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Wednesday, 12 October 1983
Page: 1686

Mr HOLLIS(7.35) —During the past few weeks I believe all honourable members have been supplied with a document entitled 'The Case for the Retention of the Fixed Wing Component of the Naval Fleet Air Arm'. As the Fleet Air Arm has been based at HMAS Albatross in my electorate, it is perhaps appropriate that I make a few comments on this matter. The argument in the Shoalhaven area is an economic argument. The people circulating this document are not defence experts. The decision to change the role of the Fleet Air Arm cannot be separated from the decision not to acquire an aircraft carrier. Also, the decision to pay off HMAS Melbourne because she had reached the end of her useful life was taken by the previous Government. The previous Government had no intention of acquiring an aircraft carrier. If it had, it would have been announced before the last election when both the former Prime Minister and the former Minister for Defence visited the Nowra area. Realistically, if the Melbourne was to be replaced, that decision should have been made six years ago.

The decision not to press for the sale of HMS Invincible to Australia was also a decision of the previous Government. Even if the present Government had opted to accept the British Government offer of an Invincible class ship later in the decade, there would have been no effective military role for the Trackers and Skyhawks of the Fleet Air Arm. The decision to alter the basic role of the Fleet Air Arm was based on the realistic assessment that there is no sense in tying up resources maintaining historic monuments when they can be better spent acquiring new and more strategically relevant capabilities. Honourable members are aware that the Minister for Defence (Mr Scholes), who is at the table, has asked a senior defence committee to consider maritime force requirements. This is looking to the future rather than to the past. Current plans for Australia's maritime defences include proposals to equip the P3Cs, F111s and FA18s with Harpoon missiles, proposals to extend the operational capabilities of fighter aircraft by the introduction of aerial refuelling-the present Government has already purchased the necessary aircraft-and proposals to fit submarines with Harpoon missiles. The defence program, particularly as it relates to the purchase of major equipment items, is not something that can be changed overnight. The shape of the Defence Force in years to come is a product of the planning which is going on at the moment.

The decision to convert the Fleet Air Arm to helicopter operations is a reflection of the sorts of capabilities which the best efforts of the country's defence planners feel will be most appropriate in years to come. The people of Nowra have been reassured of the Government's concern for their welfare. This is why the Minister for Defence has told municipal and chamber of commerce officials in the area that the level of defence activity in the Nowra district will remain the same as when the decision to alter the structure of the Fleet Air Arm was announced. I know, because I attended that meeting. The Minister for Defence has made a recent announcement about the parachute school being transferred to Albatross. This will give a tremendous economic boost to the area .

As a local member, I can understand the concern of the people of Nowra, especially the business people, but one must question the motives of the people circulating this document. Their attempts to talk down property values are to be deplored. If they were really concerned about the future of Nowra, they would have taken up my offer to arrange a meeting with various Ministers to discuss the whole economic future of Nowra. I suggest the circulated document was not unrelated to a recent local government election and a State election some time next year. I repeat the absolute assurances repeatedly given by the Minister for Defence. The economic input to the Shoalhaven area from the defence forces at Albatross will not decline. Albatross will remain a naval base under naval command. Some of the uniforms at the base may be different, but the money will be the same.