Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 7 February 2001
Page: 24192

Mr BARTLETT (12:50 PM) —I appreciate this opportunity to add my expression of support to the excellent initiative contained in the defence white paper. We would all agree that that the prime responsibility of the government of any country is national security: the protection of its citizens. In recent years, perhaps even in the last couple of decades, there has been no perceived direct threat to Australia's security. As a result, recent governments placed a relatively low priority on defence spending, and we have seen a substantial and ongoing decline in defence spending in this country. The figures clearly show a decline, particularly over the years of Labor government. Defence spending declined steadily from 9.4 per cent of government spending in 1981 to 7.8 per cent of government spending in 1996.

In those years of Labor administration there were a number of quite obvious effects of this steady erosion of the relative importance of defence spending. One obvious effect was the relative decline in our defence capability, with a reduced number of full-time personnel, increasingly aged equipment and a reduction in our technical superiority over the emerging powers in our region. A second, equally alarming effect was the decline in morale of our defence personnel with the ancillary problems associated with this decline. I know there were numerous attempts to increase efficiency: the restructure of our defence spending, the application of commercial market testing programs and so on. While some of these were of benefit, what they largely did was disguise or delay the need for a substantially increased financial commitment to our defence forces, and it is that increased financial commitment that we see in the initiatives outlined in this white paper.

It is important to note that the Howard government had already acted to halt the decline in defence spending that had been occurring during the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. You will remember that in the 1996 budget, in the context of a legacy of massive debt and deficit, when there had to be widespread budget cuts, the Howard government quite wisely acted to quarantine defence spending from those cuts. So, from 1996 over the next three years, we saw an increase in defence spending as a percentage of total government spending from 7.8 per cent—that several-decade low—to 8.6 per cent.

But this white paper goes dramatically further. It takes a very substantial step not by just halting that long-term decline but by reversing it dramatically with a large injection of funds over the next decade. Four relevant points need to be made in that context. First of all, the white paper reflects the increased commitment to spending on defence and the awareness of the growing instability in the South-East Asia-Pacific region. The events in East Timor, Indonesia generally, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and so on are specific examples of that growing instability for which Australia needs to be prepared. Australia's very proactive and extremely successful effort in East Timor was indicative of the need for us to be able to respond quickly and effectively to crises within our region.

Secondly, the white paper reflects widespread community support for the enhancement and rebuilding of our defence capability. The widespread community consultation process that took place last year in the lead-up to this white paper involved 28 meetings attended by over 2,000 people and some 1,150 submissions from interested groups within our community overwhelmingly in support of the enhancement and rebuilding of our defence capacity.

Thirdly, it reflects the strong commitment of the Howard government to rebuilding our capability and rebuilding the morale within the Australian defence forces. Fourthly, I might add a point made by earlier speakers: that this increased commitment to defence spending reflects our economic capacity to do that, a capacity which, sadly, had been depleted in the years of Labor mismanagement. Labor could not afford an increase in defence spending because they had so badly mismanaged the financial affairs of this country.

The Howard government has rebuilt our economic capacity and is therefore able to rebuild our defence forces through a greater monetary contribution. This is a very welcome turnaround in commitments to our defence forces. It involves the most detailed and specific long-term funding program for defence that we have seen from an Australian government in the last 25 years. Importantly, it does not mean just throwing more money at defence. It certainly involves a lot more money—I will come to that point in a moment—but the program is based on a clear enunciation of Australia's defence priorities, in terms of both defending Australia and taking a leadership role in maintaining stability within our region. It involves greater accountability, and therefore greater effectiveness, in the use of defence funds—and ultimately taxpayers' funds. The new approach will focus on output based funding—that is, funding aimed at clearly prioritised targets and identified needs.

We have already heard about the substantial funding commitments. We will see in the next budget an increase of $500 million in the 2001-02 financial year, a funding increase of $1,000 million the year after and funding increases of three per cent in real terms every year over the next decade. That will mean a total increase in defence spending of $23.5 billion throughout the next decade. That funding will increase the current level of $12.2 billion a year in real terms in today's dollars to $16 billion by the end of this decade. That is the greatest commitment we have seen for decades by an Australian government.

The main features of the white paper include increasing full-time Australian Defence Force personnel to 54,000; increasing spending on RAAF capacity, including two squadrons of armed reconnaissance helicopters, up to 100 new replacement strike aircraft, four airborne early warning aircraft and improved F111 electronic warfare systems; strengthening maintenance forces, including at least three new air warfare destroyers for our marine forces; upgrading all six Collins class submarines; increasing the Army's capacity from four to six full-time battalions with enhanced readiness, firepower and mobility; and increasing the number of reserves—an important element in contemporary military operations—and spending $30 million to strengthen and expand the Australian Service Cadet Scheme. That is of benefit to my local region: we have an Army cadet unit at Katoomba and an Air Force cadet unit at Richmond. It is a substantial and tangible recognition of the importance of encouraging young people who are interested in defence issues.

The white paper has some very important implications for our local area, including RAAF base Richmond. As well as the general increase in support for our defence forces, RAAF and airlift group—which is pivotal to our air force—there are some specific programs targeted at our local area. The airlift group based at Richmond plays a pivotal role in our defence forces. The No. 36 Squadron has 12 of the C130 H Hercules aircraft, the No. 37 Squadron has 12 new J-model Hercules, and the No. 33 Squadron has five 707s used for airlift refuelling. In addition, the base serves as a vital depot for deeper level maintenance of Hercules and our PC3 Orions.

At the centre of these roles are the 1,750 uniformed personnel stationed at RAAF Richmond in addition to several hundred civilians in support roles. The men and women of RAAF Richmond, like all our Australian Defence Force personnel, do us proud. They form a committed, professional team without which our technical hardware would be impotent. A couple of hundred local RAAF personnel were involved in the extremely successful operations in East Timor. The increased defence spending that is part of this white paper will provide a much needed morale boost for our personnel. It will specifically involve the upgrading and refurbishment of our 12 C130 H-model Hercules based at Richmond, which is estimated to occur by about 2008. This will increase the capacity of the airlift group as well as boost local employment and the morale of our local defence personnel.

It is opportune for me to stress again the extremely important role that RAAF Base Richmond plays in our local community. The Hawkesbury community are immensely proud of our local RAAF personnel—our RAAF men and women—and the local community are very appreciative of the pivotal role that RAAF Base Richmond plays in our local economy—injecting some $100 million a year into our local economy. We are all very proud of RAAF Base Richmond and we are committed to seeing its security and future strengthened in coming years.

I know that time is getting away, but this defence white paper is an exciting, strategic and extremely valuable policy initiative by the Howard government. It provides a much needed and substantial boost to our defence forces, a much needed turnaround of the decline in defence spending that has been occurring over two decades and a boost both in physical capacity and in rebuilding the morale of our defence personnel. We can be justifiably very proud of our ADF personnel. They continue to add immense value to the physical and technical capacity which has allowed Australia for years to punch well above its weight in the local region. The increased government commitment outlined in this white paper will greatly build on their capacity to continue to play such a pivotal role in the defence of Australia and the security of the South-East Asia-Pacific region.

Like so many in my community, I warmly welcome the government's initiative. I warmly welcome what it means to the security of Australia, what it means to helping us play a pivotal role in maintaining regional stability and what it means for my own local area.

Debate (on motion by Mr Neville) adjourned.

Main Committee adjourned at 1.02 p.m.