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Tuesday, 7 May 1968

Mr CROSS (Brisbane) - Mr Speaker,it is my purpose this afternoon to follow the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Jess) who was the closing speaker last Thursday evening in the debate on the defence statement. It is rather interesting that the speech of the honourable member for La Trobe excited a lot more comment in the Australian community than did the defence statement itself. This is because the honourable member showed some of the independence of thought for which he has become well known. We know that he, together with other honourable members on the Government side of the House, was responsible for the second 'Voyager' royal commission which raised very serious matters regarding the administration of the Royal Australian Navy. The honourable member for La Trobe said that there was very little in the statement of the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairhall). He said:

In view of the world situation I was amazed to find how little there was in it.

Later he said:

We have heard very little about thefuture, about what planning is necessary and about what is intended in the circumstances which surround us today.

He also said, referring to the United States of America:

If peace talksare arrangedand they are satisfactory, it couldwell be that the United States' would remove herself from South East Asia. We have no alternative butto remain here, and we do riot know whattime is available to us to plan for defence.

All of these matters are very important. I agree with the honourable member for La Trobe. I, too, was rather amazed at how little information of any significant nature was conveyed to us in the defence statement. Indeed, I am amazed at what little significance the Government seems to place on a debate on such an important question as defence. If one peruses the list of speakers which has been conveyed to us, one sees no evidence at this point of time that the Minister for the Army. (Mr Lynch) or the Minister for the Navy. (Mr Kelly] proposes to speak in the debate. The Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) has not indicatedhis intention to . speak in the debate.' Indeed, this session is well under way but we have not heard the Prime Minister in this session speak in support of Government policy, except insofar as hehas defended some aspects of that policy in the 'Voyager' debate and in thedebate on the unfortunate incident of the questioning of a woman in Vietnam.

Mr Curtin - He has not spoken on any matters of Government policy since he became Prime Minister.

Mr CROSS - That is exactly my point. I should like to canvass the present defence situation set out in the Minister's statement in the light of the Australian Labor Party's attitude and also in the light of the very sincere criticisms made by the honourable member for La Trobe and by speakers on this side of the House. The first question is the British withdrawal from east of Suez. I detect a change of emphasis in the Minister's statement in this regard. There is no longer the shock and dismay which was reflected in earlier Government statements. It seems that the Government and its Ministers are now looking at the question of British withdrawal a little more realistically than they did. What that withdrawal means in the future we are not in any position to say. The defence statement does not tell us. It refers only to the fact that there is tobe a five-power conference in June. The remarkable thing is that the British have stayed so long. Having renounced colonial rule 20 years ago when withdrawal took place from India, Pakistan. Burma and other countries, the remarkable thing is that the British continue to maintain substantial forces right around the world. Now Britain because of financial and other problems, has decided to withdraw from cast of Suez.

I think it is timely to recall what Britain has done. The entire development of Aus- tralia prior to the Second World War occurred under what one might term the umbrella of the Royal Navy. In more recent times Britain has proved that she can still playan important role in this part of the world. Without any doubt, the substantial contribution made by Britain, both with land forces and the stationing of a Vulcan strike bomber force at Singapore in Malaysia, did a great deal to bring confrontation with Indonesia to an end. There are, of course, other factors in the British withdrawal. These factors will have to be explored at the five-power conference. One relates to the strategic reserve stationed in Malaysia under the ANZAM agreement which was brought into being by the Labor governments of Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia in 1948.

Britain has a nuclear capacity of some significance. When we think in terms of. the two super powers, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America, we tend to relegate Britain to a somewhat inferior status. We should not forget that Britain, with probably the greatest development of nuclear energy for peace time uses, has as a consequence of that development a substantial capacity for nuclear warfare. I believe, as I have said before, that the British withdrawal east of Suez was inevitable. The British have made their intentions quite clear in a White Paper. They have spelt out their intention not to renege the obligations that they have accepted under the South East Asia Treaty Organisation and their willingness to accept a continued obligation for the defence of Malaysia. Speakers on both sides of the Parliament in the House of Commons have pointed out that there is no doubt that Britain would accept a commitment to come to the defence of Australia and New Zealand if we were ever threatened; but there are a number of matters spelt out in the British White Paper on which we have had no comment from the Minister for Defence or the Government.

