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Thursday, 6 June 1991
Page: 5030

Mr DOWNER(10.20 p.m.) —It is with pleasure that I join in this debate at this late hour on the Government's defence statement on the force structure review. I begin by making a comment which I hope honourable members would regard as an obvious one, and that is that one of the most fundamental roles of any government in any country is to ensure that that country is properly defended. Perhaps one could go so far as to say that this is the fundamental role of government. Therefore, any significant defence statement by a government is an important landmark for a nation, and there is no doubt that this particular force structure review statement is one such statement.

Defence policy in Australia, as anywhere, must be built on a foundation of a strategic assessment. In our case it should have three broad goals: first, very obviously, to protect the nation in cooperation with our allies in the event of a major catastrophe; secondly, to be able to respond effectively to short term contingencies with flexibility and speed; and thirdly, to ensure that we have an appropriate resource in order to contribute to regional stability, particularly through the process of regional deterrents.

Despite the very great and historic professionalism and dedication of the members of the Australian Defence Force, it has to be said that very few objective observers of the defence debate in Australia would for one moment think that our Defence Force could meet any of those three broad goals. The Labor Government, since 1983, has run down our defence. It has made sure that we cannot meet those goals. It has treated defence as a way of saving money, not as a fundamental role of government.

One of the points I want to make tonight, as the Opposition spokesman on defence in the House of Representatives, is this: over the next two years in the lead-up to the election, the issue of defence will become more and more a political issue. The Australian Labor Party needs to understand that the run-down of our defence forces, the weakening of our capacity as a nation to defend ourselves, is an issue of great political consequence which will be an important issue in the 1992 or 1993 general election. It will be one of the issues on which we will fight that election. We will be making defence increasingly a significant political issue over the next two years.

The Australian Defence Force, in personnel, is as weak today as it has been at any time since 1979. When the Hawke Government came to power the Defence Force had 71,641 members; today it has 67,469. The problem or great tragedy of this defence statement is that it weakens, not strengthens, our Defence Force at this important time.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to make five brief points. First, this defence statement is quite incontestably not based on a strategic assessment of Australia's place in its region and in the world. It is a statement driven by budgetary considerations, not strategic considerations. It is a cost cutting exercise which will leave our country with a hollow army. This defence statement is supposed to be built on the foundation of the 1987 White Paper, and the Minister for Defence (Senator Robert Ray) continually reiterates that point. The 1987 White Paper for the Labor Party is treated in the way a church minister would treat the holy gospel: it is regarded as something that cannot be changed and something which is a fundamental truth.

The fact is that, when the rhetoric in defence of the White Paper is swept away, we find that the Government is divided on the issue of the significance of the defence White Paper as a foundation of strategic policy. In fact, in speeches by senior Ministers and, in particular, the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), we find that the Government has turned its back on the White Paper. Yet that White Paper is the basis of this defence statement. Recently, only two weeks ago, the Prime Minister in his speech to the Asia-Australia Institute said:

The last five years have seen the most profound changes in global strategic circumstances in nearly half a century.

That is true, I do not argue with the Prime Minister's words, but his Government's defence policy is built on the foundation of a White Paper which was written four years ago. For the Prime Minister to say that in the past five years there have been these profound changes, and for the Government effectively or implicitly to say that `Despite those profound changes, we are not changing the strategic basis of our defence policy', is for the Government to be talking gobbledegook.

Since the defence White Paper was produced, we have had the end of the Cold War; we have had an increase in defence expenditure in other countries in our region; we have had a very significantly changing role for the United States in our region, and a role that will continue to change. There are many other examples of how our circumstances in a strategic sense have changed. So this statement is built on a foundation of sand.

The second point I make is that, even if one were to accept on face value the argument of the Government that this defence statement is built on the foundation of the White Paper, the fact is that it is not implementing a defence strategy which is consistent with the recommendations of the White Paper. The White Paper recommended that defence expenditure, as the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Lindsay) was saying earlier, should be something between 2.6 per cent and 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). The reality, since the defence White Paper, has been quite different. Over the past four years, defence expenditure has been between 2.3 per cent and 2.4 per cent of GDP. In 1987, the year of the defence White Paper, the Government suddenly decided that real growth in defence expenditure would be 0 per cent, and in 1987-88, minus 1.8 per cent.

Despite the strategy outlined in the defence White Paper, which is supposed to be still to this very day the foundation of the Government's defence policy, the Defence Force has been starved of funds on the basis of the recommendations of the White Paper. This has created vast problems for the Australian Defence Force. Understandably, the Government has had to maintain expenditure for the so-called big ticket items of capital expenditure and, consequently, the unexpected or unanticipated reductions in spending have had to take place in the areas of personnel, training and stocks.

