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Wednesday, 9 October 1985
Page: 869

Senator DURACK(10.34) —Apparently the Government does not intend to take part in this debate, which is rather strange. On behalf of the Opposition, I rise to support the motion that has just been moved by Senator Mason. This subject has been a problem for quite some time now. There have been growing fears over quite a large area of New South Wales, particularly in the central tablelands area, about what the Army and the Government is really up to, to use a colloquialism. The facts and the background have been fairly well canvassed by Senator Mason. I do not need to go over that ground again. I simply say that the Opposition has been aware of the issue for some time. Certainly in recent weeks there has been a revival of the issue by the Government with the reappointment of environmental consultants. The issue has become very alarming to a large number of people. Therefore, we certainly support very strongly the principle of an examination of this whole subject by a Senate committee because we believe that the Government has not been handling it in a proper way. It has unnecessarily alarmed large numbers of people. It does not seem to be able to make up its mind about exactly what it is going to do. It has been making a number of quite contradictory statements and has also taken contradictory actions.

On 11 September Senator Mason gave notice of a motion that the Senate should set up a select committee to study this matter. We were immediately attracted to that proposal in principle for the reasons which I have given. However, we believed that Senator Mason's notice of motion was too narrow in its terms of reference, in the scope that the committee should have and the matters it should investigate. We also thought that it was inappropriate to set up a special committee of the Senate to consider the matter. In our Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence we already have a perfectly good instrument to investigate the matter. The Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee comprises senators who have some special knowledge and interest in defence matters. It seems to be the appropriate body to investigate this question on behalf of the Senate.

As Senator Mason has said, we have had negotiations since then with his Party, the Australian Democrats. The terms of reference that are now proposed resulted from those negotiations. Senator Mason has now moved his motion in terms which have been agreed upon. It incorporates some very major amendments which were suggested by the Opposition. The present motion refers the matter to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. The terms of reference are very considerably broadened so that they do not have the narrow focus that Senator Mason's original terms of reference had.

Going through the various limbs of this motion, the first concerns the reference to the Standing Committee of the need for an area of land for the purposes of relocation and co-location of the Army's School of Infantry and Infantry Centre, for artillery training and Army manoeuvres. So there are three separate requirements for the Army, some of which may be suitably accommodated in existing facilities. Others may need new facilities. That is what this issue has been about. But as I have said, the Government seems to have been unable to come to grips with it and to make firm decisions. It has now been floundering around for the last two or three years. The problem has come to a head with the need to vacate the artillery training area at North Head. We clearly accept that. However, whether a completely separate area has to be established for that purpose or whether it can be combined with other facilities the Army has or which it may be able to acquire without creating the major problems associated with resuming productive land is another matter. We want a Senate committee to do the job which the Government has failed to do. We want a proper investigation of these needs. Secondly, we do not want this investigation to be confined simply to New South Wales, to which the Army has confined its investigations to date. There may be sound reasons for confining it to New South Wales but the question of whether or not it should be confined to New South Wales needs to be fully and publicly investigated and a Senate committee is the appropriate body to do that.

The second limb of this motion is the availability of sites, whether in New South Wales or elsewhere. The search should not be confined, as it seems to have been by the Government over the past year or so, to productive privately held land but should have regard to the availability of Crown land, not only in New South Wales but throughout Australia. Senator Mason has mentioned already that vast areas of land in other parts of Australia could be available if necessary. This whole search also raises the question of how much land is required, whether it be privately owned or Crown land. Again we have seen utter confusion on the part of the Government as to how much land is required.

Shortly after the election of the Hawke Government the then Minister for Defence, Mr Scholes, announced that there would be an environmental impact study into the acquisition of 2.2 million hectares of land at Cobar for a manoeuvres area and also announced the study of the suitability of land in three different areas-Tamworth, Bathurst-Orange and Dubbo-for the schools complex. The areas around Dubbo and the central tablelands, including Bathurst- Orange, originally embraced the study of some 350,000 hectares, so that vast areas of land were included in this environmental impact study. That led to widespread outcries such that the then Minister for Defence, Mr Scholes, on 23 July 1984 announced that the Government had abandoned these proposals and was seeking new recommendations from New South Wales.