The British are prepared to co-operate in certain circumstances. They would require time; they would require in Australia, in Australian territories or in our immediate environs, facilities which were satisfactory and suitable for the equipment that they would use. These are the important questions to which we need an answer and to which we have not been given an answer so far. The statement made by the Minister was very disappointing. He seemed to leave the whole question as to where we go from here as something to be decided at the fivepower conference. I think the Minister could have indicated Australia's interests in this area, what the Australian Government believes we ought to be doing and to which responsibilities Australia believes it should commit itself. In doing that we would be giving some leadership and making our views known. The details could be worked out when the five-power conference took place.

The Australian Labor Party believes that Australia has a continued interest in the whole region. It was a Labor Government which entered into the ANZAM arrangement. Labor's belief was - the present Government has continued to think this way - :that the security of the Malay Peninsula was of vital importance to the security of the Commonwealth of Australia. I believe, and I do not think anyone in this place would contest, that if our neighbouring country, Indonesia, were threatened by invasion we would have to give very sympathetic consideration to assisting her in the problems that arose. No member of this Parliament disputes that we have a responsibility properly to defend the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. We have accepted responsibilities under the Australian, New Zealand and United States Defence Pact and under SEATO.

Having spelt out those general considerations, I believe that the Minister could well spell out just what Australia's interests are in the area surrounding it. We want to see proper defence arrangements made to cover the Pacific and Indian Oceans adjacent to our shores and the seas to our immediate north. The obvious importance of sea power and air power has always been a consideration in Labor's policy. The Australian Labor Party has always believed that Australia, with a small population quite evenly distributed over the area of this island continent and heavily concentrated in the south eastern corner, needs a very flexible defence force, which means a particular concentration on the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Australian Navy.

I was surprised that the Minister made no military assessment of the situation in Vietnam. This is the only place where Australian troops are engaged in a wartime occupation. He dealt with Vietnam in rather generalised terms, saying that the Government was in agreement with the Americans in their de-escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam and in expressing the hope that the peace talks would be pursued to a successful conclusion. I was disappointed that the Minister made no military assessment of the situation in Vietnam, using the Australian resources that are available to him. He and other speakers have said, and no-one in this House would dispute, that the Australians in Vietnam, in accordance with their training and leadership, are without any doubt carrying out their duties effectively and well. But we would like n know just what the success of this enterprise is and what is the result of more than 18 months of occupation of the Phuoc Tuy Province. We would like to know the success of the other responsibilities that have been accepted in Vietnam. We would like to know a little more of the war situation in which we are involved. It strikes me is rather an unusual statement on defence that makes no mention at all, or no significant mention, of the war in which we are actually engaged. There are a number of other matters. I, for one, would be interested to hear how the Centurian tanks are going and 1 should like to hear about a number of other matters to which passing reference has been made.

This brings, me to the Fill aircraft. I do not want to spend a great deal of time on the FI 1 1 because there has been already a great deal of discussion on this subject. In my view some of the discussion has not been particularly relevant. Whatever one thinks of the original decision to place an order for the FI 1 1 , the fact is that, based on a report by the technical staff of the RAAF, the Government decided to order that aircraft. That order has been placed and we are within a few months of taking delivery of the first of these aircraft. The Minister for Defence and also the Minister, for Air (Mr Freeth), who spoke on Thursday night last, made generalised statements that whilst there seemed to be some faults in the aircraft at present, they were quite sure and confident that it was not beyond the capacity of American technology to rectify these faults. I ask the Minister this question: Does that mean that wc will not be taking delivery of the Fill until, if I may use the term, these bugs have been ironed out? Are we in the position which applies when one buys a motor car, that is, if there are any faults one is not responsible for tidying them up in the running-in period? Does this mean that Australia will not take delivery of these aircraft until it is quite satisfied that it is getting a serviceable aircraft?

