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Thursday, 10 May 2018
Page: 2926

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (15:25): The information that is being sought through this return to order unfortunately follows a record of deception and dissimilation, which Senator Patrick has outlined this afternoon, as a result of this government seeking to withhold legitimate information from the Senate. I have participated in the various committees of the Senate for quite some time. I have participated in the Senate inquiry into naval shipbuilding in this parliament, and I have seen the wide and reckless claims that the government have made in regard to executive privilege, the future frigate programs and the submarine programs. The claims they have made in regard to the withholding of information based on spurious protections of international relations or national security are confounded by the fact that these documents have so often been released subsequently. This is the really serious flaw in the government's argument. If the Information Commissioner is able to release the documents having had ministers of this government stand in this chamber and deny the legitimacy of the requests that are being made by senators in this chamber, it strikes me that it really does highlight the level of deception that this government has engaged in.

In my opinion, these are not questions that go to national security. As the alternative government, it is not the opposition's view that we would be engaged in questions that would fundamentally challenge the national security of the Commonwealth of Australia. As the alternative government, we have a responsibility to ensure that we don't use the powers of the Senate in a reckless manner. What we do have, though, is the responsibility to hold the government to account and to ensure that the actions of the government are scrutinised properly.

The fundamental premise on which the government's actions have been based has not been matters of national security but matters that go to the political interests of the government. The record of the government's Naval Shipbuilding Plan is much touted: a $90 billion investment and the development of a sovereign capability in our country, particularly the $50 billion Future Frigate Program, is essentially about a fundamental issue of the future direction of this country. It is only appropriate that we as senators take this matter at the most serious level. If we ignore the rhetoric and focus on what the government actually does in regards to the shipbuilding plan, I think we're entitled to go to the heart of what this issue really does come down to.

What has concerned me and my examination of these issues over the life of this government is that the Naval Shipbuilding Plan is increasingly resembling not a national industry plan for the development of a national capability in shipbuilding but a national marginal seats plan for this government. This is a government that makes assurances about shipbuilding jobs, for instance, which are simply not being fulfilled. Recently we have had the situation with Osborne, a shipyard in South Australia, where the ASC is still shedding jobs. Just last month, it announced 223 jobs would go. This is despite the fact that last December, last November—on numerous occasions in that period—and last October as well, the Minister for Defence Industry told the media:

The valley of death is over and we are now seeing a upturn of employment in naval shipbuilding in our state that will only continue to increase as these new projects gain momentum.

Yet he had previously told representatives of the metalworkers union and the Secretary of the ACTU that the ASC was transitioning and that he was doing all that was necessary to ensure that that was coming about. On 6 December Mr Glenn Thompson, the National Assistant Secretary of the AMWU, saw Mr Pyne in his office and was told that there would be no further job losses at the ASC.

On 11 December, Mr Pyne issued a media release where he said:

We are stabilising the shipbuilding workforce … things are truly on the up at Osborne.

However, on 22 April this year, the shipbuilding workers at Osborne found out what 'stabilising' actually meant under this government. It meant a further 223 of them were to go. We've got a long litany of broken promises. The minister's evasions and deceptions on this issue, I think, are totally without peer when it comes to what is a pretty sorry record of naval procurement.

The minister, in April 2016, announced that the company known as Naval Group was selected to design the Future Submarines. The Prime Minister talked to journalists at that time, with regard to the issue of sustainment of the submarines. This is the point of the documents that Senator Patrick has been able to secure through this process of discovery. The Prime Minister has been quoted many times in the media now about the delivery of the work. He said:

It will be shared between the two but the heavier work, if you like, was obviously always going to be done here at Osborne, as it is now.

Of course, what the Prime Minister was doing on that occasion was playing to a South Australian audience. What we know from the documents that Senator Patrick has brought before us is that a very different message was being given to the Department of Defence. Less than two months after that statement by the Prime Minister, on 3 June, the department asked the ASC, which carried out the work on the Collins class submarine at Osborne, to estimate the cost and time required to consolidate all the shipbuilding work in Western Australia—that was to actually shift the sustainment work to Western Australia. So the Prime Minister is telling the people of South Australia the work will be done in South Australia, while the department's asking the ASC what it costs and what it involves to move the work to Western Australia. Of course, that's being done in secret. The statement from the department issued to the ASC notes that the Collins class boats would still be in service at a time when the substantial construction work on the submarines and surface ships was underway at Osborne. He said:

This combination of activities may exceed the available industry capacity in SA, which may motivate consideration of a consolidation of Collins maintenance activities in WA, in order that SA industry might concentrate on ship and submarine construction.

Advice regarding scope, cost, schedule and risk of consolidating submarine maintenance in WA will help inform future considerations—

of the project. And the ASC, of course, was given until February 2017 to come up with an answer. The level of sheer dishonesty that's been perpetrated in this matter is clear for all to see.

