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Wednesday, 28 February 2001
Page: 24638

Mrs VALE (2:30 PM) —My question is directed to the Minister for Defence. Would the minister inform the House of the government's long-term priorities for the maritime force. Is the minister aware of any alternative policies relating to this and what is the government's response to these policies?

Mr REITH (Minister for Defence) —I thank the member for Hughes for her question and I acknowledge her real interest in defence matters. The defence white paper has a balanced approach to the maritime force—which you have asked about—as well as to the Air Force and the Army. But, just looking at the maritime side, the defence white paper sets out a plan for us to acquire some of the capability that we need for our defence forces. It is why the Defence Force plan has been so widely received as the best blueprint we have seen for the Defence Force in decades. It is a great tribute to the Prime Minister and the former minister that they provided the direction to establish our defence forces on this sustainable basis.

One of the important replacement programs will be the acquisition of patrol boats to replace the existing Fremantle class patrol boats. That is important obviously from a defence point of view and from the point of view that we will contract out some of the capability as patrol boats for immigration and related activities for Coastwatch. That will be a very welcome part of the new defence white paper. Secondly, we have substantial upgrades to existing surface combatants—the FFGs and the Anzac frigates, and that is a very worthwhile project in itself. In addition, because of the expense and the complexity of some of these new big equipment items, we have set out a plan and a process for the acquisition into the following decade of three air warfare destroyers which will replace the guided missile frigates after they leave service from 2013.

Because we have set out a clear plan of acquisitions, particularly in the shipbuilding area, we are giving the shipbuilding industry a framework within which they know they will be able to operate and provide those ships in a reliable manner. That is very good for the shipbuilding industry and the reason that has wider implications is that there are a lot of jobs associated with shipbuilding. The government has a strong preference for building new ships in Australia and that is therefore very good news generally for the economy. This is a white paper and thus a plan which will hold Australia in good stead literally for decades to come.

I welcome the fact that the opposition have repeatedly endorsed the white paper. That is good in itself but, as the parliament has question time today, there is a question mark over the Labor Party's policy position because, as I revealed this week, they have another additional policy commitment and that is for two free submarines. It is a fair question to ask: where are you going to get the money? The shadow minister was up for 20 minutes last night and he did not give us an answer. I am indebted to the Leader of the Opposition who, through interjection this morning, I think said that back in 1998 they were going to pay for them by reordering priorities. But you cannot reorder priorities today when you have signed up to the white paper. I am sorry I will not be here tomorrow but I say to the Leader of the Opposition and to the shadow minister that I will be back on Monday and on Monday I would like you to tell me how you are going to pay for the two new subs.