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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 685

Mr FEENEY (Batman) (12:22): I rise to speak to the motion moved by the member for Banks. There is no greater responsibility for government than the defence of Australia and Australia's interests. In May 2013, the former, Labor government delivered the 2013 defence white paper, which outlined Labor's plan to maintain a strong Australian Defence Force which was capable of meeting Australia's national security challenges. It included major new capability commitments which are critical to Australia's long-term defence and security and which ensured Australia maintained world-class defence capabilities. In the 2013-14 budget the former, Labor government provided Defence with a record $114 billion across the forward estimates, and funding guidance of over $220 billion over the subsequent six years from 2017-18 to 2022-23. We committed to increase defence spending towards a target of two per cent of GDP.

The former, Labor government had a comprehensive equipment modernisation program. From the release of the 2009 white paper until the 2013 federal election the Labor government granted 141 approvals, with a total spend of around $21.1 billion. Consequently, over this period Defence took delivery of a number of major new systems including C-17 heavy lift aircraft, F/A-18F Super Hornet combat aircraft, Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles produced by Thales in my home state of Victoria, and two large amphibious sealift vessels.

As a consequence of this investment and diligence, at the November 2013 Senate estimates hearing, senior Defence personnel confirmed that Defence capabilities had been significantly enhanced under the former Labor government. Last week, in a speech at a dinner hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Boeing, the Chief of Army, Lt Gen. David Morrison described Army today as being in its best shape ever. Although the coalition government repeatedly said before the election that levels of Defence spending were at their lowest since 1938, they failed to provide the public with an accurate description of Defence funding—this should come as no surprise.

An article published by Derek Woolner, visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, in September 2013 gave a far more comprehensive description of Defence spending. It is interesting to reflect on this for just a moment. The Australian government spent £9,357 on Defence in 1937 and £17,006 in 1938. Those numbers, if converted to today's current figures, would represent around $778 million and $1,114 million respectively. In financial year 2012-13 the Department of Defence spent more than that every three weeks in its annual budget of $25.4 billion.

For six of the 11 budgets the coalition handed down from 1996 to 2007, Defence spending fell to the lowest level since 1938 as a percentage of GDP—a point worth reflecting upon, although no doubt those opposite will avoid it. In 2009, under the former Labor government, Defence spending rose to 1.94 per cent of GDP. Labor has come closer to achieving a target of two per cent than those opposite ever have.

Typically, the coalition has outperformed Labor in the polls when it comes to the question of Defence. This has had the unfortunate effect of making the coalition 'defence lazy'. The notion that the coalition is strong on defence policy actually emboldens the coalition to do little or even nothing. Recently, we saw the coalition use its defence credentials to avoid articulating any meaningful Defence policy and to avoid presenting detailed or even coherent Defence policies. Instead, the coalition followed Labor.

The Minister for Defence, the Hon. Senator Johnston, has on numerous occasions described Defence as 'an unsustainable mess'. While he continues to denigrate Labor and the Defence department, it is worth remembering: at the 2013 election, the coalition promised, eloquently, to spend $113 billion over the forward estimates. Labor budgeted approximately $114 billion, so that was nothing more than echoing a Labor budget.

At the 2013 election, the coalition promised to increase spending to two per cent of GDP 'within the decade' following a Labor commitment to increase Defence spending to two per cent of GDP 'when financially responsible to do so'. Once again, we have the coalition doing nothing more than echoing Labor. The Labor party can do nothing but commend the coalition government for promising the same dollars, the same time frames and the same procurement plans as the former Labor government. That mimicry does not seem to stop the government from indulging in continuing misrepresentation of their position and indeed that of the former government.

The coalition government has made no progress on Defence since the election—a simple fact. The delay of a new White Paper and Defence Capability Plan has ensured that scenarios such as the so called 'valley of death' in ship building, which Labor had effectively solved, will now come to fruition. The government plans to spend half a term writing a new White Paper—what an extraordinary plan that is. It has made no commitment to provide any additional funding to Defence, beyond what was already committed by the former Labor government. A fine example of how this government's persistent inaction in Defence is costing jobs, hurting our economy, damaging Defence Industries and risking Defence capabilities is this 'valley of death'.

The 'valley of death' of course is the foreseeable and dramatic decline in shipbuilding that exists between the completion of the landing helicopter docks and the air warfare destroyers and the commencement of the Future Frigate and Future Submarine programs. It is well understood that having assembled a skilled workforce able to build first-class warships for Australia, the dispersal of this workforce from mid-2014 would not only cost up to 1,100 jobs, but also create avoidable and dire challenges for a viable shipbuilding industry in this country—but none of that seems to matter to government.

The former Labor government developed a plan to manage the so-called 'Valley of Death'. Labor was committed to the construction of two replacement supply ships here in Australia. The replacement of our ships HMAS Success and HMAS Sirius is vitally important to our Navy. Labor was able to marry the interests of our defence industries and our ADF capability requirements and take a solution to the last election. In recent months we have seen this solution wither. By sitting on his hands for some six months, Senator Johnston has now made the so-called 'Valley of Death' a certainty. Instead of dealing with an 'unsustainable mess', Senator Johnston is creating one.

The JSF, the Future Submarine and the LAND 400 project for replacement armoured vehicles were three flagship projects of the last two white papers and, indeed, the former Labor government. All are now under a cloud of uncertainty. There are now rumours swirling throughout defence and the ADF that LAND 400 will not achieve first-pass approval in April, the original time frame under Labor. It may be pushed back to September, it may be significantly slashed in scope and budget and it may suffer significant delays in schedule. That will leave our soldiers with an increasingly obsolete fleet of armoured vehicles. That is an unsustainable mess.

In summary, this motion is a sad nonsense. It is perhaps a breakthrough for the other side to note that defence is a critical responsibility of the Australian government—but, for the rest of the country, that is mere common sense. It does require a substantial investment. Labor made that investment. We were the first government in this nation's history to ever budget more than $100 billion in defence spending across the forward estimates. The best the other side can do is promise the same defence expenditure over the next four years that Labor committed.

The government says it will make no further cuts to defence expenditure but the evidence now is not so plain. The replacement supply ships will not be built as quickly as they would have been under Labor. Replacement armoured vehicles now face the threat of delay and perhaps a reduction in scope. As a sign of the times, we have seen 480 Protective Service Officers, who are used to secure ADF establishments and other vital assets, issued with potential redundancy notices.

In 2009 Labor's defence spending reached 1.94 per cent of GDP. That is the high watermark of defence spending in the modern era—and it is a Labor high watermark not a coalition one. Throughout the Howard years, we saw defence spending wither. Under the Howard government, defence spending reached a peak of 1.87 per cent of GDP in 1996—their first year. It then trended down over the rest of his term, reaching 1.68 per cent in 2007, with an average percentage of GDP for the four terms of office of 1.78 per cent.

So you might very well make the rhetorical claim that Labor used defence as at ATM, but that of course does not bear scrutiny. When we strip away the government's rhetoric we find that they promise the same spend over the next four years and they have the same aspiration of 2 per cent. But worse, they have no record to be proud of in defence. Inadequate spending and inadequate strategic guidance is their legacy. The only reason they can afford to squander half their term writing a new white paper, without doing lasting harm—Time expired)