What we know now, of course, is that there was something very pressing in the Prime Minister's mind when these matters were being developed. In the last week of May 2016 he announced that a federal election would be held on 2 July. That was an election in which the government was very worried about the job losses in South Australia. That was an election in which the government was very anxious about the consequences of its decision to destroy the motor vehicle manufacturing industry in this country. It wouldn't have been a good time to admit the truth about the government's intention to undermine the ASC and switch the sustainment work out of Adelaide and send it across to Western Australia. It wouldn't have been a good time to be honest with the workers at the ASC, who were employed in the sustainment of the Collins class boats, including the full-cycle docking at Osborne. So the Prime Minister used evasive words. He talked about sharing of the work between Osborne and Henderson. He said:

… the heavier work … was … always going to be done … at Osborne …

We now know that the government was acting in a thoroughly dishonest and deceptive manner. If the government were serious about investing in the industry, if it were serious about developing the national capabilities in terms of naval shipbuilding, if it were serious about these questions of national interest, it would have actually argued its case publicly. It certainly wouldn't have engaged in this rhetorical sleight of hand. If it believed that it was actually in the national interest to develop the capacity at Henderson, you would have thought it would have said so. If it were serious about arguing the case for a long-term strategic industry, you would have thought it would have said so as well, rather than taking the slippery, evasive approach which has been highlighted throughout this whole process and which these documents reveal time and time again. What does the government do? It wraps itself in the flag and tries to pretend that it is engaged in something other than sheer political hypocrisy, when it is developing a national capacity to defend its own marginal seats rather than defend the national interests of this country.

The government talks a lot about short-term thinking. Well, it is a past master of short-term thinking—thinking about the next election, desperately trying to maintain its political survival. When you put on top of that a South Australian election, which is what we have had, and a minister in South Australia who really shouldn't be known as the Minister for Defence Industry but should be known as the Minister for Marginal Seats, we've got a situation where this government simply can't help itself. It just cannot help itself. A government that was directly responsible for the destruction of the automotive manufacturing industry in South Australia then had to turn around and try to dress that up by some arrangements with regard to naval shipbuilding, but it couldn't then quite work out how to balance out the interests in South Australia against its marginal seats interests in Perth.

What we've got is a government that tries to hide its political intentions, and these documents reveal the inner secrets of what's actually been going on inside the government. We now know that the government has made no attempt to explain how it will reconcile its conduct of the business between the department and the ASC with regard to submarine sustainment. Now, of course, we are past the 2016 election, past the South Australian election, and we discover in these documents that the department is then instructed to go ahead with the project, having had to suspend it when it gets caught out.

We now know that the Department of Defence is instructed in such a way as to suggest that it is entirely responsive to the political demands of the ministry, not the national interests of the country. That's why I'm so concerned about the process by which we are going through these discussions at the moment. If the government wants to claim national interest immunity in terms of the provision of documents, it's got to be consistent in its approach. It simply can't rely on these weasel words, suggesting it can't provide information on the basis of a range of priorities or suggesting it is commercial-in-confidence or involves national security, when the real issue here is nothing more than the political priorities of the government, as dictated by the electoral cycle.

The evasiveness about the dates on which the government operated has now been exposed. The release of the documents has shown clearly the events that have unfolded with regard to the department's request for the ASC on the consolidation of the submarine sustainment program. The department's Capability and Acquisition Sustainment Group emailed the ASC and made very clear the way in which it was to operate. The consequences of this in terms of the precedent that's been set for the Future Frigate Program are deeply disturbing, particularly when that decision is due within a month. If this is the way we are to conduct the procurement for $50 billion, one has to question what the approach will be for the frigates program. What I'd like to know is whether or not this is going to in fact be the practice. That's why the shipbuilding inquiry, which will be examining this issue and will have a future hearing within another month, will have an opportunity to examine these questions.

The approach that's been taken with regard to some of our major contractors—the very partisan approach that's been taken in regard to the tendering arrangements—should be subject to very close examination. The approach that's been taken by Austal in Western Australia suggests to me that a distinct bias has been taken against Australian shipbuilding. I trust that my suspicions are incorrect. But the operations of the Offshore Patrol Vessel contract and the manner in which the discussions have taken place with the preferred tenderer from Germany—and at this point, as I understand it, the ASC has actually been obliged to go to Germany to discuss those tendering arrangements; they're in Germany right now—demonstrates just how, in the government's mind, it should operate. If the frigates contract is to be treated in the same way, then I suggest that we have a serious problem.

A genuine national industry plan should be concentrating on the capacity of this country to build its capabilities from the basis of a design through to building and to maintenance. We're not seeing that. We're not seeing a genuine plan B developed to marshal and harmonise all our nation's resources, and we're not seeing that in so many areas of government policy. Just recently in the budget a similar pattern was announced with regard to the space industry, for instance. I can say this in so many areas of science, where the government is simply aiming at wining short-term political advantage rather than thinking about the long-term interests of the country.

The shipyard workers at Osborne and at Henderson are entitled to be treated so much better than they are being treated, and they deserve to be treated better. They're entitled not to be treated as pawns in a rather tawdry political game. I think that the people of this country, who are paying the bills for this procurement, are entitled to be taken into the government's confidence about the way these plans have been developed. That would require a change in direction—a fundamental change in attitude by a government who would actually be committed to developing a genuinely long-term, strategic shipbuilding plan. It would require an entirely different course. From what I've seen from these documents and from questioning so many of the witnesses through the various committee processes of this Senate, this is a government that's failed those tests—and, frankly, it's failed the people of this country: $90 billion is a lot of money in anyone's language, and if we are to truly develop a national shipbuilding capacity in this country we really do have to work a lot harder at this than we have through this experience.

For the minister to come in here and say, 'Look, I'm not going to talk to you about this, because it's a matter of national security,' is simply not going to cut it. Senator Patrick, I think securing these documents has done a real service to this parliament and to this country. We have supported the securing of these documents because it's the proper role of the Senate in its scrutiny of government programs. We won't act recklessly and we won't be in the business of undermining the capability of this country to procure these vessels properly, but we will be in the business of proper public accountability.