House debates

Tuesday, 10 November 2020


Health Portfolio; Consideration in Detail

4:00 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

It's my great pleasure to speak on the appropriation bills, which form part of this year's budget. The budget is driving the delivery of nation-building infrastructure projects right across the nation. It's a budget which maps out the road of economic recovery from the COVID-19 recession, a budget which will create jobs and provide certainty for businesses over the long term and a budget which truly reflects the infrastructure needs of Australia and Australians now and into the future.

For the information of the chamber, I propose that, during debate today, ministers will hear a number of questions from members on both sides of the chamber before responding to questions. This will ensure that interested members can take part in the debate, and I acknowledge the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure, and the member for Lindsay, who is, no doubt, interested in Penrith and Western Sydney and the outcomes we're achieving for those areas.

During budget week, I had the privilege of delivering the first-ever statement to parliament on regional outcomes in this year's budget. I made it clear that this budget works to generate jobs, generate exports and ensure the already strong regions of Australia continue to thrive. We're working to repair our economy, recover from the pandemic and grow regional Australia. Regional Australia will grow us out of and lead us out of the pandemic downturn.

A key element in this growth is the government's all-time record $110 billion transport infrastructure program, which will play out in every corner of Australia, from the regions to the suburbs and CBDs. These are not numbers on a piece of paper; delivery is visible everywhere. Already more than 600 major Australian government funded projects are underway, supporting thousands of jobs right across the country. To get Australians back to work and back in business, the 2020-21 budget includes new funding for projects and initiatives under this expanded program, which will support an extra 30,000 direct and indirect jobs over the construction lives of projects.

This new funding includes $2 billion under a new Road Safety Program. This program will incentivise state and territory governments, rewarding those which deliver their projects on time and on budget. This program is in addition to our existing half-a-billion dollar targeted road safety upgrades program. The 2020-21 budget will include a further $1 billion for the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program, on top of the initial $500 million we announced for the program earlier this year. Combined, these two programs will support 10,000 jobs. Together with what we've announced since the start of the crisis, we have committed $14 billion in new and accelerated infrastructure projects.

The pandemic has hit Australia everywhere. We as a nation have managed the virus well, particularly when you compare our response and what has happened in this nation with other countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Every region needs support, which is why this budget includes additional funding for critical transport infrastructure projects in every state and territory, including but not limited to an additional $490.6 million for the Coffs Harbour bypass in New South Wales, $292 million for the Barwon Heads Road upgrade in Victoria, $750 million for stage 1 of the Commera Connector in Queensland, an extra $80 million for the Wheatbelt Secondary Freight Network in Western Australia, $136 million to progress stage 2 of the Main South Road duplication in South Australia, $65 million for the Tasman Bridge upgrade in Tasmania, $46.6 million for national network highway upgrades in the Northern Territory and $87.5 million for the Molonglo River bridge in the Australian Capital Territory.

However, our investment pipeline and our infrastructure pipeline aren't just driving road investment. There's considerable investment in rail as well. It's in full swing. To name just a few rail projects across the country which feature in this budget, there's the Melbourne-to-Brisbane Inland Rail; stage 2 of the Warrnambool rail line upgrade; $320 million in stage 3 of the Shepparton rail line upgrade; and the long-overdue Melbourne Airport rail link. We're investing $1.8 billion to build the Sydney Metro to Western Sydney Airport project, which will connect western Sydney's growing population and economy to the Sydney CBD, and there's another $200 million for the very popular Building Better Regions Fund. BBRF drives regional development. It drives jobs and it certainly helps the regional communities. It has in the past and it is now, and it's certainly going to in the future as we recover from COVID-19. What we want to see is local outcomes and local workers on local sites building local infrastructure, and that's what this government is delivering.

4:05 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for giving an introduction to what's in this year's budget for infrastructure, transport and regional development. I want to start with a project that is part of the broad appropriation of the department: Western Sydney International Airport and the acquisition that the government made of the Leppington Triangle. The Australian National Audit Office report into the processes leading to the acquisition and the price paid per hectare by the Morrison government for this piece of land was pretty scathing. In fact, the ANAO stated very clearly that it fell short of ethical standards, with public servants meeting with landowners in coffee shops, and it failed to ensure proper probity measures were followed. It's a very serious audit report.

I would like to start with a simple question about which minister was the responsible minister at the time and which minister is willing to accept responsibility for this acquisition. The purchase itself was completed on 31 July 2018. The major brief into the decision was in January 2018. Minister Tudge, I understand that you were the Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population when this purchase was completed. Do you take any responsibility for this acquisition? Minister McCormack, can you confirm that on 31 July 2018, when the purchase of the Leppington Triangle was finalised, you were the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, as well as being the responsible cabinet minister for this project? Do you take responsibility for this purchase? I understand that Minister Fletcher was the minister in January 2018. Given that one of the briefs that the ANAO refers to, which basically outlined to the government what the acquisition strategy was and that it was finalised, was in January, was signed off by Minister Fletcher and CCed to then Minister Joyce, can either of the ministers at the table confirm that they were the responsible minister?

I've never seen such duck-shoving, frankly, as on this project. Somewhere along the line, one of the ministers here has to stand up and say, 'I was the minister responsible for this decision and I signed off on it,' and we haven't seen that at all so far. We've had the Deputy Prime Minister, of course, describe this acquisition as a bargain and a good deal. Have you changed your mind yet at all? Were you surprised to learn that the AFP are actively now investigating? Minister Tudge, were you surprised that they are investigating?

Minister McCormack, as minister for infrastructure, you are responsible for billions of dollars of government infrastructure spending, with projects from Western Sydney Airport to Inland Rail, and countless smaller projects across the country. Many of these projects involve very sensitive negotiations with landholders regarding road placement, access, the location of intermodal hubs, the placement of rail lines and the rezoning of lands. Do you have confidence that your department has behaved ethically in all other interactions of this type, including in projects like Inland Rail? Are you aware of any similar overinflated purchases in any other projects that you are responsible for? If you were aware of them, would you spot the problem and do something to fix it? Or would you, as has happened in this case, tick off millions of dollars of taxpayer funding for a grossly inflated piece of land?

At Senate estimates last month we heard revelations that the Department of Infrastructure had budgeted in the order of $30 million for the purchase of Leppington Triangle before the valuation strategy or the acquisition process was in place. Minister, what kind of acquisition strategy or process begins with the final price and then works backwards from there? Is this the normal approach of your office and your department? When the decision was taken, who took the decision to take compulsory acquisition off the table? We'd like to hear the minister answer that question. When the scandal was publicly revealed by the Australian National Audit Office, the minister's response was to allow the Department of Infrastructure to hold another investigation into themselves. This is despite previous departmental investigations clearing the deal of any wrongdoing and the department failing to comply with the ANAO investigation. (Time expired)

4:10 pm

Photo of Alan TudgeAlan Tudge (Aston, Liberal Party, Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

I will make a few remarks in relation to what is in the budget, particularly with regard to my portfolio responsibility, and, if time allows, I will briefly address the Leppington issue.

I might start by referencing the population settings. Our population settings in the budget are often quite unremarkable. But, in this year's budget, they were actually remarkable, because we were forecasting for this financial year and next financial year to have the slowest population growth since World War I. That has largely resulted because net overseas migration has come to a grinding halt since we closed the borders in March. We are forecasting for this financial year, for the first time in 75 years, to actually have a negative net overseas migration, and that will continue next year—before it picks up again in years three and four.

They are very important estimates in the budget context because obviously our population growth, largely driven by international migration, is a very significant economic driver for Australia. It has been since Europeans arrived on these shores. As members would be aware, we are going through the process of carefully but safely starting to reopen those borders so that we can, firstly, get the Australians back who want to come home and, secondly, also get those skilled people and other migrants back into the country to continue to support our economic growth, cultural growth and social growth.

Let me touch briefly on the infrastructure side—complementing the Deputy Prime Minister's comments earlier. In some respects, one of the few silver linings of having a very slow population growth over the next couple of years is that it gives us the opportunity, particularly in our large capital cities, to catch up on what many in the big cities would say would be a backlog of desperately needed infrastructure to be built. We are certainly contributing our share in terms of doing this, because in this budget we added a further $9.7 billion—bringing our total expenditure over the 10 years to $110 billion, which is just an extraordinary amount of money given that it was only $50 billion when we first came to government. Importantly, this additional money, $9.7 billion, is nearly all in this year and next year for projects which can get going almost immediately—certainly over the next 18 months—because the objective of these projects is not only to build critically needed infrastructure but also to support jobs. It will support 30,000 jobs in the process. The Deputy Prime Minister and I worked very closely with state and territory government leaders to determine the parameters of which projects would be supported, knowing that they could assure us that those projects could get going quickly. In addition, we have got $1.5 billion going towards local councils. Local councils can get projects going quite quickly using local contractors and local businesses, and that means local jobs in every community across Australia.

Madam Deputy Speaker, in my last minute allow me to address the final part of my portfolio responsibilities, the cities side. In this budget, we announced the Perth City Deal, which is just another of the city deals that we have announced. It's one which we've worked very closely with the McGowan government on, particularly over the last 12 months, and its central design is to try to revitalise the CBD of Perth and make it more vibrant, safer, a greater cultural hub, a students' hub and a place for people to live, work and play. We've made a significant contribution to that city deal. It will be delivered over the next five to 10 years and, I think, will transform the Perth CBD.

So it is a very significant budget, across population, across infrastructure and across the cities part of my portfolio. I'm happy to come back to the Leppington issue in future considerations.

4:15 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Just continuing on with Leppington—I didn't quite finish my questions there—in particular the issue is around how the minister has allowed the department to, in essence, investigate itself during this process. We haven't seen the department or the minister undertake a fully independent investigation. The code-of-conduct investigations the department is undertaking are very limited in scope and have excluded significant events and activities that have occurred in this matter. Significantly, they have excluded activities including the briefing to Minister Fletcher in January 2018. That is not being looked at in the code-of-conduct investigations. In fact, as we understand it, the officer who is involved in that has been excluded from the code-of-conduct investigations because of that. They have excluded decisions that were made around the Northern Road alignment. Again, I would say that that is a complete failure of an investigative process if that is the case. Minister, can you undertake to inform yourself of the breadth or the lack of breadth of each of those investigations—there are six separate investigations that I understand the department is undertaking, but in particular the code-of-conduct investigations—and undertake to ensure that they are broader in scope than they currently are and that any reports of those investigations, in the interests of transparency and to make sure that this does not happen again, will be made public? Particularly I want to draw attention to the critical flaws within the department's chosen route for the Northern Road alignment. We had global aviation planning firm Landrum & Brown finding serious issues with the proposed Northern Road alignment and labelling it a no-go. The department of infrastructure went ahead regardless of that, despite possible impacts on a future second runway for the airport. Minister, is it correct that the placement of this road may impact future development of the airport? How can Australians have confidence in the way major projects are delivered under this government if this is the kind of behaviour that goes on?

Turning to the infrastructure part of the portfolio and some of the comments of the minister, Minister Tudge, we have sought for the government to table the jobs multiplier that it is using in the claims it is making around the jobs of infrastructure. There are multiple numbers of jobs multipliers around, and we'd be very keen to see, given what we saw with some of the government's claims around its JobMaker program, exactly what multiplier the government is using when it makes the claim, as Minister Tudge just did, that 30,000 jobs will be created as a result.

The budget papers did, as the minister outlined, contain a number of road projects, and I want to go to a few of these. The minister, in the New South Wales package, and in the budget night media release, identified additional funding for the Bolivia Hill upgrade on the New England Highway as one of the budget highlights. Can the minister confirm that the project was in fact funded under the previous Labor government in 2012 and that, as we understand it, it is under construction and almost finished now? Can you confirm that the funding you announced in the budget is not going towards completing work that's already been done or that is already underway but is in fact going to an expansion or a new stage of the Bolivia Hill project?

Another highlight was an additional $119.1 million for the Bruce Highway Caloundra to Sunshine motorway and an additional $37 million for the Bruce Highway Rockhampton northern access upgrade. Can the minister confirm that this is additional funding and that it will not go towards delivering the already scoped project but is in fact a new part of the project? If it's not then you need to be able to say very clearly why these budget cost blowouts have occurred in these projects and be up-front about them being cost blowouts rather than your committing to brand-new projects or brand-new parts or stages of those roads.

4:21 pm

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker, Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to address issues around local government as part of my portfolio responsibility. As we all know, this year has been a particularly difficult time right across Australia with the coronavirus pandemic. As the federal government has done in the past with regard to drought or bushfires, we have partnered with local government to enable the federal stimulus to get into each and every community.

Local government are a very effective partner for the federal government. Through the local roads and community infrastructure fund, which is now $1½ billion, we are seeing projects being rolled out right across the country. Since only May this year, 2,335 projects have been approved. Over $187 million has already been paid to local governments. That was the idea of this proposal. It was to get the money out the door and into projects that were going to employ local people, provide employment in communities that were doing it particularly tough, but also leave behind legacy infrastructure projects that would serve those communities well beyond the current pandemic. As well as that, this year has seen the highest number of federal assistance grants that the Commonwealth has ever paid to local government, with $2.6 billion going to local government. On top of that, a $1.3 billion prepayment was made in May, which will obviously help councils with the extra cash flow that they need.

With regard to the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program, I've been on the road and I've managed to see some great projects on the north coast, in Cowper and Page. I've seen some great ones in Calare, in the minister's electorate as well. But I'd like to—

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker, Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

That's right—a very important road out of Blayney that will be funded under this program. But I'd like to give a shout-out to one of the councils in my electorate, Brewarrina council, which have used their money to fund road safety measures, including rest stops and improved access for heavy vehicles on the Goodooga Road. What's interesting about Brewarrina council is that 85 per cent of Brewarrina's population is Indigenous and 85 per cent of Brewarrina council's workforce are local Aboriginal people. Local people from Goodooga are constructing roads and infrastructure through the program. It follows on from the great work that they did up at Goodooga on their bore baths, which was funded under the Drought Communities Program.

The sector has been very pleased with the government's response. The president of the Australian Local Government Association, David O'Loughlin, commended the Treasurer's announcement of a further billion-dollar investment in local roads and community infrastructure. Mr O'Loughlin is quoted as saying:

We said that financing shovel-ready projects in local government areas would help ward off recession by stimulating businesses and creating jobs across the country, delivering long-term benefits to the nation in the process.


The financing of infrastructure projects in local government areas will create jobs, provide support for local businesses, and provide new hope to local communities that have done it tough for nine months or more …

I endorse those comments.

