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Thursday, 3 November 1983
Page: 2274

Mr SINCLAIR(11.03) —The Opposition welcomes the presentation to the Parliament this morning of these two very comprehensive statements on the Government's attitude to defence. Regrettably, there are a number of serious omissions in the papers, and that concerns us. The fact that they have been presented and argued is quite essential to the understanding by the community at large of the directions in which defence is being taken and the objectives that are being pursued by the present incumbents of these two portfolios. I commend the Minister for Defence (Mr Scholes) for setting down in the early stages of the statement he has presented to the House the objectives, as he sees them, of the Australian Defence Force. I believe there is a difficulty for a nation like Australia, faced perhaps with an uncertain threat and with a complex of responsibilities accorded to the Defence Force, in always establishing in what direction and in what way defence expenditure should have priority.

At the same time, I believe a number of emphases need to be placed and perhaps in one sense they go further than those in the Minister's objectives. In his first objective he stated that we should provide a deterrent by making a major attack on Australia extremely costly and hazardous. The difficulty in determining the nature of that deterrent is in determining to what degree and in what way the force can be structured to permit that objective to continue to have relevance. I believe that in interpreting that deterrent we need to look at two aspects. The first is the physical makeup of the units of the force, and the second is the defence relationships we have with the countries that surround us. While the Minister has spoken- I do not really want to talk about it at this stage-in his comprehensive paper of the relationship which sees the stationing of Royal Australian Air Force aircraft at Butterworth in Malaysia and in Singapore, he has referred to the five-power defence arrangements only minimally . Yet I believe that those five-power defence arrangements are particularly important in the strategic situations of the region in which we play a part. Equally, he refers to our relationships with the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations and speaks of the need to undertake co-operative defence activities, including exercising with their national forces.

It is in that area that we in opposition are critical of the performance of this Government. We are concerned that changes have been introduced which threaten the maintenance of that very special defence relationship with the ASEAN countries which we believe is not only in the general strategic interests of the nations of this region, but is also absolutely essential for Australia's security. The degree to which the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) in particular has led this country into a perspective with each of those individual ASEAN countries we believe threatens that special defence relationship. If that were not enough, specific actions have been undertaken by the Minister for Defence Support (Mr Howe)-in particular his freeze on negotiations on two ventures with the Philippines defence forces-which we think even further prejudice that relationship.

We believe that there is a very real need for Australia to have in its relationships with each of the ASEAN countries a role which will help those countries to work together and also to develop their defence capability against any potential aggressor. There is little doubt that in this theatre of the world there is such a possibility. We are foolish if we turn our minds away from KAL Flight 007 or the unfortunate occurrence in the last few weeks of the explosion in Rangoon which killed members of the South Korean Government and some officials of the Government of Burma. We are foolish if we turn aside from the implications of the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia and in Laos, and we are foolish indeed if we think that with the internal signs of potential political change that is taking place in some of those ASEAN countries Australia can just stand back and say that there is no potential defence threat.

Having said that, I believe the general objectives laid down by the Minister for Defence in his statement and echoed in his more complete statement on the review of the strategic bases are ones with which the Opposition has very little argument. However, I did note in his fuller statement his reference to the imbalance between the military capacities of the two super-powers. That statement, which was not echoed to the same degree in his briefer paper to the House, is something that needs to be borne in mind by those who are pursuing the disarmament debate today. The whole of the preservation of peace in the world, in our mind, lies very much in the relationship between each of the countries of the Western world and our preparedness to apply the same deterrence that the Minister has referred to in the objectives for the Australian Defence Force.

Unless there is an ability to maintain an adequate deterrence, preferably of a non-nuclear character, in our view the threat to world peace is significantly enhanced. We believe that within that world balance Australia has a role to play . This Government is walking away from what is happening in Grenada, which is an illustration of an area where Australia should at least be prepared to undertake , in consultation with other countries of the Commonwealth, a form of Commonwealth commitment to restore peace in that area of the Caribbean. In the same way, when we were in government we committed ourselves to participation in the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai and we undertook, with other countries of the Commonwealth, to maintain a training team in Uganda.

