House debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2024

Matters of Public Importance


3:11 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Canning proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

This Government's mismanagement of Defence is making Australians less safe.

I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

We are living in dangerous times and this government is weak on national security. It's true that weakness is provocative, and we can't afford to be weak as a country, which is why we have brought this MPI on today. We know that authoritarian powers are on the move. We saw China and Russia sign a no-limits partnership in February 2022, signalling deep cooperation. Since then we have seen Russia invade Ukraine, we have seen the PRC launch provocations in the Taiwan Strait, we saw Hamas attack Israel last October, and now we have Houthi rebels backed by Iran attacking global trade and shipping in the Red Sea.

We are facing strategic disorder that we haven't seen in our lifetime, and it has consequences. Consider the cost of these attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. Before Christmas, the cost of moving a 40-foot shipping container from Europe to the Far East was less than $2,000. Today it's around 4½ thousand dollars. Now is the time for this government to act, because those costs will be passed on to Australian consumers. But this government is failing to secure Australia, because they are weak. It's very simple: they are weak. The Prime Minister is weak. The defence minister is weak. And when your political leadership signals weakness to the world, the risks go up. People stop taking you seriously. They push you around. They eat your lunch. They conduct sonar attacks on your divers.

It's not good enough. The Australian people deserve more from this Albanese government. Weakness is manifest in their lack of commitment to defence spending. It's manifest in their cuts to capability. It's manifest in the chaos and dysfunction that we saw last week between the defence minister and his department. It's manifest in the deferral of tough decisions. We won't see a defence strategy until mid this year, and our uniformed personnel are taking note. We're seeing more and more defence members leave the Defence Force, and this government is failing to recruit new members into the Defence Force.

Last year the Minister for Defence, to great fanfare, launched the Defence Strategic Review. He did it on the eve of Anzac Day—the old magician's trick—when the media was having a break and no-one was really watching. All the DSR revealed was that this government is not serious about protecting the Australian people. There was no new money for defence—no new money at all—and we've seen inflation eating into the purchasing power of every defence dollar in the budget.

What happened here was that the Minister for Defence, at the ERC, lost to the foreign minister, Senator Penny Wong. He lost. He couldn't win a fight there. So the question is: if he can't win a fight at a cabinet table, how can he win the next war if called upon? It's a good question to ask. He is fundamentally weak.

This lack of money has led to cuts to capability. We've seen the Army gutted. The new armoured vehicles have gone from an order of 450 to 129. We've seen the collapse of three brigades to one. We're moving all our Defence Force north, and of course that has consequences for retention and recruitment. All we saw from the DSR was pantomime and weakness, and it's not good enough. We now have questions now about the boxer program, a big deal landed with the German government, and it's just not good enough. In fact, just this week, we saw that the Australian National Audit Office has reviewed defence major projects and showed that, under the Albanese government, our most significant defence projects are running late by 37 years. This is just a consequence of weakness.

We also see weakness manifest in the minister's deferrals and delays. He won't take a hard decision. Last week, Andrew Tillett in the Australian Financial Review revealed the pile of paperwork in the defence minister's in-tray—submissions waiting for action. In fact, we know that the Minister for Defence, even before these laws are passed, is exercising his right to disconnect from the very job that he's called upon to perform. We expect our diggers, sailors and airmen to have a bias for action. Well, the defence minister can start leading with a bias for action and taking some of these decisions. How about a defence strategy from this government? How about the surface fleet review being handed down? How about a decision on that going forward? It's not good enough. This government is weak, and we're seeing that in the deferral of tough decisions.

We're also seeing weak leadership in the chaos and dysfunction at the heart of this defence ministry. Last week, we asked the question: why is the defence minister blaming his own department? It was in October of 2022 that the defence minister stood up and said: 'The buck stops with me. I take responsibility.'

Photo of Nola MarinoNola Marino (Forrest, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Joel said that too.