As a former mayor, I'm very proud of the Australian local government sector, the 537 councils across Australia that have really stepped up not only in the efficient way that they're delivering this $1½ billion in stimulus but in the innovative ways that they've supported their communities through the pandemic by redeploying some underutilised staff to deliver meals on wheels in the initial days when a lot of those programs were at risk because of health concerns for the elderly volunteers. This government is committed to supporting local government. We're very pleased with the fact that local government have done their bit to deliver the stimulus.

4:26 pm

Photo of Jason ClareJason Clare (Blaxland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government for his update to the chamber. I want to ask him some questions about local government and, in particular, how it interacts with some of the bushfire affected communities. A couple of months ago I told the parliament the story of Paul Parker, the firefighter from Nelligen who was on all of our TVs in January giving the Prime Minister a mouthful. I mentioned that at the local pub in Nelligen, the Steampacket Hotel, the publican had been getting people ringing in from all across the country offering to put money on the bar for Paul Parker. They called it the ultimate pub test. People were angry that the government had been so slow to act to help bushfire affected communities. I got an email from Paul on the weekend about what's still happening in that local community—and I'll get back to that in a moment.

A lot of people on the South Coast of New South Wales, people like Paul, felt abandoned in the bushfires and still feel abandoned now. It's almost 12 months since the fires came through. The bush is growing back. Many of us who have driven through that area in New South Wales would know that's true. But the local community still feel like the government's response is too slow, and in some cases nothing at all. In the budget there's $100 million for a regional recovery fund to help rebuild parts of Australia that were hardest hit by bushfires, drought and COVID. It applies to 10 areas that the government has selected. In that list of 10 areas there's no mention of the South Coast of New South Wales, even though, by any estimate, it was one part of the country that was hardest hit by the bushfires. More of it was burnt than in almost any other part of the country. Certainly more houses were destroyed on the South Coast of New South Wales than in any other part of the country.

My first question is: how is this possible? It might be a question that the Deputy Prime Minister can help address as well. How did the South Coast miss out on this funding? How is it that they weren't one of those 10 areas selected? A place hit harder by the bushfires, hit by drought and hit by COVID. Think about the farmers down there. Think about the tourism industry up and down the South Coast. How is it that that local community didn't benefit from that fund?

The people on the South Coast need our help, particularly those people who had their homes burnt down, and there are hundreds of them. I was in Cobargo a couple of weeks ago with Kristy McBain. I met with some of the people who've had their houses burnt down. They're trying to rebuild and they're caught in a quagmire of red tape, whether it's local government red tape, state government red tape or federal government red tape. They don't give a stuff what it is, to be honest; they just want the red tape cut. I met a bloke named Graeme. Here's a story for us all to contemplate. He's building a granny flat on the property where his house burnt down. He has built the granny flat there so that he can live in it while he's building his house. He's been told by the council that when he builds the house he has to demolish the granny flat. The council says, 'Sorry, but that's a state government rule.' That just doesn't make sense. I met another woman who had her house burnt down. She has been told by the council that she can't rebuild at all. She has a small insurance payout. She can't afford to build anywhere else. She can't afford any other solution than to rebuild where she is.

I mentioned Paul Parker and the email he sent me on the weekend. He's doing okay. He's been able to rebuild the part of his house that was damaged by the fires, but not all of his mates in Nelligen are in the same situation. He told me about a bloke called Ronny, one of his mates, whose house burnt down. I spoke to Ronny yesterday. He wants to rebuild his house on a different part of his property to where the original house burnt down in the bushfires, but he's been told by the council and by the RFS that he can't do that, because, looking on a map, building in another area looks more dangerous. According to Ronny, he wants to build the new house further away from the bush and closer to a neighbouring property, which is just an open horse paddock, but no-one has been to the property to look at it to see whether that makes sense. They've just said it's a bigger flame zone and he can't build there. My second question to the minister is: what can you do, working with local councils, to help sort out problems for people, like Graeme and like Ronny, who are caught in this quagmire of red tape?

The third point I want to emphasise here is that a lot of these people are going to miss out on the $25,000 HomeBuilder grant too, because they can't sign a contract by Christmas. Is there anything that the government can do, maybe working with the housing minister, to get an extension for them so that the 3,000 people who had their homes burnt down and are caught in this mess don't miss out on the 25 grand that will help them to rebuild?

4:31 pm

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party, Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to say a few words about decentralisation today, but, before I do, I also want to make it very clear that recovering from bushfire is a long and hard process, and I think all members recognise how difficult it is. I was in Clarence and Dargan last week, talking to victims of the bushfire who had lost their homes. It is a long, hard road; there can be no doubt about it. In many respects, the recovery is harder than dealing with the actual emergency when it occurs. I think all MPs are united in wanting to make sure that we keep that recovery process going and that we get the help to where it's needed as soon as possible.

We on this side of the House love decentralisation. In country Australia, we can't get enough of it. It's so important to the growth and prosperity of country Australia. This budget delivers a historic amount of investment to the regions, recognising the strategic importance of the regions and the enormous contribution that they make to this nation. Through COVID-19, we've seen a real upsurge of interest in the regions—people wanting to move to the regions. In years gone by we called them tree changers or sea changers, but now there's a new term for them: they're called VESPAs. Bernard Salt coined that term in The Australian. It stands for 'virus escapees seeking provincial Australia'. Our regional communities are full of VESPAs at the moment. The member for Parkes, here, has VESPAs all over Dubbo, Warialda and all sorts of places. We need to keep supporting this upsurge of interest in regional Australia, because I think it has opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities of what lies beyond the Great Dividing Range, or the 'sandstone curtain', as we call it. This budget has revitalised the decentralisation agenda.

We have a long and successful history of decentralisation on this side of the House. Since 2013, we've overseen the relocation of 1,700 Australian Public Service jobs. The growth of the regionally based Australian Public Service workforce has increased from 12 to 14 per cent, which is very positive, and we're building on this commitment to relocate jobs and services to our regional communities. We're also working hand in hand with the private sector. It can't all be public sector decentralisation; we want private decentralisation at well. This budget delivers $41 million in a decentralisation research and development policy package, which will drive closer research collaboration between businesses and research organisations in priority regional industries.

The package includes two programs—the $35 million Securing Raw Materials program, which will support businesses relocating to regional Australia with investments into research and development to secure raw material inputs. We know COVID has shown us that we need to be securing that supply chain and making sure that it's absolutely bulletproof. There was also $6 million for the Regional Cooperative Research Project, or RCRP, program that will fund short-term research projects led by industry that will deliver commercial outcomes and create jobs for important regional industries.

Under the Securing Raw Materials program recipients would receive up to $5 million of matched funding over the 2020-21 and 2021-22 financial years to invest in research activities linked to the development of innovative, locally sourced raw material supplies. The companies that could engage with this program could be a food processing company investigating the growth methods that maximise yield with reduced reliance on imported fertilisers or other agrichemicals. It could be a seafood producer investigating possible uses of unwanted byproducts from fish farming, such as seaweed. It could be an advanced manufacturer in the defence sector. There are many different possibilities. What we're saying to those organisations is that if you move to the country and you want to invest in the country and develop country Australia, then we are with you, because it can't all be public sector decentralisation.

Last week I held a decentralisation summit involving peak business and industry bodies, not only the peak business bodies but the universities as well. It's important to get them on board, the Group of Eight and also the regional universities. We are going to revitalise the decentralisation agenda on this side of the House.

4:36 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I have some questions on what we on this side call regionalisation, smart regionalisation, and in particular the Regional Partnerships program and a number of the other regional programs. But first I will go back to the infrastructure part of the portfolio. I was highlighting the project of Bolivia Hill and the announcements around the Bruce Highway. I could pick a number of other projects. It appears from the information that's been on the public record, certainly, in relation to those projects that some of the announcements that the government is claiming as part of its infrastructure spend are in fact because of delays and cost blowouts. I think it is very important that the government acknowledge that that is occurring in some of these projects. So I ask the minister: how many of the budget announcements for infrastructure are due to cost blowouts and delay, as opposed to new projects and expanding stages?

The previous budgets of this government are important to look at and to some extent are indicative of what we hope we don't get from this budget. I want to highlight some of that. In each of the previous budgets we've had pretty significant underspends. We've had an underspend of $1.2 billion per year on average. In fact last financial year the underspend was $1.7 billion. Taking across the previous budgets it is just under $7 billion of money that has not got out the door, which the government promised would get out the door. Whilst we accept that these are complex projects and they do take time, it does seem on a number of them that perhaps more effort could have been made to try and ensure that they were on budget and on time.

Just one program—the minister responsible for it is has to leave—is the Urban Congestion Fund, which was announced not this budget, not last budget, but in the 2018 budget. It was underspent by $572 million last year alone, with only $148 million of the promised $720 million actually getting out the door. Of $207 million promised under the Urban Congestion Fund for projects in New South Wales, the government spent only $4.5 million. Given that these projects are smaller projects and the government has quite rightly said that they are about getting people in work today, that is somewhat disappointing.

The minister, who has just left the chamber, in January told Channel Nine News that by January 2020 70 projects would be under construction and at least 28 would be completed. As at October, work had begun on only 28 projects. I ask: is the government on track to meet the promise that the minister made in January that 70 projects would be under construction and 28 completed?

In November last year the minister posted a Twitter video at the site of Portrush and Magill roads in Adelaide, appearing with men in hard hats and spruiking the work that was underway—despite the fact the video was actually filmed at the wrong intersection, unfortunately. I do want to know from the minister what work on that project is actually underway today. I note that last year's financial budget outcome revealed that no money had been spent through the Urban Congestion Fund in South Australia, and this was a project in South Australia. How could it have been possible that work was underway if no money was actually going out the door? At Senate estimates, the secretary of the department of infrastructure stated:

The other challenge we've had in the estimates this year is that there were optimistic expenditure forecasts in the current year for the [Urban Congestion Fund] program …

After seeing some of the delays in that, how can Australians have confidence that the announcements that are in this budget are going to be any different than in previous budgets?

I do briefly want to talk about some of the COVID stimulus spending. At CEDA, the Prime Minister committed $1.5 billion of additional spending to create jobs and to help Australia's recovery. Can the minister confirm that this $1.5 billion was in fact less than the $1.7 billion that the government had underspent on infrastructure projects delivered in the last financial year? And can the minister also confirm that of the 15 priority projects announced at CEDA, none were located north of Brisbane in Queensland? At CEDA, the Prime Minister said a billion would be allocated to priority projects which are shovel ready— (Time expired)

4:41 pm

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Since 2013 the Australian government has committed more than $15.4 billion for infrastructure in Western Australia. In WA, vast distances between major centres make quality road infrastructure a high priority for the movement of commodities and people around our great state. The Morrison government is serious about road safety, and it is demonstrating this through increased investment in infrastructure and effective monitoring of interventions.

In the 2020-21 budget, the Australian government announced $1.1 billion towards a joint $1.8 billion investment with the WA government in infrastructure projects, including $16 million towards the Goldfields Highway to construct and seal priority sections, commencing early in 2021. The budget also saw $9.6 million in additional funding for the upgrades to the Coolgardie Esperance Highway at Emu Rocks, bringing the total Commonwealth investment in that project to $41.6 million. This funding will deliver road infrastructure and support WA regional communities as they recover from the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Funding for the Coolgardie Esperance Highway will ensure people in our community get home sooner and safer, whilst delivering more jobs locally.

In 2020, Australians have become acutely aware of the central role the Western Australian economy plays in our national economic output and overall financial stability. Moving agriculture and mining products efficiently from inner WA communities to the major ports for export is vital, and I'm pleased to say the Morrison government has recognised this by accelerating an $82 million investment for the Wheatbelt Secondary Freight Network, a crucial road network supporting key freight supply chains as well as tourism in the region. The Wheatbelt Secondary Freight Network comprises some 4,400 kilometres of local government managed roads that connect with state and national highways to provide access for heavy vehicles into the WA Wheatbelt. These roads form part of a whole network approach in improving freight productivity in the regions, and enabling vital agriculture commodities to access domestic and international markets via the key WA ports. Upgrades to the network will be determined based on key areas connecting to state and national roads and rail networks.

The Wheatbelt Secondary Freight Network also links WA's key agricultural and mining centres to six ports and two livestock centres, as well as grain receival sites. This federal investment will see the construction of more overtaking lanes, upgrades to roads and bridges, shoulder road sealing and road train assembly parking bays. Investing in the Wheatbelt Secondary Freight Network is delivering to communities our commitment to improve road safety, freight efficiency and connectivity for agricultural and mining regions to transport hubs.

On 21 June this year, the Australian government announced $176 million to deliver a joint $223 million in shovel-ready infrastructure projects and safety upgrades with the WA government. This stimulus funding is on top of the $868 million infrastructure investment boost in WA, including $817 million in accelerated funding for projects in WA announced in November 2019. The $175 million Albany Ring Road was one such project. It will deliver significantly improved road safety and efficiency across the Great Southern Region. Construction of the Albany Ring Road is now officially underway, unlocking up to 1,000 local jobs and creating flow-on economic benefits for Western Australia's south-west. This is the largest infrastructure road project ever to be delivered in the Great Southern Region.

Safe, uninterrupted access to the Port of Albany will provide certainty for current port users and an incentive for future investments. The project will also significantly improve traffic flow on the existing road network by reducing the number of heavy vehicles on the Albany Highway, the South Coast Highway and Chester Pass Road and notably reduce the interaction of heavy-haulage trucks with pedestrians and school crossings. This project will relieve congestion for the freight industry and enhance safety outcomes for locals and the tourist industry.

This government has continued and will continue to deliver on road infrastructure and safety measures through major projects such as those I've outlined today as well as continuous investment programs such as the Urban Congestion Fund, the Roads of Strategic Importance initiative and the new road safety program. All Australians, whether for business or pleasure, should have access to safe, reliable and efficient road networks. I therefore ask the minister to expand further on what great things we are achieving in the space of building infrastructure to save Australian lives and make our economy prosper into the future.

4:46 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Just in continuation on the issue around CEDA, the Prime Minister said:

… $1 billion will be allocated to priority projects which are shovel-ready, and being smaller projects they’re ready to go.

In October, it was revealed that, of 87 projects announced, all but three were still in planning. Would the minister agree that this, for what was supposed to be economic stimulus, is too slow? I'm not sure what definitions the Prime Minister is using for 'ready to go' and 'shovel ready' but they certainly aren't ones that would be commonly understood by most people. Is the minister aware of anymore projects through the scheme that have actually gotten underway?

I will just move very quickly to regions, as I understand that there may be some divisions happening. I do echo the questions that my colleague has asked around Regional Partnerships, which are the 10 regions that have been chosen by the government. It does seem passing strange that, when the regions that are meant to be targeted are those that have been specifically affected by drought and bushfire, the two regions that two Labor members hold have been left out of this program. I think that is, unfortunately, really indicative of the way in which this government has been approaching regional funding for quite a long period of time.

