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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 27059

Mr PRICE (4:50 PM) —I am very pleased to have the parliamentary secretary refer this important building upgrade to accommodate the Army's attack helicopter acquisition program. I am wondering whether the parliamentary secretary would be able to assist me, and perhaps other honourable members, on some of the government's intentions in relation to Army reserves. Can he confirm that Minister Scott now will no longer be utilising the reserves as deployed units? Has there now been a significant change in the use of the reserves? Historically, they have always acted as an expansion base for the Regular Army. You will appreciate that the attack helicopter will be utilised by the Regular Army. I am wondering whether the parliamentary secretary at the table would be able to tell the House whether there is now a new structure involved in brigades. We now say—according to the white paper, of which I think the parliamentary secretary can be found guilty of expounding the virtues—that brigades now will only have two battalions, not three battalions. I am happy to concede that it has been a useful move to have these six ready battalions, but the Army still would not be able to maintain a force of the size that was originally committed to East Timor if it were required to—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! The honourable member for Chifley will resume his seat. The parliamentary secretary raises a point of order.

Mr Slipper —Mr Deputy Speaker, I do understand the sincerity of the comments being made by the honourable member for Chifley, but he is straying rather widely from the fairly narrow motion currently before the House.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! No; the honourable member for Chifley will resume his seat. I will rule on the point of order and, if he has problems with that, he can then make comment on my ruling. I have great sympathy with the parliamentary secretary's point. I think that the honourable member for Chifley should be aware that this is a motion referring proposed work to the committee. His comments should relate to the reasons for that referral, and I invite him to come to the motion.

Mr PRICE —Mr Deputy Speaker, I am quite happy to respond positively to the point of order that you appear to have upheld that was made by the parliamentary secretary. But what the House is doing today is an important aspect of the policies that were enunciated in the white paper: the purchase of an attack helicopter is in the white paper. I would hope that, in moving this motion, the parliamentary secretary would expect of the Public Works Committee that it fully examine the proposal and the necessity for it. I spoke on a similar motion—I believe it was moved by the parliamentary secretary, but he may not have been the person who moved it—in terms of the Joint Command and Staff College at Weston Creek, and I implored the Public Works Committee to do a thorough examination of that proposal, which was originally recommended in a report of an inquiry that I chaired. I am saying that I support his motion—I want to make that clear: I am not opposed to the motion—but I do believe that honourable members should understand exactly what government policy is involved.

We are dealing with an issue about the Regular Army, and I have asked a question about the Army Reserves. I think it is a pretty important question. We have my good friend here, the honourable member for Indi, a former distinguished Reserve major. He appreciates the reserves and the role they play. There has been a significant change, and I am trying to understand that and also how other aspects of government policy fall into place. I do not think that is unreasonable. I think that is my job. Again I appeal to the parliamentary secretary: I am sure we can join together in asking that the Public Works Committee, in examining what I think will be a worthwhile proposal, fully understand the policy implications of the decision—fully understand the implications. On a very serious note, Parliamentary Secretary and other honourable members, it would be criminal if we failed to learn the lessons of East Timor. That is as much a challenge for the opposition as it is for the government, and I think you have a responsibility to demonstrate that you have learnt them.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not apologise to this House, nor indeed to you, for having an interest in reserve policy. This is the 100th year of the Army. The tradition of the Army is of a citizens' military force. We have more history in that than we do of the regular full-time Army. Parliamentary Secretary, your government is making some fundamental changes in the white paper, but you are still not explaining things to this House or to the Australian people. We have a tradition of bipartisanship, by and large, on defence matters—which I understand the current minister is dispensing with. But I still feel that the tradition should hold good, and I will be in here more supporting the government than opposing it. But I will oppose it on every occasion when either you are silent, as you are on reserve policy, or not doing the appropriate and decent thing.

I regret that there are not more debates in this House about defence. I think it is worth while our considering these issues, because it vitally affects the nation. I support this motion. I certainly support the acquisition of an attack helicopter: the need for one was demonstrated in East Timor, although the proposal to acquire one was more longstanding than that. I also hope that the Public Works Committee will examine every aspect of government policy as it applies to this particular proposal, and I sincerely hope that the government can come clean—as it has failed to do to date—on its reserve policy.