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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6386

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (16:37): Mr Acting Deputy President, I thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I just cannot understand why the Labor Party continues to beat itself up. It is as if they are lemmings looking for a cliff to jump off. Now here we are, in this situation with regard to the question of submarines and South Australia.

Originally, in the 1980s, the decision was made to build submarines in South Australia, not for good policy or defence reasons, but simply because of regional issues. Time does not allow me, on this particular occasion, to talk about that. But I do want to talk about three issues this afternoon. The first issue is Labor's failure, as usual, to advance Australian shipbuilding. The second issue is the actions of the Abbott government in trying to undo the wrongs and put the whole defence situation back on track, including shipbuilding. Thirdly, I would like to make few comments about the actions of the Abbott government, led by the eminent defence minister, Senator Johnston, in fixing Labor's neglect by the building of new supply vessels.

Let me start by going back to 31 October 2007. This is an article I am going to quote from TheSydney Morning Herald. The then opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, said:

A Labor government would … ensure the submarines were built by ASC at its Port Adelaide site, with construction to begin in about 2017.

The then opposition leader said that the:

…$6 billion air warfare destroyer project in Adelaide at that time would be tapering off.

Mr Rudd went on to say:

Starting the process this year will guarantee continuity of work for South Australia's defence industry and those employed in the sector ... a Labor government would make it a priority to ensure that the necessary preliminary work on Australia's next generation of submarines was carried out in time for consideration and initial approval in 2011.

We have gone passed 2011 and nothing has happened. He talked about detailed analyses—well, we all know what his detailed analyses were. We saw plenty of evidence of that with the NBN and himself and Senator Conroy and decisions on numbers, taking us through to 40 years into the future. When talking about vital military capability for Australia, Mr Rudd went on to say:

Work on the production of new submarines is a task essential to Australia's national security that the Howard Government has failed to tackle.

If you have a look at where Labor's failure has been in this place, it is an endless list, but I took out the main priorities. Firstly, deferring the critical strategic decision on the submarines. Secondly, deferring the critical strategic decision on the Navy tanker ships. I go on—asleep at the wheel was the then Labor government, as the new destroyer program went off the rails. Of course, here we are now with the Labor Party moving this matter of urgency when, indeed, they are in no position to criticise, because their contribution to the whole exercise has been lamentable. You might say, 'Well, give me some examples of this.' I will, indeed.

It was under the so-called leadership of then Minister Stephen Smith when $16 billion was cut out of the Defence budget. It would not have happened had Senator Faulkner been the defence minister. As we know, Minister Smith did not want to be the defence minister; he wanted to be foreign affairs minister, and he made that plain to everybody, including those in the Defence family. You can understand how that went down. The share of GDP spent on defence had fallen in the last years of the Labor government to 1.56 per cent—its lowest level since 1938. That was after the incoming Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, spoke about maintaining the vital military capability for Australia. In fact, in 2013 the first person to speak on this debate was the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, a South Australian senator, the then finance minister, Senator Wong. It was the largest cut to the defence budget since the end of the Korean conflict. They cut 10.5 per cent from the budget itself.

What happened under Labor? This is what amazes me that they would bring this matter of urgency for debate. It was on their watch that the Australian defence industry shed more than 10 per cent of its workforce because of budget cuts. It was under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments that they made three decisions regarding defence vessels and not one of them went to the Australian shipbuilding industry. The first was HMAS Choules, which I had the pleasure of being on board when it was named in Fremantle harbour. It was purchased from the UK for $100 million. The second was the new Antarctic icebreaker to replace the Aurora Australis. It has not been decided yet, and I will stand corrected but I understand from the Labor government at the time that not one Australian company was invited to bid. The third was the LHD landing craft, which achieved its first pass approval, but to be built overseas—the hull to be built in Spain and then returned to be fitted out.

We then go specifically to the submarines themselves. What has Senator Johnston done, having picked up the lamentable situation? As he said the other day, when he opened the box there was nothing in it—zero. So no decision has been made yet, but what he has moved towards immediately is the production of a white paper to be delivered in 2015. He made the point that, regardless of the final decisions taken, there will be substantial submarine related work in Adelaide and that means more jobs for South Australia. He also made the point that I introduced my contribution on, and that is that decisions will be made on defence logic, not regional policy. They will be made on the basis of sound defence policy.

What are the three main criteria in the submarine replacements? The first is the right submarine for Australia. The second is that it works from the start. The third is that it be affordable throughout its life. Regrettably with the Collins class, although it certainly had many features that made it an enviable vessel, none of the three criteria or objectives were met. So we do need to do better with the next generation of submarines. Nobody would take anything away from the excellence of the captains and crew of our Collins class submarines. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President Williams, they are based at HMAS Stirling south of Perth. We interact often and frequently.

Part of the urgency motion today speaks about the government planning to destroy Australia's strategically vital shipbuilding industry. In the last few moments of my contribution I want to speak more generally about that strategically vital shipbuilding industry. Under the Abbott government and with Senator David Johnston as the defence minister, a man who has done an enormous amount of research into this, and with the input of people like Senator David Fawcett and others on our side we are getting this whole issue under control.

The minister has said in this place that his first priority is the air warfare destroyer program because it went so badly off the rails with the last Labor government. He wants to ensure that everything is in place for a continued naval shipbuilding industry in this country. That is one of our very strong objectives. He has already been speaking to state premiers and ministers to get their cooperation. As I mentioned, the 2015 Defence white paper will shape the decision making, support the strategic and capability needs of Defence, deliver value for money, build commercial confidence and promote global best practice. Of course we are going to need full cooperation from the unions, employee groups, the Australian defence business industry and the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, to name just a few, to put the wrongs right.