I particularly want to mention the Community Development Grants Program. We accept that, in the election grants fund that the government has, the election is the selection process and that there is some due diligence that is done after that. But I do want to highlight that in the budget papers, according to table 2.3.1 in the department's budget statement, the government intends to increase expenditure on the Community Development Grants Program to $270 million in 2021-22 and $318 million in 2022-23. Can the minister confirm that in 2016-17, the budget for this program was $66 million?

We also see—which is very unusual, I would have to say—that the government, outside of an election period, is adding substantially to this program. The budget papers talk about three projects. One is the $23 million new Rockhampton Stadium in Victoria Park. This is a program and there is no application process. The government just says, 'Here, we have this money for you.' This is the project where we saw Pauline Hanson of the One Nation Party standing up with a big $23 million cheque saying that she was funding the Rockhampton Stadium. Then there are the Regional Indoor Aquatic and Leisure Centre at Mount Barker and the Goolwa Sports Precinct in South Australia, neither of which have been through an election process for selection and neither of which, as we understand it, has actually had a business case or had due diligence done on them. I ask the minister: do you think this is at all appropriate? Can the minister assure us that, in the next round of the Building Better Regions Fund, round 5, which we understand is to be opened shortly, there will be greater consideration or more equitable consideration given to the seats that Labor members hold?

I also want to highlight, in particular, a few of the issues that we've seen across the Drought Communities Program. Again, there's been some criticism about the lack of transparency and the lack of the way in which that funding has been allocate across the community, and, again, I ask the minister: can he assure this place that regional funding will be done on a more equitable basis the next time around?

I want to highlight again the government's Regional Deals program, three of which are underway. I think there are many communities—in fact, I don't think my colleague would have a local government council in regional Australia not coming to him saying, 'We've worked really hard and we've put together a regional deal. We'd like to know how you access some of the funding for that.' Can the government confirm that there is no process for that to actually happen and that there's no clarity around what constitutes a regional deal or how that would occur?

We talked a bit about decentralisation or, as we say, regionalisation. Has the government actually considered that, if it just put back all of the Public Service jobs from the Medicare offices and Veterans' Affairs into regional communities, it would boost jobs substantially in our regions? (Time expired)

4:51 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very thankful for the opportunity to take part in this afternoon's consideration in detail, and I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for being here today to talk about the almost $110 billion in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years that we have put in place. As the Treasurer has said, this is about creating jobs, jobs and more jobs. This infrastructure spend is going to deliver 30,000 new jobs from new projects, building on the 100,000 jobs from existing projects either under construction or in planning nationwide.

But today I want to focus on water infrastructure. We all know that, without water, we cannot grow as a nation. Without water, our farmers cannot provide the food and fibre that we need to keep food on the table and provide the exports that our economy relies on. That's why it's so great to see in this budget that we're getting on with the job of building major new water infrastructure for our nation, both for the current generation and for many generations to come. In this budget there's $2 billion worth of grant funding under the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund, which brings our total investment to $3.5 billion.

I want to particularly highlight some of the work that is going on in my part of the world in North Queensland. North Queenslanders are extremely concerned about water security. It would definitely make the top five issues that people are most concerned about when I meet them at market stalls or doorknocking, or when they just come to the office to say hi. This makes sense, because people want to know that, when they go to the supermarket, local produce will be on the shelves every time. They want to know that there still will be livelihoods for our farmers and those living on the land. So I'm very glad to see continuing support for major water infrastructure projects in North Queensland.

There are two projects being managed by the North Queensland Water Infrastructure Authority, and I know the Deputy Prime Minister is working to get more staff and members located and based in North Queensland, where the authority will be doing its work. These two projects are the Hughenden irrigation scheme, for which we've provides $180 million, and Hells Gates dam, whose business case we've funded. But we're already getting on with one of the major components of the Hells Gates dam, and that is the Big Rocks weir, to which we've committed $30 million.

Big Rocks weir may seem like a relatively small project, but I'm pretty excited about it because not only is it just a couple of hundred kilometres away from Townsville; it will have a significant flow-on effect in my region and will be exporting through our port. This is going to provide 10,000 megalitres of water for local farms in Charters Towers and create more than 200 construction and agricultural jobs. This is exactly the kind of water infrastructure injection we need right now.

Just before the last state election, the Queensland government committed the remaining $30 million needed for the construction of the weir. Unfortunately, they had a condition that they wanted yet another business case. I just want to let the Queensland government know that we do not want to play politics with a second business case after the business case has already been done by Townsville Enterprise and has already found the project is viable. They will be held to account, by not only me but the people of North Queensland, because this is a much needed project with the complete support of our community.

Big Rocks Weir has the potential to be up and running in just a couple of years, and that's why governments of all persuasions and all levels need to get out of the way and let this fantastic project progress. As I said, this is part of the broader Hells Gate scheme and the business case will be finished around the end of this year. What we know already is that it has the potential to create 50,000 hectares of irrigated agriculture and pumped hydro with eight hours of storage. That is fantastic for the region. There is a lot of work being done, but there is a lot of work to do. My question to the minister is: how will the government continue to ensure that we have the water infrastructure that we need both now and into the future?

4:55 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to turn to the components of the budget that go to aviation funding. Aviation is an essential industry in a big country like ours and with a populated nation like ours, and it will be absolutely essential to our economic recovery. We've been very critical of the government's lack of a plan for aviation and the piecemeal approach that the government has taken in relation to the crisis in aviation. In particular, I want to take the minister through some of the decisions the government has made in relation to aviation.

What we are seeing are announcements, almost on a weekly basis, of substantial job losses. We had lots of people in the aviation sector stood down and lots of people in the aviation sector completely unable to access any government support, particularly from JobKeeper. Whole families are involved in this industry. They live in suburbs largely around our major airports and it's been the centre of employment for a very long period of time for many of these people. Even the skilled workers we have in regional airports, because the airports are owned by local councils, were not able to access JobKeeper. Regional councils have said they've been absolutely bleeding money out of these airports, and councils have been trying to ensure that they keep them going, but they are losing really skilled workers each day.

When Virgin entered administration on 21 April, the minister said:

Our objective is to help keep as many employees as possible in their jobs, a second major domestic airline in the sky, prices down and competition maintained so our economy recovers strongly on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.

Does maintaining a second major domestic airline remain the government's objective? And is that airline Virgin or is it another airline? Appearing on ABC's Four Corners in August, the CEO of Virgin Australia revealed that there is zero doubt that the reborn airline will fly to fewer places. It was later revealed that those regions losing routes would include Uluru, Tamworth, Port Macquarie, Albury, Hervey Bay, Cloncurry and Mildura. Would the minister agree that fewer routes will mean higher fares and fewer services to regional communities, costing jobs across the country? Recently we received some worrying reports regarding the future of Virgin Australia, with the current CEO to leave the corporation in November, this month, and suggestions that the airline will emerge far smaller than before, offering less competition to Qantas and supporting fewer Australian jobs. The minister has repeatedly suggested that a market-led solution would resolve this issue. Well, the market has decided on fewer jobs, fewer routes and less competition. Would you agree with that assessment?

At the same time, we have seen thousands of jobs lost at Qantas, with the airline preferring to now outsource rather than maintain their own workforce, partly because the government has put no conditions at all on the millions of dollars that are going to these companies to ensure that we don't add to the insecurity of work in this nation, yet the government has turned a blind eye to Qantas in fact increasing and adding to substantial job insecurity in this nation—the very thing that we have struggled through during this pandemic. The government could have put conditions on JobKeeper and some of the other aviation support measures that it has put in place. Why didn't it do that? In 2018 the government allowed Qantas catering workers to be outsourced to dnata. It gave permission for that to occur, and yet these 5½ thousand workers were denied government support. They were put on stand-down and were all set to receive JobKeeper, yet the government then changed the regulations and made sure that the regulations were very clear that these workers would not be supported. Minister, the government excluded dnata workers because of the nationality of their employer. Can you confirm that every cent of JobKeeper would have gone into the hands of Australian workers rather than the companies that were employing them? Of course, not everyone in aviation missed out. Certain airlines and owners of private jets did receive support from the government. Can the minister confirm, as I asked him to in question time, that the program has subsidised the luxury private jets of Crown casino, Clive Palmer's Mineralogy and Leppington Pastoral Company? (Time expired)

5:01 pm

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is something that doesn't often get reported, but every dollar that we spend on infrastructure actually finds its way to a family or to a business, and so we should be incredibly proud of the infrastructure spend that we have made with this government as to how much that is directly helping our local families and local businesses. We have announced over $385 million in regional initiatives such as the $200 million round 5 of the Building Better Regions Fund. This will take our commitment with this fund to well over $1 billion. Of the $200 million for the upcoming round, we're going to have $100 million allocated specifically to the tourism sector, which has obviously borne the brunt of COVID-19 with the restrictions that have been put on it.

Under our $500 million Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program that was announced in May, $420 million has already been approved across 2,300 projects, and $190 million has already been paid to councils. There are councils in my electorate who are very clear to tell us that, if you want to get a project done quickly, if you want to get a project on the road and get the excavators moving, engaging the councils is the best way of doing that. In my electorate of Nicholls, five councils—Campaspe, Greater Shepparton, Mitchell, Moira and Strathbogie—have collectively received around $20 million. They are already getting those projects up and going.

In the National Party, we all understand that how the regions are going is often a sign of the strength of Australia. Right now regional Australia is set to drive the recovery as we come out of the coronavirus restrictions and setbacks. I firmly believe that this government is backing regional Australia all the way. We have the $1 billion COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund, designed to support various sectors, different communities and industries that have borne the brunt of COVID-19. The support already committed through the relief and recovery fund includes assistance for the tourism and transport sectors, relief for fishers and artists, support for ag shows and financial counselling for eligible small businesses.

The previous speaker spoke about the aviation sector and the support that we have put in there. Obviously it has been severely struck down by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are supporting this industry through this current crisis so that it will be in a position to transition at the end of these restrictions and aid the recovery. Australia's aviation industry is facing unprecedented and likely sustained periods of lower aviation demand than it ever has previously. We have committed more than $1.31 billion to support aviation so far. We have given support to maintain maximum air services across Australia, including 400 return flights to more than 120 different locations, of which more than 110 are regional or remote.

We've also put in $120 million, which has been paid to airlines, to support critical connections on Australia's major routes. Over $30 million has been paid to airlines to ensure central regional air networks can be maintained. Over $70 million has been paid back to industry through security charges and fuel excise rebates to provide industry relief from these government charges. Over $67 million has been paid to small or regional air operators in direct cash flow support. There has been $669 million to keep international supply chains open and to assist high-value perishables and the transport of that produce overseas that would normally go in the undercarriage of passenger planes. We've had quite a few businesses in Victoria that have been the beneficiaries of this project, and certainly there are one or two in my electorate that are very appreciative of the work the government has done in this area.

We need to build consumer confidence in aviation as the restrictions ease. The Australian Airports Association and Airlines for Australia and New Zealand have developed a protocol for domestic air travel in consultation with Commonwealth agencies and the broader industries. I want to ask the minister if he can explain how these initiatives and others will assist regional Australia in its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

5:06 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

The portfolios we are discussing now, and this part of the budget that we are examining now, are incredibly important. They are so important to our short-term recovery, particularly when it comes to getting jobs up and running, as I know my colleague the shadow minister for housing will have touched upon and is passionate about, and indeed my colleague the member for Ballarat has touched upon in her contributions.

But these portfolios in this budget and in the previous budgets under this government sum up the government. There has been a relentless focus on announcements and a total failure to prioritise the delivery we need. That has mattered across the life of the government, but now it matters more than ever. I guess the thing we have to reflect upon is that this is the good bit when it comes to the government, because as we've seen in Senate estimates recently it's not just a failure to deliver when it comes to infrastructure that has characterised this government. It has been much, much worse than that, as we've seen most obviously in terms of the Leppington Triangle, where we've seen a 10-times overspend, which stands in stark contrast to the massive underinvestment in the communities that surround that project. Western Sydney is not getting a real city deal. When I think about my portfolio responsibilities—and I acknowledge that the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure has been here, and I'm sure the Deputy Prime Minister can take on board the questions I direct to him—this is incredibly important. If we're serious about getting our recovery right, we've got to get our approach to cities policy and urban infrastructure right. That simply isn't happening. These budget papers sadly demonstrate it.

I hope that the minister can reflect on that and give us some better answers, particularly to the millions of Australians in outer suburban Australia who rely on a national government that takes the suburbs seriously, that looks at where people have been losing jobs through this recession and that looks at what we can do about it—again, in the short term by getting stimulus right, but also by shaping our cities to reflect the new realities. That's about making sure that we actually get our CBDs functioning, which isn't just about the Treasurer telling people to get back on the train and into the office; it's about thinking about how those regional economies are going to work. It's also about looking at the opportunities that exist right now to boost suburban and outer suburban retail and service sectors, where small-scale infrastructure projects—real city deals, the examples of which we are seeing right around the world—could be making an extraordinary difference to boost consumption, to build better neighbourhoods and to keep people working in terms that are their terms. It's about changing some of the issues.

The government talks a lot about congestion busting. This is a way that we can bust congestion other than that in advertising agencies. I should acknowledge that the one area where the government has overachieved—we've talked often, the member for Ballarat and I, on many occasions about the consistent record of underspending by the government in infrastructure, but they've never let the advertising industry down, particularly when it comes to the Urban Congestion Fund, where in the first year they managed to spend more on advertising than on so-called congestion busting projects. I guess maybe a focus for the next budget, Deputy Prime Minister, might be looking at the particular challenges of congestion and getting into and out of those advertising agencies that the government appears to be so fond of!

The government should instead be focused on some of the real challenges to congestion busting. I'm thinking particularly of the commuter car parks. I've seen an evolution of this project. I was pleased to see that there are at least one or two of them located in places other than government-held marginal seats. There was one indeed, in the initial proposal, in my electorate, in South Morang, but it seems to have mysteriously disappeared, which is very odd. Perhaps it's because the government didn't speak to anyone about this proposal—that they just thought it was the end of the train line. It had of course been extended by the Andrews Labor government, which is a government that takes the provision of urban infrastructure seriously. Again, South Morang has been wiped off the map, according to this government's agenda, but I can assure the Deputy Prime Minister that it still exists and that my constituents there would like more support to get out of congestion.

This comes back to some other issues. I note that the member for Nicholls talked about the voices of local government. Why have the voices of local government been cut out of the national cabinet? That comes to the heart of the question I want to ask: why are all the city deals running late? Why are the city deals for Melbourne—both of them—and the one for Brisbane yet to appear on anything other than a press release? There has been no progress whatsoever, and there is no vision from this government to involve those communities, through local government, in planning their future.

