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Tuesday, 16 October 1973
Page: 2146

Mr BARNARD (Bass) (Minister for Defence, Minister for the Navy, Minister for the Army and Minister for Air) - The first comment that 'I make - and I may have the opportunity to come back to this later - is that when the honourable member for Barker (Dr Forbes) was talking about procurement one would have thought that we on this side of the House had been in Government for 23 years and honourable members opposite had been in Opposition and also that the honourable member was indicating that in the 10 months we have been in Government we should have been able to correct all the deficiencies of the previous Government over 23 years. The list that the honourable member read out will be referred to by other speakers. It seems to me that the most creative thing the Opposition is doing is delaying the business of this House by taking up its time with frivolous debates of this sort. Last week we had the charade of a motion directed against one of my colleagues. A further motion was to be moved against that Minister but the Opposition suffered so badly at his hands that it abandoned that motion and threatened a censure motion against the Government as a whole. Honourable members opposite lost their nerve on that one, but apparently they believe that they are obliged to do something to waste our time and to delay the passage of important legislation.

The honourable member for Barker has suddenly discovered with a sense of urgency that Australia's defence is such as to warrant the debate which we are now engaged upon. I made a statement to this House on the defence of the Australian nation on 22 August. Honourable members opposite had an opportunity to debate this matter then. That was 55 days ago. It has taken the honourable member for Barker and his Party 55 days to find that Australia is in such danger as to require this House to set aside its really important business, presumably because this matter is regarded by the Opposition as one of some urgency. Fifty-five days ago - how urgent can you get? The motion itself bears testimony to the fact that it was conceived in haste. It was not prepared in the leisurely manner that such a time span should have allowed.

The honourable member talked about the failure of the Government to provide more adequately for the defence of the Australian nation. More adequately than what? More adequately than we are now providing? In that case it is a tautology. It is a perfect way to waste time. Does it mean more adequately than was the case under the previous Government? If that is the intention and if not providing more adequately than the previous Government did is failure, then obviously the previous Government failed. Is that what the honourable member for Barker is saying? If he is ever to have a hand in the planning of Australia's defence he will need to speak in terms of concepts which have some real meaning. The honourable member talked about the defence of the Australian nation. It is odd that the Liberal and Country Parties have the temerity to raise the question of the adequacy of this Government's defence of the Australian nation. They know that its policy is to base the structure of our forces on the requirements of the defence of this continent and that the Government expects from within such forces to have a modest but adequate capability for the unlikely contingency of such overseas deployments as would be in the interests of this nation. The task of organising our defence force structure on the basis of the requirements of the defence of Australia itself is very difficult. The reason why it is so difficult is that in all the years that they were in office the Liberal and Country Parties never studied the requirements for the defence of Australia. That is almost unbelievable, but I regret to say it is true.

Again one must ask: Defence of the nation against what? It seems that our opponents lament that we are, as the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee said, one of the more secure nations in the world. The Opposition longs for the days when elections could be won on the phantoms of the 'Red Threat' and the 'Yellow Peril'. Those days are gone and honourable members opposite know it. They cannot pretend that they do not know it because I have made available to the honourable member for Barker access to all relevant intelligence information. That was never done by the previous Government for the Opposition. No member of the former Opposition was given the opportunity that the honourable member for Barker and the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) have been given for access to matters that concern the defence of this country. The honourable member for Barker has the temerity to say now that the Government should be censured because of its lack of appreciation of these matters.

Using the information available to the Joint Intelligence Organisation, the Defence Committee at my request prepared a strategic assessment. The Defence Committee consists of the Secretary of the Defence Department, the Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, and the Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Navy . and Air Force. Their assessment is the basis of our defence planning. Nobody would suggest that it should be otherwise.

We did not say, as the Opposition alleges, that there is certainty of peace for the next IS years. That is an obvious oversimplification. What I said in my statement, made on 22 August, was that at the present time it can be said that Australia's situation is favourable and that the various important factors and trends in the international situation support Australia's security into the longer term. We and our advisers at the present time do not foresee any deterioration in our strategic environment that would involve consideration of the commitment of our forces to military operations to protect Australia's security or strategic interests. I pointed out that this view of Australia's long term security was the view accepted by the previous Government in recent years.

In the 1969 elections the right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton) asserted that there was no threat to Australia for 10 years. Again he was quoted in 'The Sydney Morning Herald' of 21 June 1971 as saying:

I do not believe that there is any prospect of an attack on the mainland of Australia within the next decade. Nor, subject to completely unforeseen developments, is any attack on New Guinea at all likely within that time-scale. And should that change, we would have ample advance warning.