On the overall embrace of the strategic bases, there are two other factors to which I want to refer briefly. The first is that there is little doubt that out relationship with New Zealand must be developed to the maximum. This is a relationship which extends not only to defence but also to defence procurement. The Minister for Defence Support, in the statement he made a moment ago, submitted to us a paper from his own visit to three countries-Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands-each of which he identified as being a country with whom there is some similarity in terms of the nature of our economy and our general attitudes. My concern is that in defence procurement and in defence we look at our particular relationship with New Zealand and our relationship with the countries with which we undertake a defence co-operation program. Our DCP program is probably the most important extension of the defence arm in Australia . I believe it is one of the important foreign policy arms of Australia. The relationship not only with the countries of ASEAN but with Papua New Guinea and the countries of the south-west Pacific is a way by which we can ensure a better understanding. Our particular relationship with New Zealand, through ANZUS and the bilateral relationships that have been developed through the undertakings in the closer economic relations, is of prime importance for our future. I hope that the Minister for Defence Support, in looking at future developments, will not just look far afield but will come back and see in what way we can develop a more special relationship in defence procurement and international procurement. It is for that reason that I was so concerned about the comments he made on the arrangements with the Philippines defence forces. That is an area where we need to develop relationships to a greater degree. If we can do so I believe it will be to both our defence and our commercial advantage.

The Minister in his statement referred to the ANZUS relationship. I do not want to develop, any more than he did, the arguments around that ANZUS relationship. The Opposition regards our ANZUS relationship as extending significantly further than the relationship that the Minister has exposed and that which has been expressed by the Foreign Minister. Certainly there has been a distancing of the present Australian Government from the United States of America in a number of significant affairs. We recognise that the left wing influence of the Australian Labor Party is important. As far as our side of politics is concerned, we believe that the commitments we have undertaken with the United States-for example, in the Indian Ocean-are, in general, embraced within that same ANZUS doctrine.

For all that the Minister says that no new arrangements have been developed in ANZUS for many years, I can assure him that under our Government we had an annual review of the ANZUS relationship which discussed on each occasion the areas of prime concern for Australia, the areas where we believed the relationship needed to be extended, and areas, where there were any, where we saw that there was a shortfall. I do not believe it is in Australia's interests to state, as this Government has, that there are limitations on the ANZUS relationship. I believe those limitations, if they are there, need to be examined in any particular circumstance on an ad hoc basis. To state them in the way that they have been stated I do not believe is in Australia's interests, nor do I believe it is a strict interpretation of that very special relationship which over the years has been developed between governments of the coalition's persuasion and administrations of both persuasions in the United States.

One other aspect of the special defence relationship and the general strategic bases paper to which I would like to make particular reference is the relationship-the Minister refers to this on page 7 of his more complete paper- between Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia. That relationship is of prime importance in any assessment of Australia's defence capability. I have been worried on occasions by the attitude of the Labor Government on East Timor, not least because there are aspects of the Indonesian relationship which, unless they are fostered, nurtured and approached with a very considerable measure of understanding, can certainly be prejudicial to our longer term security. I am hopeful that some of the more extravagant comments that have been made, which I do not believe are responsible, are now finally set aside. We on this side believe that Australia's relationship with Indonesia and the relationship between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are areas in which we have a special concern and which we need to develop to the maximum.

I turn to the defence review and the funding provisions. The Minister has referred in his full paper and again in his briefer paper to a number of aspects of funding of the defence vote. I think it is worth commenting on the period during which the coalition was in government. Looking back over that period one sees that in 1979-80 there was a real growth figure of 5.3 per cent; in 1980-81, it was 6.7 per cent; in 1981-82, it was 4.2 per cent; and in 1982-83, in the light of our having decided that we would defer the decision on a number of major capital items because of our intention to acquire HMS Invincible in 1983- 84, it was 3.8 per cent. The 1983-84 vote, the vote of the Minister's Government , represents, he claims, a real growth figure of about 4 per cent. However, the figure given in Table 2 on page 359 of Budget Paper No. 1 is 2.2 per cent.