5:11 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm going to work methodically through the questions that I have been asked. When I complete my contribution, I know that the member for Ballarat wants to ask some more, and then I'll endeavour to wrap up with the rest of the answers.

Firstly I want to address the Leppington Triangle land situation. The government and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications are taking this matter very seriously. I want to assure the shadow minister of that. There is no question of ministerial involvement in this transaction. The report goes to the actions of the department more than two years ago. The department has agreed to all recommendations in the report and has already taken swift action to address identified shortcomings in the processes and importantly in the decision-making. The department has launched three separate investigations and inquiries into the response to the findings of the Australian National Audit Office: an investigation under the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct into the matters of staff conduct raised by the ANAO, an independent audit of the conduct of the Leppington transaction to identify any further areas of improvement or lessons learnt, and an independent review of the Western Sydney Unit's systems, processes, culture and capabilities and the unit's systemic engagement with the department's governance structures and enabling divisions. On 16 October, an AFP investigation into issues identified in the ANAO report was made public and reported in the media. As these processes are ongoing, it would be inappropriate—and I'm sure the shadow minister would concur—to make further comment. I just want to say that the approval of the purchase was undertaken by departmental officials, and that is consistent with the delegations under the Lands Acquisition Act 1989. As I said, the AFP is also investigating the issues identified in the ANAO report.

I'll now talk about the two Bruce Highway projects that the shadow minister raised. We have the Bruce Highway Rockhampton northern access upgrade, with $29.6 million of additional funding provided in the 2020-21 budget. The Australian government funding profile for this project is $126.4 million. The shadow minister also referred to the Caloundra to Sunshine motorway aspect of the Bruce Highway, with $95.2 million of additional funding provided in the 2020-21 budget, taking the Australian government funding total to $745.6 million. That's a lot of jobs. That's a huge number of jobs for Queensland. I look forward to working with the Queensland minister going forward. It might be noted, in the spirit of bipartisanship, that I had a long conversation with Mark Bailey to that end on the day after the recent Queensland election. I'm willing to work with ministers, from any political persuasion, from state and territory governments to get delivery done.

The shadow minister also asked about claimed underspends and about claimed stalling of certain projects. The shadow minister would know that state and territory governments do the contracting and tendering and essentially run the delivery and the construction of these projects. But I'm happy, as I said before, to work with any state and territory ministers—and they've been working in a good spirit of cooperation, and that's why we've been able to have that national transport freight code to get those trucks through state border closures which have impeded business activities in so many areas, particularly regional areas, during COVID-19.

The shadow minister also raised a point about the Bolivia Hill upgrade. The Australian government funding of $98 million includes $43 million of new money, additional funding, in the 2020-21 budget. This involves the construction of a 320-metre-long bridge, as part of a 2.1-kilometre realignment and widening of the New England Highway. Speaking of the New England Highway, I know how much people are looking forward to that Singleton bypass. I know how much the member for Hunter—such a shame that he's no longer on the frontbench of Labor—will be looking forward to that project, delivered under a Liberal-Nationals government. It probably wouldn't have happened under those opposite, but it is being delivered by this government. (Time expired)

A division having been called in the House—

Sitting suspended 17:16 to 17:29

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Federation Chamber will consider the Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts segment of the Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications portfolio in accordance with the agreed order of consideration.

5:29 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to rise to speak about the government's programs and measures in relation to the Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts portfolio. It has been a very, very busy time, and many of our initiatives are reflected in this year's budget, including the commitment we have made to invest $4.5 billion in the next stage of upgrades to the National Broadband Network. That includes $700 million to establish 240 business fibre zones covering 700,000 premises with access to CBD pricing. That means that for business fibre zones in regional areas—85 of the 240 are in regional areas—those will deliver wholesale price reductions of up to 67 per cent. Some 700,000 business premises are covered by that. Indeed, some 99 per cent of Australian businesses will be able to order an enterprise ethernet connection to no up-front billed cost. This is very important—enterprise ethernet up to one gigabit per second; symmetrical, business grade, business level, service level agreements, and a premium business service.

We're also investing some $3.5 billion to allow eight million premises around the country by 2023 to be able to order a speed of up to one gigabit per second. That includes $2.9 billion to take fibre deeper into the fibre-to-the-node network. That will allow some two million premises which today are served by fibre to the node, including almost one million in regional areas, to order speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second by 2023. We are also committing $400 million to upgrade the HFC network, allowing all 2.5 million residences in the HFC footprint to order gigabit speeds from December 2021.

I emphasise the point that the hybrid fibre coaxial network is able to be upgraded to offer this very substantial increase in speed. This is the very same network that the previous Labor government was proposing to completely scrap—completely junk a network which at that point was 10-15 years old, very modern technology and very much capable of being upgraded. Labor's proposal was to junk it, to scrap it. This is one of the many ways in which we have been much more capital effective.

We are also contributing $100 million to a speed uplift program for the 1.5 million homes served by fibre to the kerb. That will give these homes access to gigabit speeds, through the enablement of what is called capability, by 2023. What we've done here is we've extended the NBN's capabilities in a capital efficient fashion. It's the next stage of growth in the NBN.

But there are many other things that we're doing in the Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts portfolio. We're committing significant funding to support Australian screen content. This year's budget includes $30 million over two years for Screen Australia to support Australian film and television drama, children's and documentary productions, and also $3 million to Screen Australia to cultivate quality Australian screen writing and script development. There's $20 million over two years for the Australian Children's Television Foundation to increase support for the development, production and distribution of quality Australian children's screen content. We're also standardising the producer offset to 30 per cent for producers of Australian film and television. We're removing the outdated distinction between cinema and television in a world where streaming video on demand is completely disrupting the global market for content and creating new opportunities for Australian producers. Our changes to the funding system are designed to support Australian screen producers to go to where the market is. There is a big opportunity with the streaming video on demand services around the world, and we're supporting Australian producers to better seize that opportunity.

We are working to keep Australians safe online, building on our world-leading eSafety Commissioner. In this year's budget we've committed $39.5 million in additional funding for the eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman-Grant, and her office to continue their very important work in protecting Australians against harms online.

We're providing funding to increase the take-up of 5G and particularly to trial different uses of 5G across different industry contexts. That is $29.2 million.

There is a range of other funding in the arts sector—hopefully I will have time to talk about that at more length—but right now I might focus on $22.9 million over one year for eight national cultural institutions.

5:34 pm

Photo of Kristy McBainKristy McBain (Eden-Monaro, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts. My electorate of Eden-Monaro has some of the worst mobile and broadcast black spots, including ABC black spots. You don't have to drive far from this place to experience these dangerous and frustrating black spots.

We saw during last year's devastating bushfires that reliable coverage can make all the difference in a crisis. That is why I'm committed to improving mobile coverage across Eden-Monaro, with a particular focus on community black spots and transport corridors; the installation of power back-up for broadcasting transmission facilities, so they work for longer during natural disasters; providing essential facilities and providers across our region with satellite phones, power generators and satellite NBN so they can stay connected during emergencies; and improving broadcast coverage across Eden-Monaro, with a focus on ABC local radio black spots in areas of high bushfire risk. Communities across Eden-Monaro shouldn't have to wait any longer for this to happen.

Back in September I wrote to the minister about the loss of the SBS signal in the town of Bermagui. Overnight, more than 1,500 people lost access to SBS and NITV without any warning. The company maintaining the transmission site was doing so for free and couldn't afford to keep footing the bill. As a result of this government's inaction, the broadcasters have been forced to pay an extra $600,000 per year to run these transmission sites. How many programs, services or jobs will the ABC and SBS need to cut to fill this $600,000 hole? This is simply not good enough, and regional Australians deserve better from this government.

It is shameful that the minister is cutting ABC funding and refusing ABC proposals for enhanced service provision in regional Australia. The Morrison government rejected an ABC proposal to invest tens of millions of dollars in regional services and emergency broadcasting capabilities. By refusing to reverse the $83.7 million worth of cuts to the ABC, the government has short-changed regional Australia when it comes to vital news and emergency broadcasting services. These revelations expose the utter hypocrisy of the Morrison government when it comes to regional Australia and keeping Australians safe.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, several government sources have confirmed that Mr Fletcher did not reply to the letter, nor did he discuss the proposal with the ABC or his National Party colleagues, who have constantly raised concerns over the future of regional media outlets following a spate of natural disasters, including last summer's fires. It beggars belief that The Nationals did not know about these proposals. Regional media is in crisis and has been pushed to the brink of market failure on the seven-year watch of this inept Liberal-National government.

In June last year, the ACCC delivered a report to government which warned that news deserts are emerging in Australia and that public broadcasters are not adequately resourced to fill the breach. Since then, the devastating closure of hundreds of regional and community newspapers means there is an increasing and urgent need for ABC news gathering. What's more, evidence to the bushfire royal commission made it clear that ABC local radio broadcast network resilience is an area of need which the government has neglected.

This government makes a lot of saying that the ABC doesn't do enough for regional Australia, even as it cuts ABC funding. ABC emergency coverage saved lives during the summer bushfires, and staff came off leave to ensure Australians were kept informed. This year, over 200 dedicated ABC staff faced the sack during a recession and a pandemic, as a result of the Liberal-National government's cuts.

Minister, when will the government act to make these vital improvements to regional communication? When will the government improve mobile coverage across Eden-Monaro; ensure the ABC and SBS are funded to maintain regional transmission services, previously maintained by a private company for free; ensure broadcast transmission sites in regional Australia are hardened to ensure resilience during bushfire; reverse its short-sighted and dangerous cuts to the ABC; and support local news and emergency broadcasting in regional Australia, including in my seat of Eden-Monaro?

5:38 pm

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker, Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to speak on regional communications and the proposals and projects that are in the budget under that portfolio. In March last year, the government announced $220 million in the Stronger Regional Digital Connectivity Package. That is a comprehensive response to the telecommunications review of 2018.

In reference to the previous member's questions, I will touch on some of them but I will let my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts also address some of them. Because the member is new, she might not know the history in this place and might know that there was not a mobile phone black spot program until 2013 and that, since that time, we've funded just over 1,200 base stations. The latest round, announced in April last year, has funded 182 base stations, and those base stations that have been funded under the Mobile Black Spot Program have fielded 44,000 triple 0 calls. That's just the towers that were funded under this program.

I understand the traumatic time the member and her community had; I was speaking to her during that time. The minister might want to go further, but we've actually identified the issue with telecommunications and bushfires, and that's why we've got the $37 million program to harden up bushfire-prone areas for mobile coverage. It has identified that communication during fires is an issue. It's not just mobile coverage but landlines, largely because electricity generation goes out. Of the black spot towers we've funded, 883 are on air now; they are switched on—100 since the beginning of this year. Since the fires, we've switched on towers in bushfire located areas at Wyndham and Cathcart in south-east New South Wales, Megalong Valley and Macdonald Valley in the Blue Mountains, and Berringama and Manorina in eastern Victoria.

In the next couple of weeks, we will be calling for applications for round 5 of the black spot program. Round 5 will be different. We are looking at more innovative models to get into harder-to-fit areas. I'm sure the member's electorate has that topography, with lower population and difficult topography. Round 5 will improve coverage in national disaster prone areas along transport corridors.

We're trialling new technologies so that we can actually go that extra mile in harder-to-fit areas. The Regional Connectivity Program, in conjunction with the extra $30 million in the budget, is now an $83 million program. The Regional Connectivity Program is looking at innovative ways to deliver data and voice into regional areas, partnering with local communities, local government, telecommunication providers and business. We are in the process; those applications are open. We did extend it, I think, to 17 November. Next week that will come to a close and we will be assessing those projects. We understand that the black spot program has done a wonderful job, but we need to show innovation to get into harder-to-reach areas.

The other thing that we are funding is the Digital Technologies Hub. As someone who lives in a regional area, I know that a lot of the problem is that a lot of the people do not know what is out there to help them. The National Farmers Federation was successful in the tender to deliver the tech hub over three years. People can ring up. They can email. They can get sensible advice from someone who knows what they're talking about to help them overcome some of the telecommunications issues that they have. I think that's something that's following on from the great work that Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia have done over the years.

Finally, there is the Alternative Voice Services Trials Program. Some of the technology is coming to the end of its life of servicing more remote areas. We've funded some trials to look at what might be the next form of technology to replace those radio loops and other places in harder-to-fit areas.

5:43 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to ask the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts about the dire situation facing the arts and music communities across Australia. These sectors have been absolutely smashed in the onslaught of COVID-19. Shows were cancelled. Venues were shut. Live audiences evaporated overnight and income streams stopped dead. To add to that painful scenario, a huge number of artists, musicians, writers, dancers and road crews were ineligible for the JobKeeper wage subsidies.

Labor called for an emergency support package back in March, but for more than 100 days you insisted there was no problem. On 25 June, you finally relented and announced a $250 million emergency arts package, and on 11 October, some three months later, you told the ABC that this money was already flowing. But we found out in Senate estimates that this is absolutely untrue. Not a single dollar has reached struggling artists and musicians. This is hurting the arts sector in my community of Newcastle.

I acknowledge that, while the federal government has been missing in action, some great work has been done locally. In particular, I want to give a shout-out to the state member for Newcastle, Tim Crakanthorp, and the City of Newcastle for the terrific job they're doing in supporting musicians and the live music venues to restore a vibrant, sustainable live music scene following the pandemic. There are some fantastic initiatives helping to build momentum to get the activities back online. The Olive Tree Market, Makers and Traders of Newcastle, Independent Galleries, Newcastle FAD Sessions, the Newcastle Museum and the Newcastle Art Gallery have all done a superb job in creating a COVID-safe alternative pathway for the arts community to continue their practices and reach audiences. So, despite the many blows that have been dealt, artists have continued to entertain us, offer us hope, and foster connections and community.

Minister, why did you falsely tell the media that the emergency arts funding had been delivered? When will the artists and musicians in Newcastle see any of the support you promised and they so desperately need? Is this just another example of a Liberal government announcement with no follow-through?

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I believe that, by agreement, the member for Newcastle will give the remainder of her time to the member for Fremantle. Is that correct?

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I give the call to the member for Fremantle.

