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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 691

Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (12:47): I rise to note the Prime Minister's claimed commitment to increase defence spending by two per cent of GDP over the next 10 years. I note this with interest as it suggests that the government believes Australia's defence industry is a growth industry. This will appeal to constituents in Melbourne's west, given the thousands of jobs that have been lost in the manufacturing sector from Melbourne's west and Geelong in previous weeks.

By increasing defence spending, we could see an increase in work for our military suppliers, researchers and shipbuilders over the next decade, particularly at the Williamstown shipyards in my electorate. But the life of the Australian naval shipbuilding industry is currently measured in weeks, not decades.

The Prime Minister would do well to take his eyes off the horizon on defence expenditure and focus on the immediate obstacles facing the shipbuilding industry. I speak of the precarious immediate future of the BAE shipyards in Williamstown, whose workers have produced for 150 years the high-tech warships that the Australian Navy requires. These shipyards have recently undertaken important work on the air warfare destroyer and landing helicopter dock projects. Over 1,000 workers have used their skills and expertise in the production of these warships. But the work on these projects is nearing completion, and the Abbott government's promises of work to come have not yet translated into concrete defence contracts.

The Williamstown shipyards are fast approaching the infamous Valley of Death, where unless new defence contracts are delivered the shipyards will close and the skills and expertise of this sector will vanish. We will see the loss of another 1,000 manufacturing jobs from Melbourne's west to complement the 2½ thousand jobs we recently lost at the Toyota plant in Altona. Such job losses are symbolic of the Abbott government's inability to make the transition from opposition to government. It is all very well to promise an increase in defence spending of two per cent of GDP while acting as an opposition attack dog; but a one-sentence slogan is not a coordinated strategy for the future of our defence program. Rather, a coordinated strategy requires dealing with the practicalities that our defence industry faces now so that any obstacles in the way of a brighter future are fully addressed.

Australia's shipyards ought to have a bright future. The shipbuilding needs of the Australian Navy require the construction of 80 ships worth $100 billion, and constructing them here would ensure a thriving shipbuilding industry in Australia for decades. With an additional eight frigates as part of the Future Frigate project, 14 patrol boats, six landing craft, two supply ships and more than 20 patrol boats included on the shopping list of the Navy, Australia's demand for warships has rarely been greater. As I know the member for Charlton would agree, there is no better place to build these ships than in Australia; we have workers with high-tech skills who wish to do their part to build the warships to defend our nation. The member for Charlton may disagree with me, though, when I say that there is no better place to build these ships than in Williamstown. But I stand proudly for the efforts of the workers in my electorate. I know that their expertise has built the best ships that the Australian Navy could ask for, and I know that the loss of the jobs of these workers through the sheer neglect and incompetence of the Abbott government will leave a far worse scar on Melbourne's worse than the sight of abandoned shipyards.

We need to support the future of these workers, and we need to do it now. A coordinated strategy is required so that the shipbuilding industry is safe in the immediate future and does not experience the peaks and troughs of haphazard defence planning in the long term. There is only so much that a company such as BAE can do when it relies upon Defence contracts for most of its work. The Abbott government needs to step up to the challenge and create a plan to secure the future of Australian shipbuilders. Luckily for the Prime Minister there is already a plan which he can use and which is sensible, has widespread approval and shows an appreciation of the realities facing our shipbuilding industry. The previous Labor government's plan would have prevented the valley of death both in the short term and in long term. Labor announced in August 2013 that the government would fast-track the replacement of HMAS Sirius and HMAS Success to offset the valley of death.

It is time for action. Last week the Victorian Premier met with the Prime Minister to again discuss the future of employment in Melbourne's west and in Geelong. There are no jobs in these meetings; there is no satisfaction in these meetings for the thousands of BAE workers facing unemployment. I do not want to see the Premier of Victoria touring the Williamstown shipyards after they have closed as he has so recently toured the many failed businesses in Victoria. It is time for the Prime Minister to look beyond the easy simplicity of a one-sentence slogan and to endorse the plan for the future of our shipbuilding industry that Melbourne's west so desperately needs. It is about time that the former Leader of the Opposition became a Prime Minister and acted to secure the jobs of thousands of workers in my electorate.

Debate adjourned.