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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1564


Mr DOWNER(4.51 p.m.) —-The Defence budget that we are debating this afternoon has been formulated at a time when a number of Australians are running around this country saying that we should be yielding some type of a peace dividend. Of course we in this country welcome the decisions by the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom to reduce their levels of nuclear armaments. We warmly welcome the final demise of what has for decades been known as the Cold War.

But it is very important in this country that we do not draw the conclusion--the completely false conclusion--from those very progressive and happy events that we ourselves can reap some type of peace dividend, that we can start to disband our defence forces and that we can wind back any commitment we have to defence because, somehow, the trouble for the world is now over. The fact is that the peace that has broken out --the end of the Cold War, to put it another way--has very few implications for Australia.

We live in an extraordinarily volatile region of the world, as can be seen from events in neighbouring countries over the last few months. It is a region which is unpredictable and uncertain. In that context, any government which takes the view--and I must say that this Government has at times taken this view--that there could be no serious threat to Australia in a period of 10 or 15 years is extraordinarily unwise.

I thought the words of Admiral Jeremiah on 27 September were very chilling. When he was in Australia, Admiral Jeremiah, who is one of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the point that there are 20 states on the threshold of possessing nuclear weapons and that more could develop chemical and biological weapons. As Admiral Jeremiah points out, we do live in very difficult and unpredictable times. That is a very important reason for us to build up a strong and effective defence force.

Yet this Budget and the approach of government these days to the issue of defence implies that Australia is reaping a peace dividend. The Budget weakens Australia's defence capability and, to be specific, it cuts our combat capability. In addition to that, it kills off any prospects of essential equipment purchases such as the airborne early warning aircraft system or the coastal mine hunters. Both of these sets of purchases have been regarded by the ADF as an essential part of a strong and effective Australian defence capability. Yet, this Budget has effectively killed off any prospect of those purchases.

In the few minutes that I have left to me this afternoon I want to talk about two initiatives basically in the Budget which have been part of the Government's general defence review over recent months. One is the prospect of greater commercialisation and the other is the concept of ready reserves, which was the topic of some heated controversy at Question Time today.

Of course, we on this side of the chamber support commercialisation in so far as it is practical. Our view is that what the Government has proposed in the area of commercialisation does not go nearly far enough. Indeed, the Government has trumpeted results in the field of commercialisation. But it is worth reflecting on the fact that this commercialisation will not begin at all until the 1992-93 financial year and that in that year effectively only 158 positions will be commercialised.

The Government had originally identified something like 21,000 positions which could be commercialised. Yet, by 1994-95 fewer than 1,000 positions will have been commercialised. Indeed, it is worth reflecting that up until 1994-95 the Government's approach to commercialisation is one that will cost money rather than save money.

The burden of the remarks that I want to make today relates to the concept of the Ready Reserve. I regard this as a very important change in defence policy in this country. My view is that it is a very deleterious change in defence policy. We have disbanded two battalions and effectively we have replaced them with this concept of the Ready Reserve.

In answer to a dorothy dix question asked today, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel (Mr Bilney) claimed that he had every confidence in the Ready Reserve concept and that somehow he had been misrepresented in a newspaper report. Interestingly enough, he did not explain how he had been misrepresented or what he had said. But I thought what he said was in a sense right and it is a shame that he is trying desperately to run away from that. When he was launching the ready reserves on 2 October 1991, the Minister said that he would rather put money on the scheme's success than on the Melbourne Cup. That is comforting! But he went on to say:

When it comes to the real thing, it's possible it may not work.

That is what was said by one of the Ministers who have overall responsibility for the Ready Reserve.

As you well know, Mr Deputy Chairman, we have a range of objections to the Ready Reserve. You, Mr Deputy Chairman, have been very outspoken on this issue. In the three or four minutes that I have left, I would just like to run through some of those objections.

First of all, the Ready Reserve will not be ready enough. The Government says that the ready reserves will be equally as trained and prepared for combat as the regular forces that they replace. That, of course, is a nonsense. The ready reservists will serve for only 50 days a year compared with the full time service of the regular battalions.

Ready reservists will be spread throughout the country and will exercise together for just a few weeks a year. And we are expected to believe that they will be as efficient as the battalions that they replace. I find that extraordinarily hard to believe. All the time that I think about that question I recall the chilling words of the Minister that when it comes to the real thing it is possible that it might not work.

Secondly, the proposal has not been properly costed. The Government maintains that the Ready Reserve is a low cost option for defence. We know that the Government is interested in defence on the cheap. But the force structure review estimated that a ready reservist would cost the equivalent of 30 per cent of a regular soldier. Fair enough, that is the review's figure. But the Government was forced to admit in reply to a question on notice asked recently by Senator Durack that the Army believes that the cost of a ready reservist will be more like 50 to 60 per cent the cost of a regular soldier. So, in other words, the Government has no idea whether the cost of the Ready Reserve will be its estimate or something approaching double its estimate.

The third point is that we on this side of the chamber believe that the four Regular Army battalions will simply not be enough. Because of a lack of time, I will just say that we are committed to the six battalions. Senator Durack has said on the record on a number of occasions that when in government we will return to that formation.

Fourthly, the Ready Reserve, though, also means that there will be more defence bureaucracy. It will introduce yet another element of bureaucracy into the Defence Force so that we will have three tiers of military service--and of course we will need more bureaucrats to administer those three tiers. Fifthly, the existing Reserve will become the poor cousin of the Ready Reserve. The Government has promised to do something about the existing Reserve. The Auditor-General in August 1990 criticised the Government for doing too little in that area. The Government has not even responded to that report, let alone done anything to build up the existing Reserve.

There is a range of other problems that time does not permit me to go through; suffice it to say that I regard this Ready Reserve development as one of the most serious and deleterious developments that has occurred in the Australian Defence Force for many years. It is a very sad development and it is particularly sad that one of the Ministers responsible, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, has such little confidence in it that he thinks it might be worth only slightly more than a wager on the Melbourne Cup. He is not too sure it is going to turn out very happily in the end. So we have a Government trying to reap a peace dividend when Australia cannot afford the peace dividend. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) tried to claim today that the Government's first priority must be the defence of the land. However, this is not the Government's first priority. It is clearly one of its last priorities.