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Exactly. Yet we're hearing in the media—he's got senior officials briefing against him now—that he's having a bit of a dispute and he gave his senior generals and department officials a serve for their lack of excellence, and he got up last week and confirmed it. So the chaos and dysfunction we're seeing is really a consequence of a minister who's more concerned about lowering his handicap on the golf course than actually making the tough decisions.

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

Have another go at us, Andrew. Put it on a projector. Put it on an overhead.

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Let's not get started on you, Minister. I'm sparing you this, mate. Is that all you've got? I'll take the interjection. The real concern I have with this weak leadership that we're seeing from the Minister for Defence and particularly the man sitting opposite, the Minister for Defence Industry, who is very, very weak indeed—together they're both very weak—is the signal that sends to mums and dads out there who are sitting down with their kids around the kitchen table and being asked, 'What should I do with my career, Mum and Dad?' I bet you they're not saying, 'Join the Defence Force,' because what they would be seeing is a lack of spending and investment. They would be seeing—

Photo of David ColemanDavid Coleman (Banks, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

Lack of leadership.

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

a lack of leadership, dysfunction—

Photo of Nola MarinoNola Marino (Forrest, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Lack of ticker.

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

a lack of ticker and all those things. There's long laundry list of failures. They've had less than two years in office, and there are consequences to this. We're not able to recruit young people. We saw, at Duntroon only a week or so ago, the announcement about the shortening of officer training from 18 months to 12 months as a way of trying to get people in. People are still separating at much too high a rate from Defence. It should be at about seven or eight per cent. Under this government, it's been at 11 per cent. We are losing people at a rate of 11 per cent per year. We have to grow the Defence Force to 80,000 people by 2040 because we need to crew our nuclear submarines and have people who are specialists in cyberwarfare. We need more pilots, sailors and soldiers, and we can't even meet 75 per cent of the target we set for ourselves every year.

There's a lack of message. Defence should be about service, strength, opportunity and aspiration. I tell you: if you go across the road to ADFA or Duntroon and speak to the young Australians there who are serving their country, you will meet some of the finest young leaders in our country. They join because they want to serve, but they also see immense opportunity, and that should be at the heart of the message, and we're not seeing that. We're not seeing the defence minister stand up and sell a career in the Defence Force. So the question remains: how are we going to crew these vital capabilities?

Weakness is also manifesting in a lack of action around AUKUS. Canning is about 35 minutes south of HMAS Stirling. We have a huge infrastructure deficit in WA. We're yet to see any works commence on that base. And by 2027 we're meant to be having US and UK nuclear submarines alongside, with about 2,000 personnel from the US and the UK. There are no houses, and the base itself hasn't even started its conversion from a conventional base to a nuclear base. There's still no decision on the dry dock at Henderson, which the previous coalition government committed $4.3 billion towards. And we still don't know what's happening with the OPVs or the Future Frigate Program.

We are meant to be building confidence with our allies. The US and the UK are looking at us and thinking, 'We are handing the crown jewels of our nuclear program over to Australia.' It was a very important decision by the Morrison government that would set us up for success over generations going forward. It was handed on a platter to these people opposite. The lack of drive, the lack of initiative, the lack of leadership, the weakness of these people means that we are behind schedule. The Americans and the UK—but, more importantly, our strategic adversaries—are watching us. They're seeing that lack of commitment. They're seeing weakness.

I'll come back to where I started. If you are weak, people will push you around. They will eat your lunch. Under this government the only signal we've been receiving from the Prime Minister and the defence minister is weakness. The Prime Minister, at APEC, could not even raise the fact that our divers underwater, serving with HMAS Kanimbla, had a Chinese destroyer launch a sonar pulse attack, causing barotraumas in their ears. The Prime Minister was briefed, and do you know what he did? What did he do at APEC in San Francisco? He said nothing. He took a weak position. It's a disgrace. And I tell you what: future generations will look back on this government and ask why you failed. (Time expired)

3:22 pm

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

Wasn't that an awful addition from the shadow minister for defence, the member for Canning? I was delighted when I saw this MPI. I've been begging for this MPI. Unfortunately, governments don't get to sett the MPI, so I had to wait for the shadow minister to bowl this up. It allows me to spend 10 minutes talking about how those opposite, the Liberal Party, are weak on national defence and have been ever since they were founded. So, I'm very delighted.