I read that when several of these aircraft were lost in Thailand recently the RAAF sent teams there so that we could make our own assessment of the position. The terms in which the Minister referred to the Fill would rather suggest that our assessment, if it has been completed, is that there is nothing basically wrong with the aircraft that cannot be straightened out. But there is a good deal of disquiet in the Australian community and I believe that the Government should be forthright in telling us whether these things are true. The greatest controversy in the community about the Fi Ils concerns the vast escalation of cost. It is quite spurious now to be arguing about the qualities of the aircraft, except insofar as we want to make sure that its anomalies are rectified. Obviously, in the future, the Government will have to come up with a much better story than it has come up with to this point of time in order to justify the cost escalating from $US120m to $US.300m.

There are other questions which I would like to ask, and which I would like to have answered, concerning the Fill. We are familiar with the enormous rebuilding programme taking place at the Amberley air base, the new hangars and new facilities that are being provided there. Am I to understand that the Fill needs all these facilities at a base from which it can operate? Is Amberley the only base in Australia from which it can operate? From what other bases can it operate in this region? Is Butterworth base capable of being developed into a station from which these aircraft can operate? Candidly, I do not know the answers to these questions. I think one of the faults of this Government is that it has not fostered proper discussion in this Parliament and in the Australian community about defence matters. One can argue that the Government should put a cloak over these things and keep them secret but obviously, if the people of Australia are to take a more intelligent interest in defence, and members of this Parliament, including myself, are to take a more intelligent attitude to defence than we may have done in the past, then a lot more information ought to be given to us. Is Amberley the best place for these aircraft to be stationed? What about fighter cover for these bombers? I do not know the answers to any of these technical questions but I believe there is a considerable amount of disquiet in the Australian community about them and it is up to the Government to give us some information.

There were a number of other matters raised in the speech by the Minister for Defence. He mentioned co-operation with New Zealand; the fact that defence was aiding Australia's industrial development; that there had been forward steps in the establishment of a joint service college.

Again, J would like more information about the integration of the Services. We on the Opposition side of the House who have been studying developments in Canada and elsewhere are rather interested in centralising our Defence Services and cutting wasteful defence expenditure. We would like more information about how this joint service college is going to dovetail into the other colleges established by the individual Service Departments. We do not know about this at this point of time. 1 believe this information is not yet available but I would be grateful if it is made available to us as soon as possible.

I think it is very difficult to discuss, intelligently or adequately, defence matters in this Parliament. It seems to me that the present situation is that the Government has very substantially increased Defence expenditure and that this is a trend which will probably continue. The Australian Labor Party has never sought to cut down on Australia's defence. Indeed, 1 believe that Labor has played a prominent role in the defence of Australia in two world wars. But we are concerned to see that the people of Australia get good value - the best possible value - for the money spent on defence. Irrespective of what may be decided at the five power conference, I believe that Australia has to be prepared in relation to some matters to stand on its own feet. The honourable member for La Trobe also made this point. The enormous cost of the Fill should not blind the Government to the need for forward planning in other defence areas. For example, it is obvious that some decision has to be made about a replacement carrier for HMAS 'Melbourne'. Even though this vessel is now being refitted for specific antisubmarine work, we all recognise that the capital ship of today, and for the foreseeable future, is the aircraft carrier. It may be that action along these lines needs to be taken very shortly because one does not bring a modern aircraft carrier on stream in 18 months or so. We have no indication of the Government's forward planning for the Royal Australian Navy or even for the Army.

I did refer earlier to the Centurion tanks and expressed my interest in learning how they were shaping up to the situation in


Vietnam. I think anyone concerned with our Army would know that there is a feeling within the Army that we need a light tank as a replacement for the Centurion more suitable for use in Australia and in vast areas adjacent to Australia where we have responsibilities. We should know what the Government is doing about some of these things.

The Australian Labor Party believes that Australia needs to increase and improve its defence preparedness. It believes that an essential part of this exercise is to eliminate wasteful expenditure and to develop proper co-ordination between the various arms of the Australian defence forces. It believes that there should be. proper co-operation with our neighbours and allies; that we should share common aims and problems and endeavour to effect economies of scale within the region. The Labor Part}' believes that the statement by the Minister for Defence was a fairly poor one because of what it omitted rather than what it contained.

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