5:46 pm

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I would also like the minister to explain and justify the government's approach to the arts and creative sector—its apparent vendetta against the arts and creative sector. It's been part of their heroes-and-villains approach throughout their government. For some reason, the coalition don't value the arts. They don't regard creative industries as real businesses and they don't regard artists as real workers, never mind the fact that the sector employs 645,000 Australians and generates $111 billion annually; never mind the fact that arts and creative industries were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Instead, under this government, workers were designed out of the JobSeeker program. There's been no effective targeted support. Even the artists the government used in media events have gone empty-handed, which is remarkable. It does tell you something: even in the cases where the government have made announcements like the Location Incentive scheme, they cannot bring themselves to talk about the people who actually work in that sector. They focus on electricians and carpenters, which are important tradespeople and they are important jobs, but would it kill the government, the Prime Minister and the minister to actually mention filmmakers, screenwriters, producers, stunt people and actors? Would it kill them to mention the people who actually work in this industry? Can these workers not be spoken about for any reason? There is only enduring antipathy from the government to those workers.

The minister should know that creative industries ought to be a foundation block in the broad task of building new jobs and even new export opportunities in the future, and yet the government treat the businesses and the workers in the sector with disregard and neglect. They've run down the Australia Council. They've relentlessly cut our public broadcasters. They were elected on a promise by the Prime Minister not to cut the ABC, and they've done that at every term. They've doubled the cost of studying arts and humanities and they've comprehensively ignored the specific needs of the arts and creative industries in their pandemic response. Minister, why is the government going out of its way to make life harder for creative industry workers, Australian storytellers and songwriters, filmmakers and artists, when they've been acutely affected through the pandemic and, really, they should be a key focus of our COVID-19 recovery?

5:48 pm

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As someone with a longstanding interest in this portfolio, I'm really pleased to see the Morrison government's commitment to strengthening our economy, creating jobs and supporting our households and communities through the investment in Australia's communications sector that we see in this budget. The National Broadband Network is providing broadband to millions of Australian households and business, including in my electorate of Robinson, where NBN connectivity has enabled productivity gains that allow us to keep pace with the world.

I want to take a moment to talk about further investment in the NBN through the rollout of business fibre zones, as well as regional telecommunications through the Regional Connectivity Program, which will see more businesses and households able to access reliable and fast broadband. Two hundred and forty business fibre zones will be set up across Australia, providing 90 per cent of businesses with access to business-grade fibre at no upfront build cost, a $70 million investment over the next three years which will involve the establishment of 85 business fibre zones in regional centres, including, importantly, two in my electorate of Robertson. Businesses in these business fibre zones will also be eligible for CBD-equivalent wholesale pricing, meaning businesses outside of major cities can access wholesale discounts of up to 67 per cent on their broadband. This will go a long way to eliminating the divide between metropolitan and regional areas in terms of broadband connectivity costs, as well as incentivising businesses to either move to or start in regional Australia, and I certainly hope we do see more businesses established on the Central Coast.

This rollout will allow business to have access to the NBN's highest-quality business-grade service, with businesses provided a choice of symmetrical speeds from 10 megabits per second to close to one gigabit per second. Under this program, businesses located in suburbs like Erina, Gosford, Kincumber, Kariong, Niagara Park, West Gosford and Woy Woy will be able to request a business-grade broadband service at no upfront build cost, through their retailer. I know this rollout has been broadly welcomed by chambers of commerce and business operators operating on the Central Coast. I have spoken in the House before about many business owners, including Rod Dever, who has welcomed the policy from the Erina/Gosford & Coastal Chamber of Commerce, as one that he sees as rectifying the connectivity issues experienced by businesses in the region. There will also be an opportunity for local governments and other organisations to work with NBN Co to explore future areas to become business fibre zones, through a $50 million facilitation fund.

Another initiative that I'm really pleased to see and that I know will benefit the Central Coast community is the new Regional Connectivity Program, which is aimed at improving broadband connectivity in areas outside the NBN fixed-line footprint, complementing the highly successful Mobile Black Spot Program. This $83 million program uses a bespoke place based approach to target investment in areas which are priorities of local regional communities and maximises the economic opportunities, which means that suburbs in my electorate of Robertson, from Somersby to Kulnura, from Gunderman to Mangrove Mountain, are eligible for funding under this program. I know there has been significant interest in this from local communities, industries and state governments from across Australia seeking to apply for funding and to come up with projects which will suit their community needs. I understand that the deadline for applications for this has been extended by a couple of weeks, until 17 November 2020. I would be interested in hearing more about this program from the minister and also the business fibre zones and the Regional Connectivity Program, which of course build on the support delivered by the government earlier this year to help the Australian communications, cybersecurity and the arts sectors through the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes $33 million to Screen Australia to support Australian local film and television content, $5 million in additional funding towards the Public Interest News Gathering program, around $40 million in new funding to the eSafety Commissioner and $23 million to eight arts portfolio agencies impacted by the pandemic. These vital investments in communications infrastructure across the country will improve connectivity and increase the reliability of our communications network. We know that communications infrastructure, of course, does play a critical role in regional and rural Australia, including across the Central Coast. I'm really pleased to see what the government is doing in this regard. Could the minister please further elaborate on the benefits that some of the initiatives that I've outlined will bring, particularly to regional and rural communities across Australia?

5:53 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts. Last September in this place, in reference to the terrorist atrocity committed by an Australian citizen in Christchurch and warnings about the rise of right-wing extremism, online hate speech and racism in Australia, I asked the minister what steps he had taken, including in consultation with the Attorney-General and other relevant ministers, to address the issue of online racism in Australia. I asked the minister if he would ensure that Australians, including Australians of Muslim faith, are kept safe online, by amending the e-safety act or by driving the adoption of an EU-style code of conduct for countering illegal hate speech online. The minister responded by saying:

… I make the point that we are committed to introducing a new online safety act …

More recently, and in response to the circulation of a graphic suicide video on social media, including on TikTok and Facebook, once again the minister spruiked the forthcoming online safety act that does not yet exist. Minister, if you are so committed to introducing a new online safety act to keep Australians safe, why have you failed to introduce a new online safety act over a year later, and when is it coming?

5:54 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me begin with the member for Eden-Monaro, who asked questions about mobile coverage. She informed the House of her commitment to reliable coverage. The government shares that commitment, and we welcome Labor's latter-day conversion to this cause—a cause in which they showed zero interest over their six years in government. Thanks to the Mobile Black Spot Program, which the Liberal-National government delivered and which is now being very capably administered by my friend and colleague the Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government, I can advise the House that to date 34 base stations have been funded in Eden-Monaro, of which 21 have been delivered in Anglers Reach, Araluen, Avonside, Adelong, Bodalla, Central Tilba, Delegate, Mannus, Nerriga, Nethercote, Numeralla, Tomboye, Towamba, Barragga Bay, Wee Jasper, Tathra, Forbes Creek, Muzzlewood trail, Rosewood and Yass River. I make the point that each one of these mobile base stations that have been completed provides connectivity to local residents. It gives them greater assurance of safety in the case of a road accident, a natural disaster or a farm accident, and of course it allows people to stay in touch and do business. How many of these would have been delivered if the matter had been left to the Australian Labor Party? The answer is zero. So I welcome the member for Eden-Monaro's latter-day conversion to this cause. It's a cause that our government has been very serious about since 2013, and we say to all who want to get on the train with us: you are very welcome.

I was also asked about SBS coverage in Bermagui. The member is right to identify that there was an issue in relation to the loss of an SBS signal in Bermagui linked to matters to do with a company called RBAH and whether SBS and ABC would make commitments to support maintenance costs. I'm pleased to say that the SBS signal is back on the air in Bermagui. That's because our government pursued the matter with SBS and ABC and indicated to them that we expect those organisations to pay their fair share towards the cost of maintenance for these transmission facilities. The member is relatively new. She appears not to have had the chance to look at the numbers in relation to ABC funding, so I remind her that in 2018-19 the ABC received $1,045 million, in 2019-20, $1,062 million, the following year, $1,065 million, and the following year, $1,070 million. So it is not right to say that ABC funding is dropping. ABC funding is increasing—

Mr Josh Wilson interjecting

I hear the member for Fremantle interjecting. If you'd care to look at what happened to the CPI in 2019-20, you will find that the CPI went down, so the increase in real terms was even bigger than the increase in nominal terms.

While I'm on the case for the member for Fremantle, the member for Fremantle ran a ludicrous claim that in some way the government do not understand or accept the importance of the arts as a sector of our economy. On the contrary, we have announced almost $800 million in funding for the arts in addition to $750 million in business-as-usual funding, including $400 million in the location incentive. This is already attracting substantial international productions to Australia such as Young Rock, Joe Exotic, and Irreverentall to film in Queensland. That's a thousand jobs in Queensland, and there will be jobs around Australia. We recently announced that Liam Neeson is coming to Australia to film a production, again supported through the location incentive.

Of course we have committed funding of $50 million under the Temporary Interruption Fund. The member for Newcastle, I think, incorrectly said that no money had flowed. In fact, that money has been allocated, and the consequence is that productions are already occurring. Film and television productions are already occurring. Some 20 have received commitments. Around eight are already in production. That's Australians in film and television hard at work. Again, I welcome the member's reminder to the House of the economic importance of the arts sector. Our government is very committed to that. That's why we have committed such a very substantial amount of funding to the arts sector. We will continue to support that sector, as we have throughout this COVID pandemic.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

6:00 pm

Photo of Melissa PriceMelissa Price (Durack, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a pleasure to be here today. The primary job of our government is to keep Australians safe, and the Morrison government is committed to doing just that. That's why we're building a stronger defence industry and investing in Australia's defence capability over the next decade. We are ensuring that the men and women of the Australian Defence Force have the capability they need to be able to keep Australians safe. At the same time, we're creating many, many jobs and backing Australian businesses to deliver this essential capability.

Last month the Treasurer announced the Morrison government's economic road to recovery, with the most significant business incentives ever delivered by any Australian government. The benefits for small, medium and large businesses in defence industry are unprecedented. We are kickstarting the engine of the Australian economy so that we can create more jobs. The Morrison government is now investing $575 billion over the next decade in the Defence portfolio. This is an historic and ambitious plan that we have chosen to embark on, even in the face of the challenges caused by COVID-19. Our defence budget for the next decade is about supporting the strengthening of our Defence Force and our defence industry, and as our strategic environment changes we need to adapt.

Out of the $575 billion spend, we will be investing $270 billion in our defence capability. This investment allows us to deliver the capabilities our men and women in uniform deserve. In our defence budget over the next decade we'll be investing $7 billion in space capabilities. This will allow us to invest in upgrades and support to existing and future satellite communication systems that will be under sovereign Australian control. This will transform the way that the ADF operates in space across the joint force. We will also be investing $15 billion in information and cybercapability. This will enhance our defensive and offensive cybercapabilities. This will ensure that we have the ability to develop these capabilities on operations so that defence can deter and respond to cyberthreats. To encourage and support Aussie ingenuity we will also invest just under $1 billion on the Defence Innovation Hub and more than $1 billion on the Next Generation Technologies Fund. We need this investment in emerging technologies so that we can ensure defence will have the capability it needs to address its future threats. We will continue to invest in our Naval Shipbuilding Plan. We are building our future ships right here in Australia, creating 15,000 Australian jobs right across the country. The investment is here, the opportunities are here and we are transforming the way that we do business with industry.

We are on the right track and we are delivering the budget certainty that defence and industry need for the future. To keep the wheels of defence industry turning, since 23 March 2020 Defence has paid almost 300,000 invoices, valued at $22 million. Of this, more than $16 billion has been paid early. We know that these early payments are flowing through to Australian small businesses. As a response to the global pandemic, we're rolling out $1 billion in defence recovery initiatives to keep the defence industry strong on the road ahead. In addition to this, we're releasing $870 million of estate works to the market to bolster defence industry recovery. We're doing this to back those local tradies and local suppliers to do the work on our defence forces. As I'm sure you will appreciate, Mr Deputy Speaker Gillespie, this is particularly important in the regions.

We are placing small business front and centre of defence decision-making. The important work of our Defence Force can only succeed with the help of the thousands of Australians and Australian businesses in our defence industry. Why? Because we know small business is the backbone of our economy. By backing small business, we are investing in local jobs, jobs that are crucial in keeping the wheels of industry turning. There are some 15,000 businesses and almost 70,000 Australians employed in our defence industry, and this number is growing. We are very proud of the Morrison government's investment of $270 billion in our defence capability.

6:05 pm

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

My questions concern this government's addiction to playing politics with Australia's defence and national security. There's an awful lot of talk about future capability, but there's very little delivery of present reality. For some time now it has been Labor's view that Australia is confronting the most difficult set of strategic circumstances since the Second World War, and it would appear that the government agrees with this. The 2020 Defence strategic update makes clear that Australia faces an increasingly uncertain strategic environment, and yet, when one examines what the government is actually doing in terms of responding to these challenges, when one looks at the capability acquisitions that turn important words into hard reality, what one sees is seven years of politically motivated decisions and mismanagement by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in respect of our future submarines. As the defence minister rightly said, 'Our submarine capability underpins Australia's credibility and influence as a modern military power.' That observation is exactly right, and yet on every metric the government has mismanaged this acquisition. Take the time frame: the Abbott government said the future submarines were needed by the mid-2020s, and now the first one won't be operational until 2035, a decade later than was originally promised. Such is the government's laserlike focus on this project, the defence minister herself was a decade out in naming the date on which the last of the 12 future submarines would come into operation, and in the interim the government has still not made a decision about the location of full-cycle docking and the life-of-type-extension work on the Collins class submarine, work that is essential to avoiding a capability gap. This is despite the minister promising that an announcement would be made by the end of 2019, and now the minister won't even commit to that decision being made before the next election.

When we look at local content, we again see more broken promises. Prior to the 2016 federal election, the government loudly proclaimed that there would be a 90 per cent Australian build in relation to the submarines. After the election, they couldn't retreat from that claim fast enough, saying that there would instead be a 60 per cent local build, and, when it came to putting their money where their mouth is, they failed to include any minimum content requirement in the strategic partnership agreement in respect of the future submarines. Now they want credit for a commitment that 60 per cent of the value of Naval Group's contract will be spent locally. This is a commitment that counts language training, conferences and hotels as local content, a commitment they announced over eight months ago and are yet to successfully negotiate into the strategic partnership agreement.

When it comes to the question of cost, for years this government has said that this is a $50 billion project. It was not until late last year that this sleight of hand was fully exposed, and what we learnt in recent weeks was that the government chose to hide a $30 billion increase for three years because it was an inconvenient truth—a wicked attempt to hide from the public and the parliament the inconvenient fact of a cost increase that has climbed by nearly $40 billion to a total acquisition cost of nearly $90 billion, an 80 per cent increase over the original amount. They've done the same thing with the future frigates, hiding a $10 billion blowout for two years while issuing press releases with costs they knew were wrong. That's the regard this lot have for taxpayers' money and the truth: $30 billion here, $10 billion there and no truth anywhere. And because of this government's mismanagement and failure to be upfront, there is now a crisis of confidence in the Future Submarine project—a direct result of seven years of putting their political interests ahead of the national interest.