Let's start with recent history. Lets start with modern history. Let's start with their record when they were in government. When the shadow minister was the assistant minister, for about five minutes, what did they actually achieve? Under the opposition leader, 28 major projects were 97 years late and $6½ billion over budget. What were some of these projects? There was the MRH-90 helicopter, a helicopter that they decided to buy against Defence advice. It can't fire weapons through the door when they're getting trips in and out. It had a tail rotor failure. It couldn't even have a cargo hook that worked properly. It was grounded on several occasions. And it was 7½ years late and then had to be retired. Then there was the battlefield airlift aircraft that can't even fly into battlefields—a tiny problem! There might have been a tip in the name. But it can't fly into battlefields. And they ordered patrol boats where they used faulty Chinese made aluminium that was prone to corrosion, and supply vessels where there is not even safe drinking water for the sailors. Just think about that. Imagine a defence minister, which the opposition leader was at the time, who couldn't even procure ships that had safe drinking water for sailors.

The truth is that they couldn't manage a project to save their lives. And they like to talk big. They were great at announcements. Remember the Top Gun announcement at RAAF Williamtown? It was brilliant, but the truth is that they were big on promise but hopeless on delivery. They added $42 billion worth of spending commitments to the IIP but added zero new dollars—$42 billion of new promises, zero new money. And there were the $12 billion of cuts to the Defence budget since 2016.

Here is the most dramatic one. They like to claim AUKUS. I saw Nemesis last night. It was literally the only thing the member for Cook can claim as an achievement in his life. But there is a tiny problem. They announced AUKUS. How much money did they allocate to the biggest national endeavour this country has ever undertaken? Three hundred billion? Two hundred billion? One hundred billion? Zero—not one cent added to the IIP for AUKUS, the biggest undertaking in this nation's history. That shows how deeply unserious they are about defending this nation.

They had six coalition defence ministers in nine years. Goldfish lasted longer than coalition defence ministers. They had 23 ministers and assistant ministers in the portfolio in the nine years, including my two favourites: one lasted 51 days, and the second one, the excellent member for Riverina—I love him; he's doing a great job as the shadow minister for the Pacific—lasted 75 days. So, if we want to talk about weakness or about commitment to national security, those on the opposite side treated defence as a joke, and we saw the results. What about projects-of-concern ministerial summits, which are essential to getting projects back on track? Across their 9½ years in government, they had four ministerial summits to get projects back on track. I've had five in 18 months. They did four in 9½ long years.

So the truth is that their record is incredibly weak, and they're also being incredibly mendacious and inconsistent in their application of big issues. They're criticising us all the time about our decision to focus our naval assets on the Indo-Pacific. The shadow minister put out a bizarre media release that talked about 'all feathers and no meat'. It must be a bizarre Canning saying. There's only one problem with that: he was an assistant minister in a government that said no to a similar request. He was part of a government that, as we found out today, in early April 2022 was requested to send a ship to the Red Sea as part of the Combined Maritime Forces. And what did they say? 'No, we need to focus on the Indo-Pacific.' I table the ABC News report that demonstrates the hypocrisy of those opposite when it comes to things like that. So this is a ridiculous debate put forward by those opposite because they have no credibility on defence.

By contrast, we are increasing defence funding to 2.3 per cent of GDP; we've announced significant procurement reforms that the ANAO, in their recent Major projects report, said are making an impact; and we released the Defence strategic review, which charts the course forward. The truth is that only Labor can be trusted on defence. You just have to look at the record of those opposite throughout their entire existence as a political party to see how weak they are on national security.

