role of the Army, had to be prepared to be involved in a brigade level operation as well as one battalion level operation. Of course there is nothing in the white paper that acknowledges that contribution by the committee. But, whilst this was a sensible decision by the government, a decision I strongly endorse and support, I think there ought to be a little bit of credit go to the committee for being the first to put it in the public record. A lot of my remarks about the white paper are going to be oriented towards Army. I actually think that of the three services this is the area in need of greatest reform.

I have noted some of the contributions by coalition members, so I suppose I should lead off with some of the nasties. There are two significant black holes in this white paper. I do not think there is any member of parliament that has not welcomed the additional money being spent on defence. I say that unreservedly. However, we also need to put it in perspective: at the end of 10 years, we are actually going to be no better off than we were at the beginning. So although there is significant expenditure over the 10 years, if it is adhered to by successive governments, we still will not solve all the problems.

What are the two black holes to which I refer? Firstly, there is a nasty one involving Army. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, supplementation is provided to Defence for our troops in East Timor—as there should be; there is no argument about that. I understand that the Secretary to the Department of Defence, on a radio program, indicated that 50 per cent of that supplementation has gone to force generation in Australia. In round figures, $500 million—more precisely, probably about $470-odd million—has gone to force generation.

Why is this a black hole? What is unclear, now that the white paper is out and the six battalions are a matter of policy, is when the force generation expenditure will need to be met by Army. Will the current situation continue? That is, once troops are finally out of East Timor, the supplementation will finish and Army will have to pick up that force generation cost from whenever that point may be; hopefully, it will be very quickly. Or is it already the case that, because the white paper is out, and it is government policy, they are meeting that particular cost of about $500 million in round figures?

What is the second black hole? It is clear in the white paper that there are quite a number of initiatives that the government proposes to take on the personnel front. Again, I do not think this is an issue of partisanship or political bickering. But what is disturbing is that there is a two per cent differential. In other words, what is proposed in the white paper is two per cent below the increase in average personnel costs over the last 10 years. So here we have a government that is outlining a number of initiatives that it wishes to take, with the support of the parliament as a whole, but in the white paper it proposes to provide two per cent less money than the historical 10-year average. I wish it were otherwise, but I cannot see how the government is going to be able to meet this ambitious target in the white paper. So those are the two black holes.

Let me turn to Army. We know that the reserves are going to be rerolled and retasked. Firstly, we know that, through exercise Tandem Thrust, the 11th Brigade in Townsville has been rerolled, and the extra training, with no additional investment, is going to be tested in Tandem Thrust. I hope I am not divulging highly confidential Defence Subcommittee business; but, in fact, we discussed this matter last night.

Secondly, we know that there was a reserve conference in Canberra late last year but we do not know what came of it. I think the government is buying a huge argument with its reserves. We know from the report From phantom to force that there is a huge hollow in the reserves as well as in the regulars. There is inadequate provision of equipment. If we wanted to fully equip the reserves today, the Treasurer would have to write a cheque for a lazy $4 billion. In the From phantom to force report we said that we needed four brigade-type units with an ability to cascade within two years to an additional eight units, making a total of 12. When we bring down the follow-up to that report, we might be tempted to blow out the three-year period and reduce the number of brigades that we suggest should be cascaded.

This means—and I am indebted to Major General Warren Glenny for organising a meeting with the Defence Reserves Association in January this year—that we are going to cut reserve numbers significantly. But the point is that the reserve that we will be left with is a real reserve. We are cutting through a lot of the political crap—if I may put it that crudely. The reserves will be fully equipped—not half equipped with antique equipment—fully trained and deployed in formed units.

The government has demonstrated the utility of the reserves through what I call slot theory: using reservists to slot into regular positions. By and large, they have done very well; I am an admirer of the reservists. However, the reservists have a passion—which is, I think, understandable—to be deployed in formed units. Neither the former Minister for Defence nor his junior signed up to deploying reserves in formed units and, unless that is done, I think the government will buy into a huge political argument. The library research section has demonstrated that, if we are looking at block obsolescence and the opportunities to move around that over the next 20 years, we have a window of opportunity of about five to six years to reform our Army and see whether they are capable of doing the things that we want them to do. If we do not take up this opportunity now and over the next several years, we will be postponing reform of the Army until the end of 2020.

I think it is dishonest for a government not to be open, particularly on defence matters. What is the reserves' new role? In Townsville we were told, `Well, they're going to be second-class citizens. They're not going to be able to do all the things that a regular soldier will be required to do—in fact, we won't train them to the level of a regular.' We should debate this point because there are some pros and cons. However, if that is the case—and I appeal to my coalition colleagues opposite—the government is reversing policy for the first time. There has been a lot of movement—and we can be critical of both sides—towards saying that there should be one Army. This is the first time that we will say officially that reservists are second-class citizens and that, in this protection role, they will not be able to fulfil all the requirements that we would expect of regular Army personnel. It is a big call: you are heading down the track of being tested in Tandem Thrust and, when the reserves find out, I think there will be a bit of a revolt.

I want to say just a couple more things. The days of talking about a technological edge for our ADF are rapidly dwindling. I have said that a technological edge is like a boxer's glove: it is not the glamour of the glove that counts, but the punch that you pack. What we should be aiming at with our services is not to consider them individually. If there is an edge that we require in the future for our defence forces, it is a capability edge. It is the way in which our three services manoeuvre and operate together. A lot has been done in terms of joint operations, as I would happily acknowledge, but we have a long way to go before we have our three services operating the way we would want, giving us a significant capability punch in our region. To be a little bit political, for which I apologise: I noticed that a couple of the coalition contributions, in particular the one by my friend the member for Indi, referred to the lethal force that the submarines are going to provide. It is good to see that the coalition, instead of demonising the submarines, is now starting to recognise their capability. After all, in exercises one of our unmodified submarines took out an American aircraft carrier. You can just imagine how the Americans love 5,000 to 6,000 people being taken out by a `dud sub'. These are far from dud subs. I agree with the honourable member for Indi that they are going to give us lethal force and force projection.

There is a lot more that I would have liked to contribute in this debate. I thank the Leader of the House for allowing at least some of the backbench members who have an interest in defence to make a contribution on this important white paper. (Time expired).