We now have a wicked problem, which is that the first of the future submarines is 15 years away, the last is 34 years away, and yet this is the single most important acquisition in respect of shaping our strategic circumstances going forward. When you look at each of the metrics—when you look at time, when you look at Australian industry content and when you look at cost—this project is going in the wrong direction in every respect. What this country needs is for this government to stand up and actually explain to the Australian people how this critical capability is going to be put on target, and how this is going to occur. But what we hear from this mob is absolutely nothing. They are making our country less safe.

6:10 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to have the opportunity to raise some issues with the Minister for Defence Industry with regard to the Australian government's commitment to and investment in the defence industry. I particularly note that I'm asking this question on the eve of Remembrance Day, and I take this opportunity to pay my respects and give thanks to all defence personnel, past and present, for their service and contribution to our country.

As the minister knows, my electorate is home to the SAS at the Campbell Barracks in Swanbourne, and many of their families live in the nearby Seaward Village area and play a vital role in our local community. The Irwin Barracks in Karrakatta, home of the 13th Brigade Army Reserves formation of the Australian Army, is also a part of my electorate. And I note, just for a little bit of history, that the Royal Agricultural Society's showgrounds in Claremont were the proving ground and training base for the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment, which served in the Great War, from Gallipoli to Damascus, from 1915 to 1919. Of course, WA is also home to many other facilities for the Defence Force, with Army, RAAF and Navy facilities, and today WA is home to close to 7,800 defence personnel, including permanent ADF and Reserve members and Australian Public Service employees. This number is forecast to grow over the coming years.

Our state of WA plays a vital role in ensuring that this government can fulfil its primary job of keeping Australians safe. But, to do that, we also need to make sure that the men and women of the Australian Defence Force have the capabilities they need to keep Australians safe. This includes comprehensive skills and training, efficient and modern equipment, and advanced technology, which encompasses intelligence and space capability. To that end, I just want to spend a little moment highlighting a company in my electorate, a company called Chironix. This company, which was founded by Daniel Milford, is at the forefront of rapid deployment and management of autonomous robots and digital wearables. This company is playing an important role in the defence and resources sector by optimising and integrating new software into existing technologies, allowing them to work more effectively. An example of the work they are doing is a project called Project Simpson, which is being done with the US Office of Naval Research, and it's to develop and demonstrate a technology that will significantly improve outcomes for casualties in the field.

Project Simpson is named in honour of the Anzac stretcher-bearer Jack Simpson, and will integrate three cutting-edge technologies that will allow a single medic to provide a casualty with lifesaving treatment, monitor key vital signs hands-free, and evacuate the casualty to a field hospital. An all-terrain ground vehicle will be programmed to autonomously navigate the patient to safety—the modern-day Simpson's donkey. This will be integrated with a vital signs monitor that will display key information to the attending through a Glass for Enterprise heads-up display unit, while emergency treatment will be delivered through an automated critical care system. Now, I know that Chironix is not the only company or enterprise in WA that is working in the defence sector, but, to me, the forward thinking and innovation shown by Daniel and the team at Chironix highlight what we are capable of here in Australia. We have the brains, we have the talent, but we need to support and encourage it.

Minister, I'm aware that the policies for investment in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan will make the ADF more capable for a wide range of scenarios Australia will face in the future. I'm also aware that the Australian government is committed to building a stronger defence industry, and investing $270 billion in Australia's defence capability over the next decade. But I want to know how we are going to support our local brains, our local talent and our local people—our non-defence people—to be involved in this and benefit from this. So my question to the minister is: can you please outline how the Morrison government's unprecedented investment in the defence industry is driving innovation and creating Australian jobs, including and especially in my home state of Western Australia?

6:15 pm

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

Since the coalition came to office we've had 24 different ministers across the defence portfolio. This record of ministerial instability is having real impacts on Australia's national security. It is a record of a lack of leadership and broken promises when it comes to the delivery of major defence projects. What is the result of this incompetence? On the latest data, there are 31 major defence projects running a total of 83 years late. Let me repeat that: 31 major defence projects running a total of 83 years late. These are new weapons, vehicles, aircraft, ships and equipment that the Australian Defence Force personnel need to do their jobs. For example, the $3.8 billion MRH-90 helicopters are running more than seven years late in achieving final operational capability. And last month we learnt that the MRH-90s can't fire their weapons at the same time as troops are roping in or out of the cabins, which is a serious problem in a helicopter which is supposed to be used by Special Forces—all because the Howard government botched this project at the outset and because the current defence minister failed to get back on track.

And it's not just the MRH-90s. The $1.4 billion project to acquire 10 new battlefield airlift aircraft is running three years late. It has been revealed that these battlefield airlifters would not be able to fly into battlefields. Just think about that: this government is spending $1.5 billion on battlefield airlift aircraft that can't even fly into battlefields. The $5.4 billion project to acquire 12 P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol aircraft is running two years late—which has implications for defence and border protection operations—and the $1.1 billion upgrade to the Jindalee Operational Radar Network is running 18 months late. This is a key early-warning capability for the ADF.

The first responsibility of any Australian government is to protect the security of our people. That requires a well equipped Defence Force with the resources it needs to defend Australia and advance our national interests. From the opposition's point of view, there will be a bipartisan approach to the fundamentals of defence policy, but we will always hold the government to account for its performance and accountable for the mismanagement of defence projects, which make it is harder for Australian soldiers, sailors and air crews to do their jobs.

The latest budget papers show not only mismanagement but also broken promises by this government when it comes to investing in defence equipment. Defence's PBS shows that the Morrison government spent nearly $6.7 billion less than it promised on new defence equipment since 2016. Let me repeat that: a $6.7 billion cut. And $5.7 billion of the $6.7 billion shortfall is in major capital investments, such as the JSF, the future frigates and offshore patrol vessels. These are key projects that are missing out on funding that was promised by the Morrison government in the 2016 defence paper.

The government likes to boast about its defence investments but the reality falls way short of the rhetoric: 31 projects running a total of 83 years late; and investment in defence projects $6.7 billion less than promised; and consistent underperformance on sustainment, where Navy availability is 14 per cent lower, RAAF availability is 21 per cent lower, and helicopter availability at 26 per cent lower in terms of hours. This is all typical of a Prime Minister who cares more about marketing than delivery and who is always there for the photo op but never there for the follow-up. But they are nowhere to be seen when it comes to spending what they promised in delivering defence projects on time and in line with the capabilities needed by Australian Defence Force personnel.

So my question to the minister is: why has this government underspent its promised defence capital budget by $6.7 billion since 2016-17?

What Defence projects have been, delayed, scaled back or cancelled due to these broken promises? To the Minister for Defence Industry specifically: at this consideration in detail last year she said that her job was to deliver projects on budget, on spec and on time. So given this appalling performance, will the minister resign? Or will she just let the Prime Minister sack her in the reshuffle later this year? Will she just let the Prime Minister do the work when he reshuffles in a month's time? Will the Prime Minister do the job for her, or will she have the honour to honour her commitment from last year, when she said her job was to deliver projects on spec, on time and on budget? She has clearly failed. She should resign.

Hon. Members:

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Members are reminded to show a bit of decorum.

An honourable member interjecting

Both sides have to speak. It goes both ways.

6:20 pm

Photo of Alex HawkeAlex Hawke (Mitchell, Liberal Party, Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm happy to add to update the House on the vital contribution defence is making to the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region and congratulate the work of my colleague the Minister for Defence Industry on the capability work that she is doing to ensure we have that capability ready to defend our region. She is doing a fantastic job.

We announced our Pacific Step-up in 2018. It has been regarded by the world as one of the most important step-ups in Australian history. It's at the epicentre of an increasingly complex and contested geostrategic environment. Two years later we face a post-COVID world that is poorer, more perilous and more contested than we could have foreseen two years ago. Our region has been hit hard by the economic impacts. I can attest to that form the conversations I've had in our region.. The geostrategic circumstances in our region are getting more challenging. not less. That's why we're investing in a capable and potent defence force. A strong, capable, properly funded defence force is critical to Australia's security and prosperity.

The Morrison Government, members opposite will be pleased to know, has delivered on our commitment to grow the defence budget to two per cent of GDP. It needed to be restored from record lows under the previous governments. The figures—if the member for Shortland wanted to hear them, but he has stepped out—are that this government is investing $575 billion in defence over 10 years, a record spend for an Australian government, $270 billion of which is capability acquisition. That is $270 billion in capability.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update builds on the Pacific Step-up, of course—it has been a great success and has been received well in the sector—by focusing defence on our immediate region. The priorities of Australia are our immediate region. The Pacific Step-up and the strategic update put us in a stronger position to support our Pacific neighbours and our South-East Asian partners throughout the pandemic. The Morrison Government is delivering support that is COVID-safe and recovery focused. I am pleased to say that our personnel are working side by side with their counterparts throughout the Pacific Islands and in the region. During the height of the pandemic, when many were leaving the Pacific, I've made the point that Australia made the important decision to remain and assist and help out our Pacific family. It has been well received. The transformation of Fiji's Blackrock facilities is a great example of how we are getting on with the job in a COVID-safe way during the pandemic. We're also working in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu on regional projects that are defence based. These projects are expected to create around 350 jobs in PNG, 555 in Fiji and 178 jobs in Vanuatu, with more to come. Never have these jobs been more needed than at this time.

We're investing an additional $124 million for security infrastructure, including for border and patrol boat outposts for the Solomon Islands. I've seen the economic and security benefits that our defence engagement has made for island communities in the Pacific. It is essential to security for our region.

A centrepiece of Australia's defence engagement in the South Pacific is of course the Pacific Maritime Security Program, a program which the Minister for Defence Industry is very familiar with. Under this $2 billion program, Australia is replacing our existing Guardian class patrol boats with the 21 Pacific patrol boats—new, larger, capable vessels supported by integrated aerial surveillance. Over the last two months we have worked with our partners and friends in COVID-free countries Palau and Tonga to hand over the new Guardian class patrol boats in Perth on 18 September and 30 October. I'm grateful to the member for Durack, who was able to assist with the handovers during the internal restrictions. We've safely brought their crews to Australia; we've taken them through the intensive training that they required; and we've been able to ensure that those crews have returned in country and those boats have continued to operate, fighting the good fight against illegal fishing, securing territorial waters and making sure that we have a secure and safe region. The Guardian class patrol boats are a great success story for Australia's growing defence industry, supporting about 400 direct and indirect Australian jobs.

The Morrison government understands we will need to bring together all our efforts to support the Pacific and help them recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and that is what I am doing. Sitting across multiple portfolios, bringing defence international development into a cohesive strategic initiative has of course—it's something I will speak about tomorrow in more detail. Our partnerships for recovery and our country specific plans, tied in with our defence cooperation programs and other defence programs, have made a big difference at this critical time. Our efforts have been well received by our Pacific family. It's in our national interests to keep investing and building security and stability in our region. I endorse this appropriation.

6:25 pm

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

This government is AWOL on developing and supporting Australian industry capability through its major defence projects. They've completely torpedoed our Australian industry overall. This government has failed to implement, or indeed articulate, strong, measurable, enforceable Australian industry capability requirements in its major defence project contracts. The more the Australian government supports our defence industry the better that industry can grow its export markets, its support for our Defence Force, and the better off our Defence Force is.

So far there has been a lack of enforceability of any contractual requirements imposed on prime defence contractors and suppliers to ensure that they meet their Australian industry capability planned commitments, nor has there been any real effort to ensure that this work actually contributes to the development of our sovereign defence industry capability. It's up to the federal government to implement contractual requirements that compel defence primes to do the work here in Australia, to work with our local companies, to do it now, to build our smaller businesses in defence into being medium-sized businesses, to help support those medium-sized businesses to become Australian primes. The lack of such requirements is significantly impacting on our local industry. I just came from a video conference with local industry this afternoon about these very issues. All of this is at a time when local jobs are desperately needed. We are denying our nation capability development that we dearly need.

It's not good enough to see these contracts continually sent offshore to offshore suppliers already engaged by primes, without local consideration of local companies, or where it's just a fig leaf—companies are spoken to, but never given the actual contracts. When this government does bow to pressure though, to say that it will implement specific requirements, we find that it starts counting French language classes, security guards, travel agents as part of its Australian industry capability requirement. That's not a capability. What happened to spending that money on locally produced batteries, on making sure that the switchboards are being made here in Australia? No, we're not seeing that from this government. We need a plan from this government, not just another press release.

Strategically it makes sense for defence build, sustainment, maintenance and repair work to be occurring here in Australia for our Defence Force, and to do that as much as possible, as well as to support our friends and allies here in Australia that're operating in our region. But this government is still on light duties. They're claiming that they're working on it, that they're getting the job done. This mob have been in government for seven years.

We have the skills here in Australia. We have a willing labour force. We've got the facilities to create an Australian defence industry and develop greater sovereign capability, but this subpar government is failing to deliver. They are about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. They're happy with a headline but it's without any delivery. Australian businesses must be factored in to defence projects' supply chains from the very beginning—in the design phase. The longer we let this go on the more at risk Australian businesses, jobs and skills become, which are all fundamental to supporting our Defence Force and our national interest.

Why won't this government follow Labor's lead and implement measurable, enforceable, audited and transparent Australian industry capability requirements in all of its major defence project contracts?

6:29 pm

Photo of Melissa McIntoshMelissa McIntosh (Lindsay, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister will be really pleased to know that, because of her hard work in defence industry, in the heart of an industrial area in Penrith there is a manufacturer building some of the most advanced electrical components of the Army's Boxer reconnaissance vehicles. The tactical edge servers being produced by GPC Electronics in Jamisontown are a key part of the battle space communications systems that keep our Defence Force safe when they're in the field. Australian-made, and particularly Australian-made in Lindsay, means high quality, ensuring our Defence Force has the best capability. It also means creating local jobs. The LAND 400 Phase 2 project of these vehicles is creating 1,400 jobs across Australia. For GPC Electronics, this contract has opened the door for new possibilities in our national defence industry and they're looking forward to expanding their contribution using their high-quality products and capability in advanced electronics. Robert and the team at GPC told me how getting their start with the Boxer vehicles is a critical step to becoming a key part of the defence industry.