The terms of this MPI are about weakness, national security and who you can trust. The shadow minister talked about weakness ad infinitum. Let's talk about the weakness of those opposite. Let's talk about a political party started by Bob Menzies, a man who, in August 1939, blocked expansion of the Army. If you want to talk about weakness in national security, what did he do in September 1939? Ten days after Hitler invaded Poland, Bob Menzies sent a letter to our high commissioner in London, arguing that we should appease Adolf Hitler. He said they should carve up Europe, give parts of Africa to Italy and give parts of China to Japan. Here is a direct quote from this letter from Bob Menzies:

… nobody really cares a damn about Poland …

He wrote that 10 days after Hitler invaded Poland, and he actually argued that saying, 'Down with the Nazi government,' was 'quite indefensible' and that it was up to the German people if they wanted a dictatorship. I table the letter from Bob Menzies to Stanley Bruce that shows that he was advocating appeasement of Adolf Hitler 10 days after Poland was invaded, and that continued.

Their party continued to be weak on national security throughout their entire history. They took us to Vietnam on a lie, where 523 Australians died because of a lie that they wanted to win an election on. They took us into the second Gulf War on a lie because they wanted to take us to another election that they wanted to win. It's all about politics for them because, ultimately, they are weak on national security. They love a khaki election and they love their Top Gun moment, but, in the end, they will use the troops for political props but never deliver for them. Just look at the opposition leader's record: 97 years cumulatively late for 28 major projects and $6½ billion over budget, spending $114 million on a naval shipbuilding college that trained zero workers.

By contrast, the Albanese Labor government is investing record amounts into defence. Each year of our forward estimates, we spend more on capability acquisition and sustainment than any government in the history of this country. Every year, over the forward estimates, we spend more on the Australian defence industry than any government in the history of this country. Over the decade, we will increase defence spending to 2.3 per cent of GDP. We've actually funded AUKUS. We've actually funded the nuclear submarine enterprise. We're delivering it, and the early investments are flowing. We're training sailors now in the United States. We're training defence industry workers overseas in this endeavour. We're making significant reforms to defence procurement because we do need to improve what we deliver for taxpayer money and increase the speed of getting vital equipment to the ADF. We take it in a calm, measured way that delivers for the troops, that delivers for taxpayers and that doesn't have a revolving door of ministers like we saw under that deeply silly government we inherited this situation from, a government that was obsessed with political props rather than delivering for the troops. In the end, like their predecessor coalition governments, they'll be condemned by history for their weakness on national security and their inability to prepare our nation.

3:32 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I can't believe that, in something so important, we have something so puerile as a person tabling a letter between Robert Gordon Menzies and Stanley Bruce. How on earth is that relevant to the things that are before us? Your children are going to live in a different world to us. We've had Wang Yi, who has made tours of Timor-Leste, of Papua New Guinea, of the Solomon Islands, of Kiribati, of the Cook Islands and of Fiji and who's also had online meetings with so many areas, like the Federated States of Micronesia. Why are they doing this? Because they are encircling Australia. This is a process of encirclement of Australia. We have to realise how important this is. Back in November the Prime Minister of Australia said that defence was a top priority. We have a defence minister who tells us how good a job he's doing. Do you know which two people are not in this chamber right now? The Prime Minister of Australia and, on an MPI about defence, the defence minister. Neither of them is here.

This is an issue of utmost importance. As the member for Canning has said, we have issues not only with China but with the provocations of Iran and third parties such as the Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah. This is a new world we're living in. They're probing. We have the rogue state of North Korea, which is basically working as an adjunct at times, I believe, with the People's Republic of China—just tempting, probing, seeing. We have Russia, which has actually invaded another nation. Everybody thought it would come to an end. Everybody thought they'd ride over the horizon and everything would be right, but it's not. The world has changed. We have to have a government that wakes up and deals with that. If we keep on letting our Defence Force numbers fall down, we are making our nation weaker. If we are unable to put a ship in the Middle East to protect the Suez Canal, we are putting on display on a big board to the whole world that we are weaker.

