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Wednesday, 21 November 1973
Page: 3647

The CHAIRMAN - That is not a point of order, as the honourable member is aware.

Mr BARNARD - The honourable member for Isaacs implied that we had cut back on defence procurement, and he specifically referred to the Royal Australian Navy. May I put it that way. 1 remember that on one occasion when I spoke in this chamber on the DDL program I referred to the enormous cost involved in obtaining 3 destroyers. At that time it would have cost this country $355m. When I expressed doubt about the ultimate cost I was supported by the honourable mem ber for Isaacs who expressed the same concern that I expressed. The honourable member for Wentworth (Mr Bury), who was about to rise to speak in this debate, coined what I thought at the time was a commendable phrase when he referred to the DDL program and said that he was reminded of a famous statement by the Duke of Wellington. He said that he hoped that the DDL program would frighten the enemy as much as the cost frightened him. Those honourable members were supporters of the then Government. They talked about the DDL program at that time and they agreed with the point of view that I had expressed on many occasions.

Let me say to those who talk about defence procurement that the Cabinet has determined that there will be a destroyer program but we are not satisfied and indeed we were not satisfied - the honourable member for Isaacs shared this concern, as I have already pointed out - that the Government had sufficient information and detail to allow us to go ahead with a program of such magnitude which would involve this country and indeed this Government in an expenditure of no less than 25 per cent of the defence vote for a number of years. In those circumstances how could a responsible government talk in terms of defence procurement? The Cabinet has determined that there will be a destroyer program, and investigations and inquiries are still proceeding. I hope to be able to make an announcement to this chamber some time in 1974.

I listened to the honourable member for Barker (Dr Forbes). There was nothing constructive in his speech, but that does not surprise me. It was completely destructive. One would have thought that the honourable member for Barker would have taken the opportunity to spell out what he would do if he had the responsibility of the Minister for Defence in a Liberal government. He did not make one statement in relation to what a Liberal government would do. Did he say how much a Liberal government would be prepared to spend in terms of the gross national product? Not at all. When this question was put to him he evaded the issue. Did he say whether a Liberal-Country Party government would reintroduce national service? Everyone recalls what was said in 1972 by the then Government, by those who are now sitting in Opposition. They said that it was essential for this country to retain national service. They said we would never be able to obtain or to raise in this country an all volunteer Army. This has been achieved.

Let me refer to some of the achievements of this Government in a short space of less than 12 months. I certainly would not need to reiterate all the attitudes that have been adopted and the actions that have been taken by this Government in relation to improved conditions for servicemen. But what we set out to do this year has largely been achieved. We set out to provide better conditions for those who are serving in the armed forces of this country on a volunteer basis. I do not have to recapitulate the improvements tonight. Every honourable member knows what has been done in terms of pay and allowances and in terms of the defence forces retirement benefits scheme, which is now probably the best scheme of its kind that could be found anywhere in the world. Let me remind those honourable members who now sit on the Opposition side how they procrastinated over this issue in the dying stages of the Parliament in 1972 when they could not make a decision. What did the honourable member for Barker do at that time? As usual, he ran for cover. At that time no new defence forces retirement benefits scheme was adopted. Within 3 weeks of attaining office I was able to reach a decision which was satisfactory in terms of the Jess Committee report and it has the complete support of the armed services in this country. Honourable members opposite had been in power for 23 years.

Let me come back to a point which I think is most relevant to this debate. I have already indicated to the chamber some of the achievements of the Government in the short period of about 11 months, including the improved conditions for servicemen. It was the policy of this Government to bring about those reforms in the first 12 months of its office and they have largely been achieved. I would be the last to deny that there are not some improvements that could yet be effected. I have referred recently to housing for servicemen. Everyone knows that there is a serious shortage of housing for servicemen, but we inherited this shortage from 23 years of Liberal-Country Party government. I would be a most competent Minister for Defence if I had been able to rectify in 11 months the problems relating to the housing shortage for ex-servicemen. Yet we hear about the attitude that is now adopted by this Opposition which had 23 years in which to provide adequate housing for servicemen. About 6,000 homes are required for servicemen who are waiting for accommodation, who urgently need it and who are entitled to it. This again is a legacy from the previous Government.

The honourable member for Barker referred to the strategic bases document. He had the temerity to say that he was not able to see the document. As a former member of a Ministry - not of a Cabinet; I do not think he ever reached that rank in the previous Government - the honourable member knows that in that document there would be statements based on security and therefore they could not be released. No one knows that better than the honourable member for Barker. But there are inferences in the document and indeed recommendations that can be made public.

