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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1345

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (17:32): Senator Conroy, you guys should get a room. I will tell you what the Greens are committed to doing. We are committed to asking the hard questions. We are committed to asking the hard questions that we know a lot of Australians want answered. With this white paper we have a totally unexpected significant boost to defence funding—two per cent of GDP is being quarantined; there is a $30 billion increase in defence expenditure with no overall increase in the threat assessment as outlined in the white paper document itself. As a country we have made a stark choice here—we have decided to spend taxpayer dollars on weapons companies, on arms manufacturers and on military hardware when we could have spent that money on other things in this country that we desperately need. It is a fundamental principle that every single dollar we spend on defence is a dollar we will not have to spend elsewhere. There is an opportunity cost that comes with the expenditure of each and every dollar. Our job as parliamentarians, and as politicians, is to question this expenditure and make sure it is being spent the right way, it is being spent on the right things, and that it is providing the best, pardon my pun, bang for our buck.

I do not see the Labor Party asking these hard questions. I do not see them doing the job of being the opposition on the biggest ramp-up of military expenditure this country has seen in decades. That is the role of an opposition—to ask the hard questions, especially on something as fundamental as spending money on defence. We have seen tensions in the South China Sea, there is no doubt about that, but ever since I can remember we have seen tensions there—especially around the Spratly Islands. There have been a lot of reports on this lately, and I understand that Mr Kevin Andrews, the previous defence minister, even suggested in a media interview last week that we should send some of our naval vessels within 12 nautical miles of those disputed islands—presumably to see what happens.

Senator Conroy: Didn't we go with the global rules-based system?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You can talk about global rules-based situations, but what happened with our deployment to and invasion of Iraq in 2003? So much for global rules-based engagement. Today I mentioned the Japanese whaling fleet, ignoring the global rules-based system. It is a furphy for us to justify an obscene expenditure of money on weapons companies on the back of a very rubbery threat assessment of the South China Sea.

The next question is how exactly this is going to aid our country's defence. I know there are issues here with the alliance, and that is probably what this is all about, but the Greens do ask the questions about the kind of military hardware we are looking at here, whether it is necessary for the defence of our country. There are a couple of issues I would like to highlight. There are extra Defence personnel. I am involved in an excellent committee inquiry into the mental health of Defence personnel at the moment, and we will be releasing our report within the next few weeks. I hope we have good tripartisan cross-party support for that report, because Senator Conroy is right about one thing—our Defence personnel are absolutely critical. I know that nearly 50 per cent of our current ADF personnel have been on multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and other places, and they are suffering heavily because of this. There is a lot more we can do for them. It concerns me that suddenly we have outlined an increase of 5,000. Is that because we are going to continue having multiple deployments overseas? That has not been answered. Drones have been a very controversial if not effective military hardware in the so-called war on terror. What do we need drones for? To defend Australian territory. Are we investing in drone technology because we are going to fly them around Australia's territory or because we are going to participate using drones in foreign theatres of war such as the Middle East? Once again it raises questions about our priorities for defence versus offence.

Most importantly—I think I speak on behalf of a number of Australians and my colleagues—this white paper is industry policy dressed up as military expenditure. The Greens do not have any problem at all with government participating in industry policy, providing the right incentives and the expenditure to create employment, to drive innovation, to lead more prosperous communities and to invest in infrastructure. The argument and debate we are not having is how best to do that. What we are doing here without any opposition from the Labor Party is giving the government the green light to spend $30 billion on weapons companies and arms manufacturers, when that $30 billion could be spent on fixing the infrastructure gap in this country.

I have been going around the country on a couple of inquiries by the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee into regional capitals and by a select committee into infrastructure funding. If we invested in fixing the infrastructure gap the kind of money we are outlining—a trillion dollars spending on defence over 12 years—we could set this country up for the next 100 years in not just every capital city but every regional city. Believe me, there is a trillion dollars of underinvestment in infrastructure in this country. For the price of $80 billion on submarines we could totally set up Australia for a 100 per cent renewable energy, for a clean energy future and create thousands of jobs.

There are so may things we could be investing this money in, but it is interesting that we do not have that debate in this parliament right now, because the Labor Party have absolutely no point of difference on this critical issue of a massive two per cent of GDP that has been quarantined for defence. One thing I have learnt here is that there seems to be a reticence, almost a culture of fear and silence, from parliamentarians and politicians on the issue of defence and defence spending. On where the money is spent, which state is going to build the submarines or the new destroyers or the new frigates, on that kind of thing I have seen hours of questioning on the logistics of procurement, but I never see the strategic decisions being questioned by parliamentarians. It is quite fascinating.

We have an inquiry coming up shortly into the Joint Strike Fighter, a $25 billion acquisition for the Department of Defence. I am hoping the Senate will ask a lot of hard questions on the public record so that all stakeholders can see these things answered. Everybody gets their chance to answer these things, to dispel myths if that is the case from the proponents. But at least we will have had an attempt to question a massive strategic acquisition of military hardware. Will we get such scrutiny from Senator Conroy on whether we need these submarines? I do not think so.

Senator Conroy: We do.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We do. There you go—he has already made his mind. They will cost $80 billion. Do we really need 12? We have already had criticism from Andrew Nikolic MP, who is now in charge of the national security committee. He was happy to stand up and have a go at your decision to make 12 submarines as being some kind of Kevin Rudd madness. Do we really need 12? I have not seen any debate on that. I have not seen any active debate from anyone on why we need 12 submarines. I have seen a lot of debate on where we are going to build them, and we have not built them yet and they had better be built in South Australia, but I have not seen any questioning of the strategic need for 12 submarines.

The numbers that have been labelled in the defence white paper are very rubbery. There is up to 50 per cent variance on individual projects. Defence can spend between $3 billion and $5 billion on this and between $2 billion and $3 billion on that. These very rubbery figures could potentially lead to a lot of wasteful spending and a lot of too-big-to-fail projects if we are not careful. We have to ask the hard questions. They have not been asked on this defence white paper. (Time Expired.)