These are the issues that are before us. He should have tabled the frigates that have been launched and the warships that have been built. He should have tabled that, but he can't, because they just don't exist. We have had a review. We're having reviews after reviews, but we are not having the substantive action that's needed to defend this nation. They always say 'sine qua non'—without this, nothing. If we do not have a defence force, we have nothing. And, to defend our nation, we have to become as powerful as possible as quickly as possible.

Today, at two o'clock, Loy Yang A went offline. The wholesale price of electricity, whilst we have been sitting in this chamber, has gone through the roof. This is a sign. How can a nation that can't even provide power to itself have the capacity to defend itself? These are the issues that are befalling us right now. As George Santayana said, those who don't remember history are condemned to repeat it. So, if you want to borrow something from history, I say to the minister, then don't table a letter from Robert Gordon Menzies to Stanley Melbourne Bruce; what you should be doing is tabling a historical document of what happens to a nation such as Australia when our trade routes and our supply corridors to the United States of America are cut off. That's what you should be tabling. That's what you should be aware of. That's what a prudent and proper defence bench would be able to do. They'd be able to come in here and talk about that and talk about what their solution is. But we can't get that. We get funny little parlour games about what they're doing.

I'll just chip in one more thing: to say that our actions in Vietnam were wrong is an absolute disgrace. It's a disgrace to those who served and a disgrace to those who died. Are you saying they died for nothing? Are you saying they served for nothing? That was to exhaust the communist insurgency that was happening at that time of their resources. Seek out and close with the enemy, kill or capture them by day or by night, regardless of season, weather or terrain—that's what those service men and women of Australia did. I ask you to come back into the chamber and take that comment back.

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

Before I proceed, I am going to ask everybody in this chamber to dial it down. I am not impressed; members of the public are not impressed. Have a bit of respect for each other during this debate. MPIs are robust opportunities, but that's enough.

3:37 pm

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If there were ever a time for a lesson in psychology, it would be today. If there were ever an MPI that highlighted the human capacity for denial, this one would be it. I'm actually floored that those opposite would seek to put up an MPI on the current government and talk about mismanagement when we can clearly see that the historical record of the last nine years of coalition government is the actual gold standard, the perfect example, of mismanagement. Psychological experts characterise what they're doing as something called 'projecting'. It's a condition from which those opposite are clearly suffering, amongst probably many other psychological maladies, which we've seen play out in the ABC documentary Nemesis. This condition of projecting is where those opposite want to externalise their own incompetence, negligence and mismanagement onto others—in this case, the current government. It's a sad psychological state of affairs, but they do it because—and this is the experts speaking—it helps the individuals protect their self-esteem and avoid confronting the uncomfortable truths about themselves and their own traits. I think that's a little bit late, given what we've seen on the ABC.

The primary projector is none other than the opposition leader himself, Peter Dutton, who was a former minister for defence. We know that Mr Dutton oversaw the worst failures in the coalition during their nine years. We've heard it from previous speakers—the whopping $3.8 billion on the MRH-90 helicopters for the Army and special forces that cannot even fire their own weapons because the doors were too narrow. The coalition government spent $1.16 billion on new battlefield airlifter aircraft that can't fly into battlefields. Under the former government, poor-quality manufacturing led to pipes being contaminated and our sailors not even being given access to quality, safe drinking water. Perhaps, with all of that actual mismanagement—the facts of that, the historical record—the opposition leader may have to answer for that in the next doco.

The current shadow minister for defence is Mr Hastie. I acknowledge his service to the country. I respect it and I acknowledge it. He himself is a former Assistant Minister for Defence, and he said this about his own party:

… we squandered a lot of opportunity through leadership changes … which led to inertia institutionally…

Mr Hastie also said that under his government defence had too many ministers.

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

I'm just going to ask the member for Wills to use the member's title when referring to him.

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Canning said they had too many ministers in defence. If we're looking for factors contributing to mismanagement, look at the coalition mismanagement of defence. The coalition government had six ministers for defence in nine years. They had four ministers for defence industry over four years. And once again, who was central to all this—the leadership changes, the inertia and the mismanagement? It was the opposition leader.

