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Speech to the 44th ALP National Conference, 2007



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Speech by Joel Fitzgibbon Shadow Minister for Defence

44th ALP National Conference, 29 April 2007

Robert McClelland has, as always, competently covered the key foreign

relationships issues contained within Chapter 14 and I want to focus on the

important defence related matters.

Of course, the primary responsibility for any national government is the defence

of the nation, and the protection of its people and their interests.

The foundation of Labor's defence policy is the principle of self-reliance. We

believe that the Australian Defence Force must be able to defend Australia and

its interests without relying on the combat forces of other nations. Self-reliance

reflects Australia's sense of itself as an independent nation.

But protecting Australia’s interests requires much more than the defence of our

vast continent.

In this rapidly changing and uncertain world in which we are experiencing a new

enemy in the form of non-state groups, emerging changes in the global

distribution of power and political instability in our own region, we must have a

balanced, flexible and versatile defence force, capable of providing government

with the full range of necessary options.

The development of that force structure must be driven by the best strategic

thinking. Unfortunately, Australia’s key strategic posture is dictated by a White

Paper developed in the late 1990s and released in the year 2000.

As the Leader said in his keynote address on Friday, Australia needs to look

forward, not back. And in defence terms, that means we need a new White

Paper.

For the Australian Government, Defence is now a $20 billion business. Defence

asset spending should and must be driven by strategy. And we cannot afford to

be making purchasing decisions on the basis of old ideas and potentially

outdated paradigms.

A defence spend each year of $20 billion or just under 2 per cent of GDP may or

may not be enough given the demands being placed on our Defence Force.

Certainly, we can’t afford to waste a cent. And the Howard Government is

wasting plenty.

Ad hoc and politically-motivated defence asset purchasing decisions are putting

the medium to long-term sustainability of the defence budget in doubt, potentially

undermining Australia’s national security.

As always, the Howard Government has been putting its own interests ahead of

the national interest. They will do anything to cling on to power.

Labor will ensure that our Defence capability plan is guided by defence strategy,

not domestic political fixes.

And we won’t send our young men and women to war without sufficient

justification and the imprimatur of the United Nations as the Howard Government

has done in Iraq.

Of course, no matter how well funded or equipped, Australia’s Defence Force

can be no better than the men and women that serve within it. And we have the

world’s best.

The Service Chiefs all acknowledge that recruiting and retaining sufficient top

quality personnel is their major challenge and Labor agrees with them.

While there are no easy answers to the recruiting and retention dilemma, a

consistent, innovative and well directed effort is required to achieve results. And

certainly, you can’t expect to recruit and retain good people if you don’t take care

of them with appropriate conditions of service.

Continuing that theme, I think it important to conclude with a message of

unqualified support for those brave men and women of the ADF who are

currently serving overseas, and to acknowledge the sacrifice of their families and

the efforts of those working to support them.

The Government must do more to support those who return from active service

traumatised by the experience of modern combat. Only today we learned more of

the tragically high number of returning servicemen suffering after their

experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Labor joins with the vast majority of Australians who are immensely proud of our

defence force and the service men and women who are doing such a marvellous

job in serving their country.

Ends