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Friday, 9 December 1994
Page: 4491

Mr BEVIS (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (1.25 p.m.) —by leave—I thank the House for its courtesy in allowing me to enter the debate again. The member for Kennedy (Mr Katter) is quite priceless. We have just heard a range of issues dragged out of the 1950s manifesto that took us through the international socialists and the reds under the bed right through to conscription. It was the full ambit and it will make entertaining reading in Hansard for a lot of people, I am sure. It does not give much assistance, though, to the debate on the nation's defence, which is the issue that I want to turn to.

  Yesterday I sat in the House and listened to the response by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Downer) to the white paper. As a person who had previously been a shadow minister for defence, I had thought that there might be some fairly considered and useful contribution from the opposition in an area which has, by and large, been the subject of bipartisan support, certainly on key questions. Sadly, that was not to be the case. The Leader of the Opposition commenced his speech by referring to the fact that he thought the white paper was several years too late. I am not quite sure whether the Leader of the Opposition had in mind exactly what a white paper is, what it does and what it is intended to construct for the future.

  White papers are not the sort of thing that governments produce on an annual basis. The previous white paper on defence was in 1987. If you look at comparable documents in other countries, you will find that they are produced normally on the basis of seven- to 10-year time frames. This one was no different. My concern about the Leader of the Opposition's understanding of the process was made worse when he complained that the white paper restated the views that were in the 1993 strategic review. Of course they do. The strategic review is designed to provide a statement of our assessment of where we see the nation and our defence posture in our region.

  The strategic review was set out last year accurately and properly—and I think it was well received by the Australian community and the defence community—to identify precisely that. Here we are about a year later taking that assessment, building on it and producing a white paper that puts out in some greater detail the way in which we as a nation will address that strategic circumstance over the five to 10 years ahead of us. But the Leader of the Opposition seemed to think there was something wrong, something deficient, with this white paper because it restated what was in the 1993 strategic review. I suspect the Leader of the Opposition has failed to understand the actual basis upon which these documents are constructed.

  Let me turn to a couple of specific areas in his contribution. He alleged that there had been a reduction in defence capability. In support of that allegation, he said we had lost two of our six infantry battalions. I assume he is referring to the 1991 decision to replace two regular battalions with the introduction of the ready reserve battalions that occurred in 6th Brigade. I happen to know a little about 6th Brigade because not only is it within my electorate but also for the greater part of this year I have had portfolio responsibility for the ready reserve along with the general reserve. I take and have taken a very keen interest in the ready reserve since its announcement in 1991.

  We previously had two regular battalions in 6th Brigade. There is nobody in 6th Brigade who will seriously argue that the capability now resident in 6th Brigade is anything other than substantially greater than the 6th Brigade that was in existence in 1991 before we made the changes. The fact of life is: those regular battalions within 6th Brigade—and there was then a general reserve battalion to make up the complement—were understaffed and had inadequate equipment levels. This government's approach has ensured that 6th Brigade is now staffed at much higher levels, has much more equipment and is now being motorised for mobility purposes. The 6th Brigade in 1994 is a far more capable brigade.

  To suggest that that change has reduced capability—that is what was said by the Leader of the Opposition; it followed in his very next sentence where, to support his allegation of a cut in capability, he referred to this change—is patently wrong. The 6th Brigade is a far more potent force today than it was in 1991. But he compounded that felony when he went on to talk about surface combatants. He seemed to think that numbers and capability are interchangeable. The Leader of the Opposition supported his view about a reduction in defence capability by claiming that there has been a reduction in surface combatants and fewer submarines.

  I find it astounding that, at a time when the government is committed to a major program of re-equipment with the Anzac frigates—a program which, I understand, has enjoyed bipartisan support; a project which has been pretty widely acclaimed in the parliament, industry and defence circles—the Leader of the Opposition should claim that we are reducing our capability on surface combatants. But, worse, he throws submarines into the argument. To suggest that our submarine capability is less when we are already trialling the first of the Collins class submarines that have been built in South Australia is just arrant nonsense. We are now in the process of upgrading our submarine fleet, to which we are committed under this white paper. The old Oberon submarines, with 1960s technology, we are replacing with absolute state-of-the-art technology to produce the most potent conventional powered submarines in the world. But the Leader of the Opposition does not seem to understand this. Just yesterday he said that we are reducing our capability in submarines. That is not the case.

  The Leader of the Opposition does not understand what is happening in defence. If ever we needed a clearer example of that, he made it patently obvious when he started talking about the strengths within various battalions. He identified a number of battalions where he referred to what he called `nominal strength' and `actual strength'. He ran through a series of figures to say that a number of battalions are, by implication of his words, under strength. For the most part, the battalions he was talking about and the figures he was using were the difference between the authorised establishment and the posted strength. Sure, there is a difference between those two. Anyone who is involved in defence knows there is a difference between the authorised establishment and the posted strength of a battalion. The posted strength is invariably lesser—it is a smaller number.