That brings me to my next psychological malady: deflection. The opposition leader is not only a master projector in that sense, projecting onto others, but also a compulsive deflector. The mismanagement goes beyond the coalition's record in defence. We saw yesterday the Richardson report handed down, after a review of allegations of systemic misuse of taxpayer money. Guess who oversaw this? The opposition leader. We know that. The opposition leader has a compulsive need to deflect from his abject failures as both the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Home Affairs in the previous coalition government. He likes to posture, he likes to deflect and he likes to project. Unfortunately, the rest of the team over there on the opposite side are following in those footsteps by bringing this MPI forward.

In contrast, this government has taken responsibility for cleaning up the mess and mismanagement of nine long years under the coalition, and our focus has been solely on keeping Australians safe. Our first action as a government was to commission the Defence Strategic Review and set an ambitious agenda for Australia's defence that moves our country forward and ensures the safety of all Australians. And we've made substantive reforms—they say that we haven't—in relation to early warning criteria on projects of concern, in raising attention on emerging problems and encouraging early response, and in making sure that we're getting the defence budget back on track. We've added $30.5 billion to defence funding across the decade. Those opposite can project and deflect all they like, but it will never change the reality that their mismanagement of defence for nine years will always and forever be in the history books as a blight on their record.

3:42 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

The Minister for Defence is more interested in playing the back nine than he is in looking after the members of the Australian Defence Force, and that has been evident with what we've seen lately, but it's what we have been seeing since this Minister for Defence came to office. He's a part-time minister. He is the Deputy Prime Minister and then wants to moonlight as the Minister for Defence. Government members have now come in and said how bad the coalition is. Well, at the end of the day, you guys have the big seats, right? You've got the big offices, and it's up to you to make sure that our Defence Force are supported.

Right now, they're not. We have a record amount of people discharging from the ADF, and we need to ask the question why. They don't feel supported at all. We've seen that just recently. In the front page of the paper today, it says 'Aussie troops thin on ground'. That was the front page of the Townsville Bulletin. That is the home of the Australian Defence Force. It's the capital of the Australian Defence Force. More people are getting out every year, because they're not supported.

A way that this government should have supported the Australian Defence Force is by supporting those who gave up so much of their time, spent time away from family, to help out during Operation COVID-19 Assist in the pandemic. They helped out on the borders. They answered the call, many for weeks, sometimes months, on end. I wrote to the Minister for Defence saying that these members of the ADF deserve the National Emergency Medal, and it was rejected. In the letter I got back just before, the minister said that due to the circumstances and nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, recognition of service under these circumstances is not considered appropriate. What a slap in the face to all of the ADF members who helped this nation, who answered the call, who put themselves and their families at risk to keep the community safe, who went into the border to help out this nation in the time of a pandemic. They have now been told that they don't deserve the National Emergency Medal—they don't deserve any recognition. I think it's disgraceful.

It was also disgraceful to hear the comments from the Minister for Defence this week where he said:

… there is a way to go before we have that culture of excellence in the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force.

That is ridiculous. To say that the brave men and women who put on the uniform every day do not have a culture of excellence is a disgrace. It is absolutely disgraceful. I got so many phone calls, emails and texts from people who are still serving who say that they're absolutely doing everything right. They stand up every day. They want to be counted. They want to help. They put on the uniform for a life of service. To hear their minister say that they do not have a culture of excellence, I think, is disgraceful. It just shows the lack of interest this part-time minister has in supporting the brave men and women of the ADF.

We've seen cuts and slashes to defence industry, with the number of infantry fighting vehicles to be purchased cut from 450 to 129. We didn't see any government minister at Land Forces. They couldn't be bothered showing up. That is the largest defence industry event, and we didn't have any of the government ministers there. That is not just shameful; it's disgraceful. And to have the Minister for Defence Industry stand up in here and say all those nasty things about the second gulf war and Vietnam just shows how out of step this government really is when it comes to protecting and serving for the Australian Defence Force.

