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Wednesday, 9 October 1985
Page: 887


Senator MASON(12.10) —in reply-We have been discussing my motion on behalf of the Australian Democrats for a reference to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence on what has come to be known as the Army land grab issue. That title has been associated with this problem by the community, with great justification, because we have had a decade or more of prevarication, shilly-shallying, deception and changes of mind by two governments and the Army. This has led to no useful result other than the spending of huge amounts of public money on environmental impact statements-sometimes two in one area-and the general dislocation of agricultural communities in a number of New South Wales regions. Whenever the Army has gone to those regions it has created much the same effect as a swarm of locusts. It has created a fall in rural values and the situation where people, who for the best of reasons might want to sell their land, cannot sell it, and it has dissuaded people from making constructive improvements to their properties. All of these are matters of equity and great importance to the community at large.

The key point to this, to which the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) did not reply in his speech, which was singularly lacking in facts, is that the Army proposal now is to investigate yet again an area of 70,000 hectares in the Bathurst-Orange area which produced last year $5m in export income for this country in the form of fine and superfine wool. The Government appears to take the view that in spite of our enormous foreign debt and the need for every foreign dollar the country can get it is perfectly prepared to sacrifice $5m of export income so that the Army can shoot off its new Howitzer big guns at maximum range-which is not done anywhere else in the world-at a cost of $70,000 a round. Those are the sorts of points that I had hoped the Minister might have replied to, but he did not. I think that the Minister's heart was not in his reply.


Senator Michael Baume —His head was not in it, either.


Senator MASON —No, it was not. The Minister struggled faintly to try to give the idea that somehow or other it would be a waste of money to have a Senate inquiry. There is an argument that any kind of governmental activity is a waste of money; we all cost money. Perhaps it would be better to have a dictatorship run by Senator Gareth Evans so that we would avoid all those costs and would not have to have any inquiries. The Government and the Army could go ahead and do everything they wanted.


Senator Siddons —Senator Walsh would be even better.


Senator MASON —Senator Walsh might fit that role very well; he has shown remarkable predilections in that direction. Yesterday he wanted no democratic processes in the superannuation fund. I think that he believes in dictatorship too. I thank all Opposition senators who have thoroughly and honestly ventilated this matter, which needed ventilating seriously. The debate has covered most areas we would want to cover. Those members of the public who have heard the debate-some would be members of the farming community in New South Wales and elsewhere in Australia-would realise how important this is. It raises the question not only of what is to happen now with the Army land grab but also the takeover of land by the Government on a bureaucratic basis with no explanation, no proper compensation and long delays, as has often been the case, in people getting their money. Those are some of the things we would ask the Committee to look at.

The Minister raised two points which I found interesting. I was not going to raise the question of whether or not the land might be used by a foreign power at some stage. Senator Gareth Evans raised it and misquoted me from the Sydney Morning Herald when he said that I had raised the issue that maybe with the Philippines situation the way it was, if the United States lost its bases in the Philippines, it might want to come here. In the first place, it is a respectable enough point of view that if the United States lost its bases in the Philippines it might well want to come here. On present undertakings by the sycophantic Labor Government, which assists the nuclear policies of the Reagan Government in every way it can, I would not be surprised if it got agreement. The point is that I did not say that and did not raise it in the debate because I did not know whether that was a proper basis. But I had said to the Sydney Morning Herald, which quoted me correctly, that some of my constituents affected by this Army land grab were so concerned and puzzled by the enormous overkill that the Army is proposing-it wants such vast areas of land for so few people-that there must be another explanation. The only explanation they could see that made any sense whatsoever was that the land was not intended just for the relatively small and modest number of soldiers whom we would ever want to train in this country but must be required for some foreign power which had many more people to train. Naturally, the question of the United States suggested itself at that stage. However, I wish to make the point that I was expressing the views of constituents who are reasonably puzzled and disturbed by the Army's enormous requirements for land. Let us remember that at one stage the Army wanted two million hectares of land-more than some completely sovereign countries in Europe. Is there any rational explanation for that in terms of training Australian soldiers? I cannot see that there is. That is a matter which requires a reply.

Interestingly enough, the Minister said that the suggestions by my constituents which I quoted that there might be some United States involvement were preposterous. He just said that, he did not actually deny the suggestion. At some stage I would like the Minister or the Minister for Defence to give an undertaking that the Government does not have that in mind and that it has not had any inquiries or discussions relating to the use of the land in that way. I do not think that that is very likely, but after all it is land and it can be used for any purpose. I would like some statement or undertaking from the Government that that is not what it has in mind because that would reassure my constituents and, I must confess, it would reassure me too. I would like to see that reassurance brought forward by the Government soon because it will remain an open question until that reassurance is given.

The second matter that was raised by the Minister was the question of what the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) told people in the Orange-Bathurst area during the election campaign. The Minister tried to sell the story that what the Prime Minister really meant was that a previous amount of land in Orange-Bathurst would not be taken for Army purposes. Although I do not have copies of the statutory declarations involved-I think Senator Brownhill may have dealt with them, probably better than I can-it is certainly my recollection from reading them carefully that these people were perpared to sign such statutory declarations saying that the Prime Minister had said that there would not be any Army land grab in the Orange-Bathurst area. That was an excellent campaigning point in the election. The only point I am making is that now, after the election, it is being suggested again that there will be a takeover of large areas of productive land in the Orange-Bathurst area and that is not satisfactory.

The Minister summed up by saying in a vague, fuzzy, factless way that the inquiry was not justified, that it was a waste of money and various other buzz words which Ministers use on these occasions. I am not convinced by that. The whole conduct of this debate must convince every reasonable person who heard it that there is a crying need for an inquiry into this matter. Probably there are very few matters in Australia which could cry out more for a Senate investigation than this issue with its history of prevarication, double talk and shilly-shallying. In particular, there has been the singularly bungling ineptness by the Army in expressing its intentions and the Army's complete indifference to the plight of the people in the areas into which it has blundered. The Army does not seem to have cared at any stage what damage it did to individual people and landholders and even now it seems to accept with equanimity the idea that it should take over vast quantities of productive land producing fine and superfine wool for which there is a demand that far exceeds supply. The Army has not given any really good reason why it wants that land. I commend the motion to the Senate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.