No one would suggest that those who were responsible for drawing up the strategic bases document would propose that their findings and recommendations should not be made public. I sought to make them public. Indeed, that is what I did, not only through this Parliament but also by using a forum outside the Parliament. In doing so, I made it quite clear that this was not an assessment by the Government. The Government agreed with it. I agreed with it. As the honourable member for Barker knows, this assessment was arrived at by the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the Chiefs of Staff of the 3 Services and representatives of the Joint Intelligence Organisation. There was a committee that was representative not only of the Service departments but also of the Defence Department and the Joint Intelligence Organisation.

The honourable member for Barker knows that this document cannot be made public. But let us examine his statement. He is a former Minister for the Army. When he held that portfolio in the former Government, I had the responsibility as shadow Minister for Defence to put forward the point of view of the Opposition on defence matters. At that time, I was denied access to any defence information. No information was made available to me. When I became Minister for Defence, I took 2 actions in this respect. The first action was to ensure that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) was fully briefed on all of those matters on which the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) and I had been briefed, as the former Prime Minister had been briefed. This informations was made available to the Leader of the Opposition and the honourable member for Barker. They were invited to be briefed and they accepted my invitation. The honourable member for Barker, the defence spokesman for the Opposition, was told that he would be able to have information from the Department of Defence at any time he requested it. He has been briefed by departmental officers. I invite honourable members to contrast my attitude and my actions in relation to informing members of the Opposition on these matters with the attitude of members of the Opposition who, when in government, denied to me and to the then Leader of the Opposition any information relating to security and defence matters.

Mr Bonnett - Are you closing the debate?

Mr BARNARD - You will have the opportunity to speak in a few moments.

Mr Sinclair - But you are closing the debate.

Mr Bonnett - There are plenty more who wish to speak.

Dr Forbes - A number of other members want to speak. You know that. The Government is going to gag the debate.

Mr Bonnett - You will gag it.

The CHAIRMAN (Mr Scholes - Order!

Mr BARNARD - We have heard speeches by the honourable member for Barker and the honourable member for Isaacs, on the Opposition side. I acknowledge that the honourable member for Isaacs is not ill-informed on some of these matters. I respect his judgment in many areas. When I was in Opposition, I found myself in agreement with the honourable member for Isaacs on a number of occasions. I cannot say the same with respect to the honourable member for Barker. Let me say to the Committee, in dealing with the strategic situation in this country, that the strategic bases document has been arrived at as a result of the considered judgment of those whose advice we are expected to take. I believe that their assessment has been proved to be correct. Indeed, as they have pointed out, we can look forward to a period of from 10 years to 15 years in which we can build up our resources in this country.

This brings me finally to the question of procurement. I have indicated already to the Committee that in our first year we have been concerned to improve the conditions of Service personnel in this country. That has been done. I have announced to the Parliament and to the public generally that, in contrast to the attitude of the former Government, the strength of the Australian Army will rise to 34,000 by 1976. I invite honourable members to compare that figure with the level of '22,000 personnel which was the peak of the former Government's volunteer force in 1964. Our Army force of 34,000 will be based on a divisional structure with 6 battalions. We will achieve that divisional structure of 34,000 by 1976.

I turn to the other point of contradiction. Again this refers to a matter raised by the honourable member for Barker. What I wish to say relates to some of the points that I have put to the Returned Services League recently. What I said was that defence expenditure this year will exceed the expenditure by the previous Government in 1972-73. In money terms, we will be spending more. In terms of a proportion of the gross national product, the expenditure is slightly less. It is 2.9 per cent of GNP. But again I invite honourable members to contrast this expenditure with the 2.7 per cent of GNP that was spent by the former Government in 1964. It was not until the Vietnam involvement and the need for conscription, in the opinion of the former Government, that a need arose to increase the percentage of the gross national product devoted to defence.

Nothing was said by the honourable member for Barker that is deserving of reply. Let me conclude, then, by pointing out that we will now be looking to the question of procurement. As I indicated to the honourable member for Isaacs, we will be dealing with the question of the destroyer replacement. Other items of equipment, such as tanks, are involved. Our present tanks are more than 22 years old. Who is responsible for that situation - this Government or the former Government which now sits in Opposition? No decision was made on tanks by the former Government. I hope to be able to make a decision on this matter in the near future. Decisions will be made on essential items of procurement. But we will not be stampeded into purchasing equipment merely for the sake of spending the defence appropriations. We will ensure that, whatever equipment is purchased for our defence forces, that equipment will be purchased on the basis of the advice of those who are charged with the responsibility of conducting a complete and thorough investigation into our requirements.

Looking back over the record of this Government in its 11 months in office, I believe that there can be no basis for criticism by the Opposition or by the Australian people regarding our actions on defence matters. There certainly can be no criticism from those who are in the armed forces themselves. Their conditions have been improved immeasurably. They know this. They appreciate it. Our work in the next 12 months will be just as constructive. I am sure that, at the end of the next 12 months, we will be able to speak about the question of procurement and particularly those items of procurement which I believe are essential and necessary to provide an adequate defence force in this country.

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