I am afraid the reason for our reduction of the vote to 3.8 per cent in 1982-83 which, as I have said, was because of our intention to acquire HMS Invincible, has not been mirrored, as the Budget Papers show, in the figures provided for this year for the Services. Our concern, having looked at that broad strategic assessment, is that the Department of Defence is being significantly prejudiced in a number of ways which will destroy its ability to undertake those very proper responsibilities which the Minister has set out in his objectives. It is our concern that that deterioration in defence capability has occurred already in a number of ways. It has occurred first in significant areas of naval equipment. I do not want at great length to go down the argument about the carrier or fixed wing aviation but I certainly believe that the manner of the Government's decision taking in both those areas was totally irresponsible. For it to take a political decision as it did on the carrier is to deny the Royal Australian Navy any opportunity of arguing the carrier's case. There are significant arguments for a carrier. It is true that there are economic difficulties in acquiring that capability but there are alternatives, as the experience in the Falklands Islands demonstrated. I believe it is totally foolish for the Government, immediately after its election, without consideration of any defence input or of any of the advice of its Service personnel, to have said: 'There will be no carrier'. I believe that it is equally, in fact more, irresponsible to say that it would scrap the fixed wing aviation component.

The Minister has outlined in his full statement the Government's intentions with respect to the A4 aircraft and the Tracker aircraft. I regard those decisions as totally irresponsible. They will withdraw from the Australian Defence Force a unique capability which is not available in other sections of the Force. The Tracker and the A4 are very serviceable types. The A4, in fact, is operated by all the other nations in our region. It has at the moment the only aerial refuelling capability of any aircraft in the Australian Service. While the Minister has spoken of future Boeing 707 conversion for airborne refuelling, that capability is not presently in place. There is a very real advantage in Australia's being able to send a fully fuelled A4 into the air, refuel another aircraft and maintain aircraft on station, particularly given the very considerable extent of the Australian coastline and the difficulty in the maintenance of any type of adequate air cover for Australian ships other than very close to existing Australian airfields. If one questions that statement, the experience of Kangaroo '83 in the Pilbara demonstrated that very fittingly.

Of course, it is not only in terms of aerial refuelling that the A4 has a capability. It is a very good ground support aircraft. In its exercises with the Navy it undertook a number of duties which, regrettably, at this stage are not capable of being fulfilled by the Royal Australian Air Force. Even in terms of the cuts in service times, it is surely recognised that by having A4 aircraft operating out of HMAS Albatross in close proximity to the fleet exercising area, we are able to maintain aircraft on station and undertake exercising for a far longer period than when we have aircraft operating from Williamtown, which is so many more miles to the north. I think the circumstances of the decision to withdraw the fixed wing aviation component of the fleet has been very detrimental to our present capability, to the exercise opportunity of the fleet and, indeed, to the morale of all those concerned. For all that the Minister has commented in his paper that an undertaking has been given to care for those affected by the withdrawal of that capability, we are all aware that a significant number of people in the Fleet Air Arm has been recruited by or have applied for transfer to the Canadian service, some to the Royal Navy and some to the United States service. That is a unique capability which, once lost, cannot be restored. Not only have we lost the equipment but also we are about to lose the manpower. Australia, frankly, cannot afford so to do.

This paper refers to many decisions, in the course of the other changes undertaken by the Government, with respect to new equipment. We on our side of the House certainly have expressed our support for the decision to build the two follow-on destroyers at Williamstown. I note the comments made by the Minister for Defence Support in his paper regarding the private shipyards-Carrington Slipways Pty Ltd, North Queensland Engineers and Agents Pty Ltd and Australian Shipbuilding Industries Pty Ltd in Western Australia, all of which to a greater or lesser degree have participated in military procurement in the past. I believe those shipyards, together with the upgrading of Garden Island, have a very real role for the future.