It was not a member of the present Government who made that statement. It was the then Prime Minister of Australia, the right honourable member for Higgins. He said that there would be no threat to this country for a period of 10 years. How much does the honourable member for Barker know about these things? No wonder he feels sore about defence. He was Minister for the Army for a very short time but was ignominiously removed from the position.

The 'Australian Defence Review' published by the Defence Department in March 1972 said this:

Contingencies under which a major combat burden would occur seem at present to be remote and the full capabilities that would be required for this extreme contingency are not required to be in existence today.

Honourable members are aware that the strategic situation has improved since those statements made by the previous Government. The process of detente between the great powers has proceeded further and made the prospect of Australia's involvement in combat even more remote. Nevertheless, I acknowledged in my statment in August that there are bound to be uncertainties about the future particularly about the latter part of such a long period as the 15 years covered by the strategic assessment.

It is a complete misrepresentation of our position or our attitude to suggest that we foresee a period of peace and therefore are content to allow our forces to run down. The strategic situation will be kept under constant monitoring and will be regularly reviewed. Strategic policy will be adopted to take account of any changes that develop in our strategic situation. The defence management system is designed to give effect to those policies in terms of a physical program sufficiently flexible to enable our force size and force structure to be changed well within the warning time of the development of any threat. So the forces must at any time be capable of expansion to meet any threat to our security within the time that it would take for such a threat to develop. Our judgement of the time it would take for threats to develop is not based merely on our evaluation of the intentions of other countries. It is based on a hard nosed look at their present military capability, their resources and their state of technology.

The Oppositon are deluding themselves and attempting to delude the Australian people if they suggest that we do not already have very capable forces in being in relation to our own part of the world. I am not going to waste the time of the House recounting again all the details of that capability contained in my Defence statement. However, it is patently obvious that one must go many thousands of miles from this continent to find and air force in any way comparable to the Royal Australian Air Force. It is equipped with F-111s which, though far too expensive, provide a very potent strike force. Our Mirage fighters are far better than any fighters in South East Asia except perhaps those operated by the United States. The Navy is equipped with missile-armed destroyers as well as other destroyers whose primary capability is antisubmarine warfare, and most of which arc about to be refitted and modernised. The Government has announced its intention to acquire more destroyers for the Royal Australian Navy though we declined to take part in the so-called DDL program, which is ridiculously expensive and unduly fraught with technological risk. The Navy has 4 submarines with 2 more under construction. Submarines of course require any would-be opponent to deploy very substantial naval forces indeed. The Royal Australian Navy is also equipped with Skyhawk ground-attack aircraft, which are still very effective. For the first time in peace-time Australia has a regular Army organised as a division - an all-volunteer Army. It is made up of 3 task forces of 2 battalions each manned to an operational training strength. I have ordered a major inquiry into Citizen Military Forces. Again that is something that had not been done at all by our predecessors. The interim report of that committee was delivered to my office this morning.

These are powerful forces for this region. They will continue to be developed by this Government so that they will continue to be a perfectly adequate basis for such expansion as any changes from strategic situation may demand. December 2nd of 1972 was a date on which the Australian people decided it was time to review our defence policies. I found since taking office that it is time to clear away the debris of a decade of inefficiency. As I have said before, we are not prepared to tolerate a situation in which production of ammunition continues to increase our stocks when we already have 25 years supply of some items. We are not prepared to tolerate a wasteful teeth-to-tail ratio in our Army. We are increasing the strength of the field force by 2,000 and reducing the strength of the support elements by the same amount. We have also reduced the number of civilians employed in defence support tasks because these numbers had grown at a ridiculous rate over the last 10 years. The extent to which resources had been wasted by the previous Government can best be illustrated by the continued existence until May 1973 of the post and telegraph censorship organisation,

This organisation had been maintained since the 1950s to keep alive by training a number of civilians on a part-time basis the techniques involved in wartime censorship of information passed overseas by postal and telecommunication means. There were 150 members of this organisation training for 120 hours a year at a cost of about $50,000 per year. As soon as I learnt of the existence of this organisation I disbanded it. I believe that any responsible government and any responsible Minister for Defence would have taken the same attitude.

In summary, our forces provide a capable force in being and a perfectly adequate basis for expansion. Within the context of our region, the force structure will be developed as the strategic situation changes and as military technology changes. Our forces are manned by volunteers - professionals - whose conditions of service have never been better. The military skills of our servicemen will be maintained and developed by opportunities of exercising with other countries on a larger scale than ever before in Australia's peacetime history. No Australian government and certainly no Minister for Defence has been responsible since Federation in this country for providing so many opportunities in terms of professional service, and this has been done in the brief space of 10 months.

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