Consequently, the effectiveness of the Australian Defence Force has been very substantially reduced. It has been reduced because personnel numbers have been cut; there has been inadequate training; and stocks of essential defence equipment have fallen very dramatically. We do not have an effective defence force, and one of the reasons for that is that even the White Paper itself, flawed and outdated as it may be-a document weakened by time and circumstance-has not been properly implemented according to the Government's own policy.

The third point is that in this particular defence statement the Government axes two of the six battalions in the Australian Army. The coalition opposes totally that decision of the Government. By that decision, the Government is reducing still further our combat readiness. As it is, the six battalions that we have are not fully manned, and for the Government to reduce those six battalions by two simply exacerbates the problem of a lack of combat readiness. In government, the coalition will maintain the six battalions. I point out that those six battalions today only have 3,500 personnel; that is hardly a very significant number. Indeed, the challenge for us is to build up the strength of those battalions, not to dissolve them.

The fourth point relates to the Government's introduction of a ready reserve. What the Government should be doing is concentrating on strengthening the current reserves that we have already. It should not be reducing the numbers of combat troops, which is what it is actually doing in this defence statement. There is no substitute for effective, highly trained and efficient regulars as a core to the Australian Defence Force. They are the people who will have the capacity to respond quickly, flexibly and effectively to short term, unexpected contingencies which may very well occur.

I thought that in his submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in November last year, Lieutenant General Coates, the Chief of the General Staff, summed up a very real concern with this proposal for a Ready Reserve and for the increasing dependence by the Government on the Reserve. He said:

I am unsure as to the measure of support the business community could give to such a scheme, especially in these stringent economic times.

They have become pretty much more stringent since then. He goes on:

I have therefore asked General Nunn, in his civilian capacity, to seek the opinion of a group of Victorian industry leaders. I understand that their response was not as enthusiastic as we might have hoped, and on this basis I have been urging caution in introducing this scheme.

He was referring to the Ready Reserve scheme. The statement that the Minister brought down a couple of weeks ago does not address the issues raised by Lieutenant General Coates and gives no confidence whatsoever that this Ready Reserve proposal will be effective.

Reserves are essential to supplement the core of the Australian Defence Force, and they must be well equipped and well trained. They have not been in recent years because of a lack of appropriate financial support. The concentration of the Government should be on ensuring the existing reserves are properly equipped and trained, not on creating some new third force which the rhetoric may say will integrate with existing reserves but in reality will be seen as some kind of separate elite.

In any case, the concept of the Ready Reserve raises more questions in this statement than are ever answered, and once more we see the Government's disdainful approach to the Australian Defence Force.

My fifth point relates to the Government's response to management problems in the Australian Defence Force. It is worth reflecting that about half of the 67,000 Australian Defence Force personnel are in non-combat roles. While the Opposition supports the rhetoric of the Government to move towards the civilianisation and contracting out of many-obviously not all-of the non-combat functions in the Australian Defence Force, the Government does not explain in its statement how far it will go in the process of contracting out. Indeed the statement leaves the whole question of contracting out and civilianisation extremely vague. How much will the Government save through contracting out and civilianisation? No answer is given to that question in the statement.

The Opposition has raised a number of detailed examples in the past of what I think could politely be described as `surplus non-combat' positions in the Australian Defence Force, but the statement is silent on them. Why does Australia have 1,321 stewards in the Australian Defence Force? Why are there 500 firefighters? Why are there more musicians than mine warfare specialists in the Royal Australian Navy? These questions need to be answered, but they have not been addressed in the Government's statement.

The Opposition is happy to support the contracting out of many of the non-combat functions of the Defence Force to the private sector, but we do not know what the Government is doing in its statement; we only read the Government's rhetoric.

In conclusion, the Opposition believes that the day this four-structure review and the Government's defence statement were brought down in the Parliament was a sad day for Australia. It was the day the Government finally announced as a statement of policy that it was going to reduce significantly the emphasis placed on the defence of this country. As I said at the beginning of my speech, that will be a significant political issue between now and the next election.

It is worth remembering that the defence forces of this country have been a source of national pride for all Australians for many years. That sense of national pride and pride in their achievements and professionalism over that period is simply undermined by this statement, which contributes once more to the growing disillusionment among Australians about the processes of government. Those processes have undermined Australia's defence forces and Australia's national pride.

Debate (on motion by Mr Campbell) adjourned.