A number of items of capital equipment in the other two Services concern us, but time will not allow me to pursue them. The one aspect of the FA18 acquisition that I think we need to emphasise is that it is essential that we understand that the relative value of the Australian dollar to the United States dollar, as much as anything, will be a prime factor in the ultimate cost of that item of defence procurement. The problems of having a very large defence item of that ilk involving such a large draw on the defence vote cannot be solved easily within the defence vote alone, given the sometimes extreme movements of the relative currencies of the United States of America and Australia. It has always seemed unfortunate to me that the Defence Force has not been able to utilise to a greater degree the movement of funds to meet these already identified purchases at a time when it is most favourable to Australia instead of at a time when it perhaps suits other items of Federal budgeting.

Within the other changes that the Government has introduced to defence I am concerned about two that are mentioned in the paper. I see as very regrettable the decision concerning the Australian Army Cadet Corps, particularly the destruction of the School Cadet Corps. Certainly for many years the Department of Defence has not been enamoured of the School Cadet structure. I do not believe that that is a sufficiently valid reason for it now to be terminated. In my view the Australian Cadet Corps in many ways, associated as it was with our school system, provided an input into some aspect of military training that was of value in giving a new generation of Australians some understanding of what defence was all about. Its particular emphasis on community activities since we re-established it in 1976 provided an added advantage in giving children, particularly those in less privileged areas, an adventure opportunity that might otherwise have been denied them. For all the brave words of the Minister in his statement, I do not believe that the new Cadet Corps will provide the same type of training in the future and I see the change as most regrettable.

The other area of particular concern I mention is that, because of the changes that are consequential on the taxing of Reserve personnel pay and the Defence Force retirement and death benefits tax changes, extreme morale problems are generating in the Services. The Minister has made a statement with respect to DFRDB taxation. I know that that has overcome some problems. But I draw the Minister's attention to the complaints that the Regular Defence Forces Welfare Association has that the extra commutation will further reduce retirement pay. That is certainly so. While the Minister says that it is minimal, I find it incredible that a government which says that there will be no change in DFRDB entitlement also says: 'Oh, but that is not a change in DFRDB entitlement when the tax penalty is increased'. That, of course, is nonsense because that Government is the employer. For the Government to reduce the entitlement, as it has, I do not believe is a justifiable basis at all for dealing with the conditions of servicemen. Certainly, it is prospective and in that it is prospective the prospects of those people for future advancement will be considered very much against what they see as a reduced DFRDB pension entitlement in the future. I draw the Minister's attention to concerns the Regular Defence Forces Welfare Association has about even his present changes.

Another area of concern I have is the reserves. I believe that there are very real problems in the nature of the treatment of taxation on Reserve personnel's pay. I do not believe it will be possible to maintain numbers in the reserves, as the Minister has suggested. His Budget has already reduced them. Unless there can be an incentive for trained people to remain in the reserves I do not believe that we will be able to provide that necessary backup for augmentation of defence numbers when it is needed.

Finally, I turn to the Utz Defence Review Committee report. In the statement there is minimal reference to it, extolling its virtues. But there is no announcement in this paper about what should be done under the recommendations of the Utz Committee report to provide significant changes in some of the structural patterns within the Department of Defence. I believe that is one of the principal weaknesses of this statement. I urge the Minister to come into this House at the very earliest opportunity and explain to us his intentions in relation to implementing the recommendations of that Utz Committee report on the higher defence organisation. Particularly I would like to see a strengthening of the role of the Chief of the Defence Force Staff and some of the committee structures within the Department of Defence. It is high time the Minister reached decisions on these matters. It is no use his extolling the principles that Mr Utz espoused. Rather, it is time for him to implement them.