By investing in Australian manufacturers, we are creating more local jobs. We are building our sovereign capability and making sure our Defence Force has the high-quality capability that it needs to secure our future. Over the next decade, the Morrison government will invest $270 billion in Australia's capability to build a strong, resilient and sustainable defence industry. Our Defence Export Strategy means our local businesses will be at the forefront to access and explore global opportunities. Australia's reputation for high-quality products is world renowned. In western Sydney, we have a unique opportunity to explore new global markets. Our unprecedented investment in western Sydney is supporting emerging industries in advanced manufacturing, defence and space to showcase their quality to the world. Western Sydney International Airport and the Aerotropolis precinct will open the door for businesses in our community to scale up, take advantage of global opportunities and, most importantly, create local jobs. The airport will be the link for local defence manufacturers to expand their horizons, and the Morrison government's support will help them unlock their potential and take hold of these wonderful emerging opportunities.

Right down the road, on Northern Road, our very own Orchard Hills defence base was awarded $95 million for enhancing the Navy's guided weapons system and delivering new jobs. This project directly supports the work of the Australian Defence Force across our country. Under their Local Industry Capability Plan, the contractor has a local participation target of 95 per cent. That means 95 per cent to local industry within 50 kays. Out of the total of 54 subcontract packages, one has already been let, and that means 34 per cent of the total contract value is already out there. We're delivering programs that will provide $1.3 billion of support for Australian small businesses by helping them develop, integrate and commercialise new capabilities. Just like supporting our Orchard Hills defence base, we're also backing local businesses so they're at the cutting-edge of innovation and industry to create, as I said, the jobs of the future.

The Next Generation Technologies Fund also supports connection and engagement across international science and technology networks, such as the United States Office of Naval Research. Western Sydney University, in my electorate of Lindsay, have been awarded a Global-X grant from the US Office of Naval Research to develop world-first technology, event-based sensing in the underwater environment. This technology will be deployed to the International Space Station in November next year, so the potential of western Sydney truly is out of this world! By pursuing its application in defence, the technology being developed at Western Sydney University's own Penrith campus—Penrith again the centre of manufacturing in our defence industry—will provide Australia's military and its allies with the capability edge that they need across the Indo-Pacific. Our strategy puts western Sydney at the centre of our national defence industry. We're delivering the support for local jobs to allow our businesses to do what they do best. We want them to be deeply involved in all aspects—design, construction, management and sustainment activities—so we have mandated that tenders must demonstrate how they will maximise Australian industry capability over the life of a product. The Morrison government will continue to deliver the support our local businesses, our advanced manufacturers and our defence manufacturers need to bring all this together, strengthen our sovereign capability, drive our economic recovery and create more local jobs. Can the minister please outline how this investment in defence is opening opportunities for these industries and for local jobs?

6:34 pm

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

Earlier in the discussion on this debate today, the Assistant Minister for Defence indicated that he was somehow concerned about Labor's positioning around the financing of these defence projects. I think it's very important that the government understands the nature of these concerns properly. It's very important that he understands the nature of these concerns properly.

When the government fails to deliver on the projects that it says it's committed to, it's our Defence Force that misses out on capability when it needs it. As we heard in Senate estimates only a few weeks ago, the multi-role helicopter that the Liberal government is supposed to have delivered doesn't do any of the things that it's supposed to do. We've got a helicopter that's supposed to be able to provide cover fire for troops entering or leaving the helicopter, but it can't do that at the same time that they're entering or leaving the helicopter. The thing is, even though this government has tried to get that right three times, has tried to get the cargo hook to work and has tried to get the winch to work, the New Zealand version of exactly the same helicopter has all of these things working. This is literally a failure of the government when there's a worked example of how these projects could already be working.

But it comes back to the way this government approaches the role that it does. When we were in consideration in detail in the last budget I asked the Minister for Defence Industry, 'Where is the online update to the IIP?' The IIP says that there are supposed to be online available updates on the progress and changes to the IIP so that industry is aware of where government is going with changes to projects and changes in time frames so that they can be ready to supply government and defence, be able to tool up and be able to get the contracts that we all agree we want to see more Australian businesses getting. The minister said at the time, 'Oh, it is there.' That was her response. But it's not there. It's not online. In fact, the government has specifically said that, despite the fact that it committed to that in 2016, it now wouldn't be doing it at all. In my engagements with industry, on a regular basis they complain: there's a lack of engagement by defence about what's coming up in terms of projects. There's a lack of engagement by defence in terms of what capability local industry can supply to our defence forces in Australia.

There is a lack of engagement because defence has effectively outsourced most of its work when it comes to capability acquisition and sustainment. It's pretty evident now that there's no capability in the capability branch of our Defence Force. There are now more contractors working for defence than there are people working for defence. Contractors in defence are the second-biggest force in the Australian Defence Force. It is ridiculous what has happened under this government. They've outsourced all responsibility. The net effect is that not only are we now wasting all of this money outsourcing the responsibility of the Defence Force and making sure we get good capability, that we sustain that capability and that we maximise the involvement of Australian industry in doing it; we are not providing the benefit that we should be seeing. We're not realising that. But we're seeing delays, we're seeing cost blowouts and we're seeing capability reduced in order to meet the budget outcomes that the government has set, because it would otherwise have huge cost blowouts on delivering its capability.

This is a failure of government. The government is failing to deliver on all of the projects that the member for Shortland outlined before. We have a defence minister who can't actually state within a decade when our future submarines will be fully available to our nation. That is a critical capability for the future defence of our nation. It is highly problematic and concerning if the minister doesn't know when they're going to be capable and ready. She committed to a 60 per cent spend after the government had originally said it would be a 90 per cent Australian spend. It came down to a 60 per cent spend, then it turns out that the 60 per cent spend wasn't even the Australian government's idea; it was the French defence minister's idea to put the 60 per cent in. I'm sure they were very happy with it, because it turns out you can include Australian security guards, French language classes and travel agents being engaged by Naval so that they can fly backwards and forwards to France as part of this project. That's not developing capability.

Photo of Melissa PriceMelissa Price (Durack, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, it is.

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

Travel agents are not a capability, Minister, for our Defence Force! For you to claim that travel agents, security agents and French language lessons are part of our defence capability shows the sham that you and your administration are when it comes to defence and supporting our Defence Force.

6:39 pm

Photo of Melissa PriceMelissa Price (Durack, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

First of all, I thank my colleagues the member for Curtin and the member for Lindsay for their questions and their strong passion for the Australian defence industry. I also thank Minister Hawke, who is no longer with us, for his contribution. There is no question that the Morrison government will continue to deliver on our unprecedented $270 billion investment in our defence capabilities. I'm not sure I'll be dealing with any questions from those opposite, because they couldn't even find enough content and enough material to actually fill the time. So I don't know that I'll be giving that much respect. Our spend is creating jobs and opportunities for businesses right across Australia, in the cities and in the regions.

Out of our 2024 structure plan, $3 billion has been committed to defence innovation, science and technology, including more than $1 billion in the Next Generation Technologies Fund and $800 million which is committed to the Defence Innovation Hub. In addition to this, as part of the $1 billion COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan, our government has provided a $32 million boost to the Defence Innovation Hub over the next two years. This will provide greater support to Australian businesses who are developing state-of-the-art technologies for our ADF, as we heard from the member for Curtin. The benefits of our government's investment in the defence industry, to contribute to defence innovation, are already visible, with the Defence Innovation Hub recording a record number of contracts in 2019-20, a 30 per cent increase on the previous year, with contracts valued at $105 million, with 83 per cent of those contracts awarded to small and medium-sized businesses, resulting in upwards of 600 new jobs.

In my home state of Western Australia, our government has invested close to $8 million in Defence Innovation Hub contracts with Western Australian businesses, including L3 Oceania, from Fremantle, who are developing an underwater acoustic sensor that could provide significant benefits to Navy, and Techventure Investments, from the seat of Pearce, who are developing a new type of ammunition for weapons carried by members of the Australian Defence Force. In addition to this, Defence has also invested upwards of $4 million, through the Next Generation Technologies Fund, in science and technology research activities in Western Australian universities and research networks, including Curtin University, UWA and Edith Cowan University.

In New South Wales our government continues to open new and exciting opportunities for the local tradies, with our commitment to invest over $10 billion over the coming decade into the redevelopment of defence facilities, including the redevelopment of the Garden Island Defence Precinct, the modernisation of the Headquarters Joint Operations Command at Bungendore, and the redevelopment and upgrade of some of our key bases, including HMAS Waterhen, HMAS Watson, HMAS Penguin and Holsworthy Barracks, amongst others.

In the regions, which I know are important to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as they are to me—and I know they are very important to the member for Paterson as well—we will back those regional jobs with redevelopment of the regional sites. I should also include the member for Barker. He's pretty keen on regional jobs as well. Those regional sites that we'll be developing include HMAS Albatross, HMAS Creswell, Blamey Barracks Kapooka, Singleton barracks, RAAF Base Williamtown, which I know is of great importance and is in the heart of the member for Paterson's electorate, and Twofold Bay at Eden. Also, through our government's Local Industry Capability Plan initiative, we will ensure local suppliers, local contractors and tradies, have the opportunity to secure more of this work, creating more jobs for local communities in New South Wales. It is particularly important to recognise, during COVID, that the small tradies have had opportunities that they never got before. The big end of town, the big contractors, had no choice but to give the smaller tradie who lives around the corner, or the baker who lives up the road, an opportunity, and this has been an incredible boost for many, many parts of regional Australia.

I will just comment briefly on the contribution by those opposite. It occurs to me, and, I think, to everybody here, that there is this inconvenient truth for Labor—that the Morrison government has got this commitment of $270 billion in our defence capability, and we are delivering. Regardless of the rubbish that has come out of their mouths today, our government is delivering, and I'm very proud to be the defence industry minister who is delivering on that.

I will finish on: we have a significant order book. Those opposite—what was the expression, member for Barker?

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Didn't give a shit.

Photo of Melissa PriceMelissa Price (Durack, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

'Didn't give a shit'. Thank you.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's a bit unparliamentary, but anyhow. The Federation Chamber will now consider the Veterans' Affairs and defence personnel segments of the Defence portfolio, in accordance with agreed order of consideration. I give the call to the member for Blair.

6:45 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor acknowledge, Minister, that there are some positive initiatives in the budget, and I said that in my response to your statement in parliament, and we welcome the expansion with open arms. We recognise the fact that much of what you have done in terms of the expansion in relation to mental health issues came about after I wrote you a letter in relation to this issue, asking for—as the RSLs have asked for—additional assistance in relation to the coronavirus issues and the consequences of that that have been experienced.

One of the things about the budget that I'm disappointed with is that the government has failed to increase the DVA fees for allied health workers—physiotherapists, occupational therapists and the like. I understood that there had been assurances given to ESOs and to individuals. We on this side of the chamber even heard from some of your colleagues in relation to that, but it wasn't in the budget. One of the things that I found very disappointing, Minister, was the fact that those particular aspects of the physical health of veterans were left off. Occupational therapists and physiotherapists are very important. One of the other issues that we found disturbing in relation to the department was the evidence given in Senate estimates just last week that 80 per cent of claims are taking four to five weeks to allocate and that, alarmingly, it is taking up to 300 days to allocate some initial liability claims. Minister, you boast about the fact that there is an increase in clients at DVA. We applaud the fact that there is greater contact with veterans who may be in major cities or regional towns et cetera, but surely, in view of the fact that there was a program where you were undertaking to increase client contact, you would have expected the department to have been prepared for this. But it looks like the government hasn't done that at all, Minister. Why is that?

In Senate estimates, the DVA revealed that 42 per cent of your workforce has been outsourced through labour hire companies as a result of the government's arbitrary cap on the number of public servants. Minister, would you agree that what you are doing is effectively privatising, outsourcing and labour hiring? Some of the multinational companies that were referred to by your officials in Senate estimates are some of the biggest labour hire companies in the world. The government seems to be losing corporate knowledge and historical context, in terms of the capacity of public servants who are at the coalface of frontline services, and getting in people who may or may not have any experience in delivering frontline services. Minister, are you asking the government to lift the arbitrary cap, and are you going to stop privatising and outsourcing and labour hiring in the department? This is an ongoing problem. We've asked this question again and again during Senate estimates, and each Senate estimates we get the same response from the departmental officials. It's invariably the case that the department is above 40 per cent in terms of labour hire 'employees' in the department. This is a significant problem. The feedback that Labor has been getting from the veterans community, the ESOs and individual veterans is that this is a problem in your department, and you're not fixing it.

This problem has been alluded to in reports. The Productivity Commission report that was released by your government on 2 July 2019 talked about the fact that the whole system was difficult to navigate, out of date and convoluted. It's not going to get any better while you have labour hiring and outsourcing and you don't have experienced, committed full-time public servants at the frontline of service delivery. Minister, I ask that you do something about this. What is your response in relation to that? Do you have any plans to lift the arbitrary cap? What are you going to do about this? Are you going to take up the recommendations of the Productivity Commission report?

I will deal with that issue, Minister, in the time remaining. That report came out on 2 July 2019. You've responded to 25 of the 69 recommendations. Why is it taking you so long to respond? And when are you going to respond positively in relation to it? Why did it take you so long, despite the fact that I asked you questions in question time and we've asked you questions repeatedly in relation to this issue, to rule out changes to the gold card? That created so much uncertainty in the veterans community, so much anxiety and so much confusion. Minister, why couldn't you rule that out straightaway? When are you going to respond to the Productivity Commission report in a timely and fulsome way to give certainty to the veteran community?

6:50 pm

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to ask the minister for veterans affairs one question. It's very personal to me and my family, not only my personal family, but my military family. I served for 20 years in the Australian regular Army, culminating in my position as a sergeant major of the Defence Force School of Signals electronic warfare school in Cabarlah. I've taken those soldiers off the bus as civilians and I've trained them to be soldiers at Kapooka, at the Royal Military College and at a number of training institutions throughout the Australian Army. So I know soldiering. I also understand the toll that soldiering has on our Defence personnel. I understand the commitment that our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen have to the defence of our nation and its interests. I salute that today on the eve of the 11th day of the 11th month.

But to bring this back: after 20 years of service, I can remember my last day in the military, where I stood on a parade ground in front of 300 soldiers that I respected. I knew them like my own family. I knew their families, I knew their aspirations, I knew their dreams. To leave that family that was the Army after 20 years service is an incredible transformation. That's what I want to cover today, Minister. It is that important issue that we have for our Defence personnel in transitioning from the big family that we have as the military, transitioning into their new life. We need to stand by them as they transition through that process to a new life. We need to give them a new purpose, a new family, a new way of life, connect them to the civilian world. We need to articulate the skills and knowledge that they have built up, that we've inculcated in them in that 20 years of service. We need to inculcate that into the civilian job. We need to articulate that into the civilian job so that they can best make that transition and find their way, find their purpose and have a new life.