In March of this year the New South Wales Premier, Mr Wran, announced that his Government had recommended a reduced area for manoeuvres at Cobar and suggested an area incorporating the existing infantry centre at Singleton in the Hunter Valley for the schools complex. In May this year the Minister for Defence, Mr Beazley, announced that a draft environmental impact study would be prepared for the Bathurst-Orange site for the schools complex. The New South Wales Premier spoke about Singleton and a couple of months later the Minister for Defence swung the concentration to Bathurst-Orange and announced that the Singleton and Dubbo areas had been abandoned. That is the position we are in now.

There have been considerable reductions in the area being looked at in the central tablelands; from the original 350,000 hectares to approximately 70,000 hectares. The area being looked at in the Cobar region has been considerably reduced as well. One has only to give a brief outline of what has been done by the Government over the past year or so to have great sympathy for the great concerns that have been expressed by so many landholders in New South Wales about the activities of the Army and the inability of this Government to come to grips with the problem.

There has been great and active opposition, in both the Cobar and Central Highlands areas and there has also been great concern in the Singleton area because the infantry school complex is already there. That area has a great infrastructure and Senator Mason has already referred to this. I agree that millions of dollars have been invested there. The Army recently expressed the view to a Senate Estimates committee that most of these complexes would have to be rebuilt; nevertheless the valuable sites are there and probably many of the present facilities could be retained. That seems to be a matter for debate and that again is another subject which needs to be properly investigated.

There is also great concern among members of the business community in Singleton itself about the effect on the town if the Army moved out of the area completely. These are major issues which cry out for proper and public investigation. That is what Senator Mason's proposal, which I am supporting, on behalf of the Opposition, is all about. If further proof were needed, there was quite a detailed examination of these questions at the recent Senate Estimates committee, particularly in questions from Senator Sir John Carrick, who, no doubt, will have something more to say in this debate this morning. Senator Sir John Carrick extensively questioned Army officers at those committee hearings and I must say that I was left with a greater unease about the situation as a result of that.

Senator Michael Baume —An inadequate response.

Senator DURACK —As Senator Michael Baume says, there were inadequate responses and we were left with the feeling that there was total confusion and uncertainty on the part of the Army, even after all the investigations. The Army seemed to be relying on this enviromental study and the enviromental experts to make its decisions. That is quite an incredible conclusion.

The Opposition has already put its attitude on the record. The former Minister for Defence and present shadow Minister for Defence, Mr Ian Sinclair, has made a number of public statements on behalf of the Opposition in relation to this matter. I wish to restate the principles which animate the Opposition's attitude to this whole question. Clearly we believe that the Army must have adequate training areas and that some of its existing facilities will have to be replaced. Clearly the North Head facility must be replaced and there may be some need to replace others. This is a matter which must be fully considered. Secondly, we feel that the Commonwealth and New South Wales Governments-and, indeed, interests that are wider than those in New South Wales-must look at the existing facilities and holdings of land and other areas of Crown land. Thirdly, we believe that productive farming land should be examined only as a last resort and that there should be the closest consultation with affected land owners in the matter, even before any environmental studies are embarked upon.

The third point of this motion is that there should be a study of the adequacy and appropriateness of current procedurers in protecting the rights of individuals and communities where acquisition is being contemplated. Fair and prompt compensation and appeal procedures should be provided. Under existing land acquisition rules I guess there are procedures for providing fair compensation. Whether it is prompt or not may be another matter, but if it is not prompt that is probably the Government's failing. There are appeal procedures, but clearly there are not at present adequate procedures for protecting the rights of individuals in areas where acquisition is contemplated. That is why all the people in this area have appealed to the Senate. They feel that they have not have been given proper hearings by either the Government of New South Wales or the Commonwealth Government. Clearly there is a need for proper avenues of consideration for these people who have been put in this plight by the needs of the Government. However, the way in which both the Government and the Army have gone about satisfying those needs leaves a great deal to be desired. For those reasons we support the motion.