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Monday, 2 April 2001
Page: 26131

Mr HAWKER (2:43 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Defence. One hundred years on from the formation of the Australian Army and 80 years since the formation of the Royal Australian Air Force, I ask the minister what capacity has the Australian Defence Force to meet challenges in our region, and is the minister aware of alternative approaches in this regard?

Mr REITH (Minister for Defence) —I thank the honourable member for his question. I also acknowledge the significant effort he puts into the whole debate about defence and the expertise that he brings to the issue. As detailed in the defence white paper, the government views the defence of Australia within a regional context, and it was the Prime Minister who said:

Mr SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition.

Mr REITH —The Prime Minister said:

... while the self-reliant defence of Australia remains the basis of our defence policy—

Mr SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition!

Mr SPEAKER —If the Leader of the Opposition wants to challenge the chair—

Mr Barresi —You're a child, Beazley.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Deakin! The minister has the call.

Mr REITH —To finish the quote:

... it is not the limit of that policy. Our security equally depends on developments in our neighbourhood and beyond.

The fact that when the Howard government was elected in 1996 it immediately started the task of providing additional support to the Army was vindicated by the developments and successes which we have seen in the deployment to East Timor.

I am asked if I am aware of any alternative approaches in this area. What I am aware of is basically confusion on all fronts from the opposition when it comes to defence policy. After a couple of weeks of questioning back in early March, the shadow minister told the West Australian that Labor's defence policy would not be decided until after the budget. So we were going to be told sometime in May. Then a few days later we were told:

... although it will reveal how much money a Labor Government would allocate to defence in general, it will not tell voters what it will be spent on until after the election.

That came from the opposition leader. Then on 13 March we had yet another story. This time the story was that the 1998 policy was now null and void. That was contradicted back in 2000, when the Leader of the Opposition was advocating two subs to the Adelaide Advertiser. Then yesterday there was just more confusion on top of that. The shadow minister, after having read a 30-page statement and discussion paper on defence policy, went on the personal attack and he said this memorable line. `Once again this is a furphy which the minister has been putting about. He suggests that we will not release policy details until after the election. No-one has said that,' said the shadow minister confidently. Isn't that incredible? Because only two weeks ago he said exactly those words. In his own words, he said:

... it is not appropriate for the Opposition to announce or speculate on specific defence equipment or force structure issues before the election.

So he is accusing me of making the point that they are not going to announce a policy until after the election, and the shadow minister himself said so—

Mr REITH —No amount of loud interjections will overcome your problems of having put out a press release on 13 March which said that you are not going to tell us about your defence policy until after the next election. These people are just plain confused. They have no idea, and they are not prepared to be straight with the Australian public about their defence policy. Then you find that the shadow minister says, `I think it's shocking for the government to ask us questions about defence, because this breaks down bipartisanship.' That is what you said yesterday. In December, only three or four months ago, the very same shadow minister said:

I am pleased to see that we have got a generally bipartisan position on the issue of defence. I am not so certain, however, that we share the same view about the force structure—

That is exactly the point. The opposition will not tell the Australian people how they would spend the defence dollar, if ever the Labor Party were elected to office. I say, on behalf of the government and on behalf of anybody who is interested in defence issues—

Dr Martin —And knows something about it, which you don't.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Cunningham knows better than that.

Mr REITH —that, as the Leader of the Opposition was defence minister for years, he ought to at least be able to conjure up a policy for the next election and tell people where he stands. I will tell you why the shadow minister is a bit confused, it is because he is a bit worried. The reason he is a bit worried is that we now know that the Chief Opposition Whip is going to be the cabinet secretary. I will tell the shadow minister something that he will not acknowledge—that is, we know for a fact that he is not going to be the Defence minister if the Labor Party ever get in. He has got a lot of reason to be worried. No wonder he is confused.