Minister, I also welcome your assistance and I want to recognise that today, particularly in the great state of Tasmania after I went and saw you early in my tenure here when I was concerned about no-one listening to our veterans in Tasmania. Often government provides a fix, if you like, to try and help our veterans. Often we tell them what they want, rather than asking them what they need. So I welcome the community consultative process that you've been able to fund, Minister, in Tasmania, which is going to be conducted by the University of Tasmania, and I look forward to the recommendations that will come from that and will ultimately help our veterans transition.

I think also that our businesses will play an important part in the way our veterans transcend their move from Defence into civilian life. I would also like feedback from you about how we best integrate our businesses into employing our veterans. I want to make the statement very clearly today that employing a veteran is incredibly good for your business. The loyalty, the honesty, the mission focus, planning process, personnel management, prioritisation of tasks—if a veteran sees a problem in front of him or her, they immediately identify the fault, identify the pathway, get around the problem and continue the mission. It's that same mission focus that can be advantageous once we start moving into the civilian world. So I would like to hear more on that.

Finally, my main question is on transition and the Joint Transition Authority that the government has funded with $17.7 million to help our veterans transition from the big military life into civilians. I'd like to know how this is going to play out and exactly what this means to our veterans on the ground. Ultimately, are we going to stand by them as they make this transition? Are we going to support them into their new way of life? I think this is important. Once they make that transition successfully, I think we will see a decline in the amount of injuries and claims under the Veterans' Entitlement Act. Minister, if you wouldn't mind answering those questions, on behalf of the veteran community, I would greatly appreciate it.

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm here this evening to question and challenge the Minister for Defence Personnel in relation to the government's commitment to the Australian people. The 2016 Defence white paper stated that in the 10 years to 2026 it would recruit and train Australia's future force. That was indeed an admirable goal. That future force is meant to complement the unprecedented investment in defence capability of $270 billion to 2025-26. There is no disputing that, with Australia's vast coastline to be patrolled and protected and with the increased pressure on our reservists to assist civilian emergency agencies, we need to increase the number of Defence Force personnel. We have absolutely no argument with that. But my overriding question to the minister is: how is that 10-year goal going? We do have concerns.

Despite the government's insisting that its recruit targets are being met and will be met by 2026, the percentage of government spending on personnel, according to the updated figures in the 2020 Force structure plan, will fall from 37 per cent of its overall budget to 26 per cent. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute questions how sustainable this will be long term, given the size and quantity of new platforms in production and the anticipated expansion of the workforce in order to operate and maintain the new capability. I would actually like to add to what ASPI has said there. It's not only the size and quantity of new platforms but the complexity of these platforms. I've just come from a briefing on the Land 400. These are environments and systems that we're finding in capabilities now. It's well beyond someone being trained to do something. It is operating within this completely new and complex ecosystem that we need to have people trained up to do—and very quickly, I might add.

How does Defence plan to increase its workforce yet reduce its spend on personnel, Minister? While ASPI's research indicates Defence is averaging 90 per cent of its recruitment targets and separation rates are stable at around 9.3 per cent, Defence's own annual report reveals that defence personnel numbers have remained static over the four years since the publication of the 2016 white paper, and herein lies the rub. We're almost halfway there—time flies by—but we're not almost halfway there in terms of those recruitment numbers, and it is a real concern. We're putting the money in, and that's a good thing, but without the well-trained people on the ground to utilise this newfound capability, our defences will not be as strong as they should be.

The ASPI report also points out that defence will require more boots on the ground not only to operate newly purchased equipment but to carry out the critical maintenance. This is one of the questions that we were talking about earlier. This is about sustainment and maintenance over the life of these assets. Given this government's propensity for making big announcements, with paltry attention paid to the critical detail, one must really question the capability of the government to deliver, especially given the sheer scope of this announced spending. It is a lot of money. In comparison to its failed implementation in other areas, such as housing grants and disaster relief, to name but two, the percentage of full-time personnel as a percentage of Australia's population has declined over time, and this trend is set to continue. This is a real worry. How do we attract the best and brightest to our military? We've got to get these people in, and the government is failing on this. You can have all the money in the world for the Gucci kit but, if you've got no-one to use it, you're all at sea with, literally, not a canoe to paddle—or maybe the HMAS Perth laid up at Henderson with too few sailors to be able to get the thing in the water and operational. This is actually an issue. The guys in the back row are laughing about this, but it's a serious problem. We need the sailors to get the ship in the water.

I find it difficult to reconcile this result when Australia has such a proud tradition in respect of our current and former service men and women. The Anzac tradition has experienced a revitalisation in recent years, and more Australians recognise the sacrifices made. But the problem is that more Australians aren't being attracted to serve. And what's this government doing about it? You can have all the Gucci kit, but you've got to have people to run it. This doesn't appear to be the case. My question to the minister is: what is your plan to get more boots on the ground and more people in the Defence Force?

7:00 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm thankful for the opportunity take part in this consideration in detail this evening on a portfolio that is extremely close to my heart. I'd like to start by acknowledging the member for Braddon, as well as some good mates of mine, whom I served with in the battalion, for coming here today to listen to this.

As a veteran myself, with a lived experience of mental ill health and navigating the DVA system, I understand just how difficult and taxing it can be to transition out of the armed forces. This is such an important issue. Every person who has served our nation in uniform, particularly those deployed on operations, has made sacrifices so that we can enjoy the freedom we have today. But, unfortunately, we can often be found lacking when it comes to looking after those who looked after us. There is a perception among some parts of our society that veterans are somehow broken—that we have done everything that we can to achieve in our life in defence and now we have nothing left to contribute. This is far from the case. We must change the record. We need to rewrite the script and let everyone know that not all veterans are broken and that having meaningful engagement and meaningful employment can lead to positive outcomes and positive mental health and well-being. I myself wouldn't standing here today if that weren't true.

In my short time as a member for parliament, it has been very pleasing to be part of the government that is working hard to put supports in place for veterans and, in my view, beginning the long and hard task of righting decades against our veterans. Let me be clear: this has only just started. There is so much work to be done. But, in this budget, I think we've seen some very positive announcements which will go a long way to making a difference in this area.

We have mental health care available 24/7 for any veteran who has served a single full-time day in the Australian Defence Force. We have immediate income support for veterans with compensation claims for mental health conditions caused by their service. Open Arms has a peer and community adviser program, which connects veterans and their families who have struggled with their mental health. This peer support is so crucial. It connects people who have lived experience so that they can provide helpful advice and information to those who are struggling.

We have more than 7,000 volunteers trained to provide mental health first aid, through the partnership with ex-service organisations, and we've supported psychiatric assistance dogs for eligible veterans with post-traumatic stress. I've seen firsthand the positive impact these dogs can have on people. Only recently, I had the privilege and honour of recognising a local volunteer, Gail Whiteside, who gives up her time to train these dogs to help veterans. At this presentation, there would have been around a dozen dogs and their owners who have been through the training under Gail Whiteside's direction. We've seen firsthand how these dogs are supporting people, and any feedback around that needs to be passed on to the department to ensure that the program is done correctly, is maintained well and continues to help our veterans. These dogs will change lives and save lives.

Recently, we announced the appointment of Gwen Cherne as the Veteran Family Advocate. Gwen Cherne is a fantastic and remarkable person. She comes with an experience like very few others. Her partner was a still-serving commando when he died by suicide. Her stepson is Tom Cafe, and he's serving in 3rd Battalion in Townsville. I like the appointment of Gwen to this position because anyone who knows her knows that she won't be told by government what to do, she'll be telling government. So can the minister please advise what steps the government is taking to improve the mental health and wellbeing of Australia's veteran community, and, in particular, what investments have been made in the most recent budget?

There is so much we can do for our veterans, so much we can do together on both sides of the House to support our men and women who put on the uniform every day. And so, this close to Remembrance Day, all I want to say is come together, work together, because it's the people like these guys who keep us here. We're here to support them. Thank you.

7:05 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

On 2 April 2019, the Prime Minister wrote a letter, on behalf of the government, to the president of the TPI Federation—you were the Minister for Veterans Affairs then as well, Minister. The letter said: 'The TPI Federation makes a compelling case in relation to the relative value of the above general rate component of the special rate of disability pension. The fact that TPI veterans are not able to earn an income as a result of their service to our nation means their loss of income during what would have been their working life should be appropriately recognised and replaced.' Would you say, Minister, that the Prime Minister's letter, on behalf of the government, raised expectations of an increase to the above general rate of the SRDP, or TPI payment, to provide some tax adjusted compensation or income replacement?

Minister, the government failed to release or respond to a review, which was prepared by David Tune AO PSM, for more than a year. The government received it on 30 August 2019, and finally responded in this budget. It released a report on 8 October. The government failed to increase the TPI payment, and only increased rent assistance for some TPI pensioners. TPI veterans said they were disgusted that only about 20 per cent of them would receive any assistance and that the rest of them would miss out.

Given the Prime Minister's statement, why did Mr Tune and the government ignore the TPI Federation's contention that the above general rate component of the SRDP should be increased to restore fair and equitable economic loss? Compensation on the TPI payment represents only 62 per cent of the gross minimum wage. I understand, Minister, that you said, 'In principle, a step up is required.' These are your words from when you spoke at the TPI Federation's 2018 annual congress: 'In principle, a step up is required.' Can you confirm that's correct? If accurate, how would this reconcile with the findings of the review in relation to what happened, and the budget outcome accordingly?

The TPI Federation say they weren't consulted on the recommendations of the report, such as the abolition of the Defence Force income support allowance. Can you confirm this? Do you know what, if any, consultation Mr Tune undertook with the TPI veterans or stakeholders? Do you accept that the long delay, from the time the government got the report back in August 2019 to the time it responded, has caused anxiety, uncertainty and frustration for TPI veterans, including the TPI Federation? Why did it take so long for the government to do this? Why did you have that report for that long, having promised it before the election, having said there was a compelling case in the Prime Minister's letter, having you say a step up was required? Why did you take so long to respond, and why did you do that the way you did it?

In addition to that, Minister, it's the case that, during Senate estimates, departmental officials agreed with questioning from the Labor opposition that, effectively, the government raised the expectations of the TPI Federation and TPI veterans around the country that something of a significant nature would be done to improve their situation. But, Minister, during Senate estimates it was revealed that not 20 per cent but 10 per cent of TPI veterans would actually receive anything as a result of the government's budgetary changes. In addition to that, departmental officials revealed that none of this money, additional support, would start flowing until late 2022 because there were eligibility issues which needed to be established.

Why has it taken so long to release the report? Why did you raise expectations? Why did you dash those expectations? Why, when the department knew a report was coming and sitting in the Prime Minister's office, did the department do nothing to work out the eligibility issues of those people in the context of the budget? The department knew what was in the budget, the department knew what it was getting and yet you, Minister, and your department did nothing. Why was that? Why did you fail TPI veterans?

7:11 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to thank all the members who have spoken for their interest in our veterans, our serving Australian Defence Force personnel and their families. When a young Australian joins the Australian Defence Force, they swear an oath to serve our nation. The flipside of that is obviously the unspoken contract that we enter into as civilians. We have obligations on behalf of a grateful nation to make sure that they are supported during their service but also to make sure that they are well-equipped and that their families are well looked after during that service. And, when they transition, if they need help, we also have obligations as a grateful nation to make sure it is provided. The Veterans Covenant sums this up with the words: 'For what they have done, this we will do.' It is not just government, though; it is also the Department of Veterans Affairs itself—the department provides more than $11 billion per year—and it's also the ex-service community, and in partnership with the business community and industry more broadly.

When we think of our veteran community, we are tempted to think of older males, maybe World War II veterans with mobility issues, struggling to get through the later years of their life. But the reality is that there is far greater diversity in the veteran community than that. They are younger and they have experience with more recent conflicts or peacekeeping or humanitarian aid and assistance programs. So they have different needs, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has had to become more innovative and recognise—and the Australian Defence Force itself has had to recognise—the different needs of our serving members and their transition requirements.

The member for Pearce touched on this when he said that the toll that military service can take on an individual is something the government needs to be very conscious of. We are conscious of it, and I want to thank the member for his contribution in that regard. We do need to make sure that their transition—that critical point when someone moves from a position where they have had a lot of support structures about them and where they have had that sense of purpose and that sense of mission and the focus they get form that—is successful. We have to find ways to ensure that, when they transition, it is successful. The Joint Transition Authority, which the member talked about, is a critical change in the way we are approaching this issue.

He also touched on something which I think is very important, and that was that we have to tell the positive story of the skills these men and women possess when they leave. We have to tell that positive story, because perceptions actually matter. We have to make the business community, industry, government and organisations understand that hiring a veteran is good for their business or their industry. It is about making sure that they understand that these people had a career—the average career is about seven years—and that those skills are transferrable to a new way of life. I thank the member for Pearce for his comments in that regard.

The member for Herbert made similar comments when he talked about his lived experience and that of his mates who were in the gallery before. He mentioned that we need to rewrite the script, and I want to encourage the member for Herbert to continue rewriting that script and telling that positive story. We agree and those opposite agree that there is more to be done, but I also would contended that, if we tell the positive story of military service and the positive story of our veterans, we will achieve far greater in this place than if we are continually fighting amongst ourselves—and I congratulate the shadow minister for largely being quite partisan in his approach to the issues that we face in our veteran community. Progress has been made, and I want to thank my ministerial team—a couple of whom are here today—for the work they do to support our veterans. I also want to thank Lyz Cosson at DVA and her team for the work they do to try to be responsive to the needs of our veteran community.

The shadow minister raised some legitimate issues, which I will endeavour to cover in the short amount of time I have. One he mentioned in particular, the allied health fees issue, is an ongoing issue. We are working with the department to come up with a new approach to reach a position where our fees are more in keeping with the fees in the market.

There is no question that in the areas like national disability insurance and other areas the fees that are being made available for those clients have outpriced the veteran community. It's something I'm acutely aware of. I'm also acutely aware of the time taken to process. In many ways I'd argue the Department of Veterans' Affairs has become something of a victim of its own success. The work it's done in transition has encouraged more veterans to come forward. The work we've done with the Veteran Card, the veterans' covenant and other initiatives has brought more veterans forward, because they've seen a better experience for their colleagues. More have come forward and we're dealing with more clients, more veterans, than ever before. Additional resources were provided in this year's budget to try and address some of that 'time taken to process' issue, but I think there's going to be more work required in that regard.

Some of the other specific questions I'll have to respond to in writing, and I thank the members for their contributions. I would make one final point and offer this commitment to our veterans, to our serving members: we will listen you. We will try to understand what you're saying to us. We will make changes where we can. We will keep our side of that contract, on behalf of a grateful nation, to make sure you are well looked after during your service and after your service. 'For what they have done, this we will do' is a contract that we will keep in this place. I thank the House.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.