  Looking at the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, you will see that the posted strength in most of those battalions is about 30 or so people fewer than the higher figure—and that is usually as it is. There is nothing untoward about that; there is nothing new about that. But the Leader of the Opposition either does not understand the difference between an authorised establishment and a posted strength or was seeking to deceive and mislead. It is one or the other: he either does not understand it or he wanted to mislead people. I am not quite sure which it was since with the last of those battalions he mentioned he got it horribly wrong. He referred to the 5th/7th Battalion and said that that battalion has a `nominal operating strength' of 740 people. He went on to say that it actually has 480. That is a huge difference. When he said that, I thought `This could not be right'. So I have gone back to have a look to see what the situation is.

  This `nominal operating strength' of 740 is not simply the authorised establishment for that battalion; it is the war establishment. If we were in the middle of a war, that is the level to which we would have that battalion manned. But yesterday the Leader of the Opposition stood here and rattled it off in a list of battalion strength numbers, claiming it to be a `nominal operating strength' and trying to claim that there is some deficiency in our capability. He does not know what he is talking about when it comes to defence. That is his best defence in answer to my comments today. He does not know what he is talking about. If he does know what he is talking about, then he came in here and quite improperly sought to convey an impression which he knew to be untrue. So he has a choice: he can claim incompetence or deception—one or the other—but there is no other answer available to him.

  The opposition and other spokespeople at different times in this debate, both here and in the other chamber, have referred to the resourcing question. The resourcing question is a vitally important consideration in any portfolio allocation. It is particularly so in defence where there are, of necessity, very high costs. A lot tends to be made in these debates about the percentage of GDP, gross domestic product, allocated to particular portfolios. GDP or percentages of GDP are useful instruments for getting a gauge on international comparisons and getting a gauge over time on where you are at. But that is about all they are good for. Percentage of GDP does not buy anything. The percentage of GDP does not equate to any piece of equipment or any number of people. What buys equipment and people is money. Percentage of GDP quoted in isolation is a meaningless term that can be used and misused to substantiate whatever case you wish to pursue. All members in this place know that to be so.

  Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition fell into that trap as well and decided to home in on the percentage of GDP as if it were the holy grail of the debate about defence. It is important, but it is not the sole test. That is why the white paper quite clearly sets out not simply a statement about GDP but a statement about actual dollars. In paragraph 14.5 of the white paper, the government says:

Some modest real growth in defence spending will however be needed later this decade and in the following decade.

That is a clear statement that there needs to be real growth in defence spending. That is the important part of the process. Do not worry about the percentage of GDP. Our friends in New Zealand went through a decade where their GDP did not grow at all; they had zero growth. At the same time, the Australian economy grew by 25 per cent. If you were to take two per cent of GDP in New Zealand against two per cent of GDP in Australia over the same time, you would get a very different answer in real growth terms.

  One of the facts of life is that a percentage of GDP will not buy you a single soldier, a single tank, a single battleship or anything else; but money will. The government has made its intentions clear in the white paper. It has referred in that paper, quite properly, to maintaining defence spending at approximately two per cent of GDP. Of course it says `at approximately two per cent of GDP' because GDP fluctuates, but the important thing is the statement says there will be an increase in real terms.

  It would not be too bad listening to the opposition talking about budgetary matters if it were actually going to do something to enhance the budget for defence itself. But it is not. This week we have had confirmed the opposition's view that the government should cut its spending of total outlays by $11.7 billion—that is, $11,700 million we should stop spending that we are spending today. That is not a little pocket of money; that is a major slice of the government budget which the coalition parties say we should stop spending. At the same time as telling us that we should cut $11.7 billion out of this budget—and that is not over time but in one hit, this year—those opposite hop up here and tell us that we should spend more on defence. When there is a debate on health, they tell us that we should spend more on health. When there is a debate on legal aid, they tell us that we should spend more on legal aid. You cannot have it both ways. Your hypocrisy on that stands out.

  If we were to try today to get a detailed policy statement from the opposition about defence, we would not be able to. If we go back to the last election to get the last detailed policy statement of the opposition, we find that the opposition undertook to cut $200 million out of the defence budget. That is the opposition's policy that was taken to the last election. Those opposite wanted to cut $200 million out of defence and they have the hide, the hypocrisy and the cant to stand up in the parliament and try to attack the government, which has been about maintaining the defence effort in this nation.

  That is exactly what we have done. Real growth in the defence effort of this nation has been maintained in real terms, except for the last year when there was a slight reduction. We have committed ourselves to real growth, and the opposition stands here and seeks to attack that when it stands on a platform of reduced government outlays. That policy will not stand up to scrutiny either in this place or by the public. (Time expired)