During question time today we heard the Minister for Veterans' Affairs—he's not in cabinet, so the Minister for Defence takes ownership of that in cabinet—talk about how great the Department of Veterans' Affairs is going. Well, I can tell you what happened just yesterday. An Afghanistan war veteran, Paul Warren, who lost his leg, had had his prosthetic leg snap. He rang up the department said: 'My prosthetic leg snapped. I need support.' They said: 'Just go hire a wheelchair. We'll have to get back to you soon. You'll have to go find a specialist appointment.' What a disgrace.

These issues are currently happening to our veterans, but we don't hear anything from ministers about it. They want to push it away, push it under the rug. This goes back to the heart of this MPI. If you don't treat your veterans well, you're not going to get people signing up to the ADF. If you don't treat your current serving personnel well, you're not going to get people that want to sign up. This is ridiculous, and the minister should be in here listening to these speeches. Instead of playing golf, they should be sitting in here answering these questions.

3:47 pm

Photo of Fiona PhillipsFiona Phillips (Gilmore, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In my electorate of Gilmore on the New South Wales South Coast, we are incredibly proud of our defence members. The South Coast is home to HMAS Albatross, the largest operational Naval establishment in Australia and the Navy's only air station. We are also home to HMAS Creswell, the Royal Australian Naval College, based in beautiful Jervis Bay. Our community is rightly proud of our defence family, and anyone who has spent any time with our Defence Force personnel would be equally as proud of them.

For three days in November last year, I joined the Australian Army's Special Operations Command at the Australian Defence Force Parachuting School in Nowra, as part of the ADF parliamentary exchange. What an amazing experience that was—so good in fact that I have already signed myself up again this year. Last year it was ADF parachuting. This year it is helicopter underwater escape training and ships survivability training, with hopefully another parachute jump, this time into Jervis Bay. What could be better!

I had one key takeaway from this experience—that those serving in our Defence Force are highly skilled, incredibly dedicated and passionate about what they do, and what they do is beyond what we could ever imagine. These men and women take their lives in their hands, quite literally, every single day for us so that we can enjoy our peaceful lifestyle. At the ADF Parachuting School, they train our special operations defence members, like commandos, to parachute.

My tandem jump, as I have shared with the House before, didn't go to plan. We had a one-in-750 chance of a parachute canopy malfunction, and that's what happened. We spun and we spun downwards. But I knew that my ADF parachutist had loads and loads of experience. I guess you never know how you will react in that situation, but I certainly remember what he told me and all those safety measures. After the safety checks failed, he cut away the parachute and pulled the reserve parachute, and we landed with that. The next part, the fractured ankle, was all my fault. After all, I was a bit eager to get back to land.

When we landed, I was told to go and fight the Taliban—which, Madam Deputy Speaker, is the point. Special Operations Command Defence members parachute into war zones, from high altitudes, in freezing conditions, and with the biggest packs and weapons—extremely difficult and dangerous situations. When they jump out of a plane, something could go wrong. Regardless of whether or not you're injured, when you hit the ground you have to be up and running, ready for what is there on the ground. I am in awe of our Defence members; they are simply amazing.

What I want to see, as a proud local member in a Defence town, is our Defence Force members being supported and celebrated with genuine appreciation for their service. I will never bat away improvements to our local Defence facilities and services, whether it's for our community and our much loved 'chopper on a stick', a security gate for the ADF Parachuting School or more. That's why last year I was pleased to join with the Minister for Defence Industry to announce $124 million for a major upgrade to the airfield at HMAS Albatross. From mid-2025, we'll see our local fleet of MH-60R Seahawk 'Romeo' helicopters expanded from the current 23 aircraft to 36 aircraft. The upgrades will ensure the airfield continues to safely support our Navy operations while growing our local defence jobs.

Not only does the Shoalhaven boast a significant number of ADF employees; it also has a large number of civilian employees working on the base and a thriving defence industry. In fact, Defence and defence industry are our biggest employers—local expertise and local products supporting our defence operations. We're recruiting local people into Defence and defence industry by showing them the vast opportunities available. As just one fabulous example, the new Commander of the Fleet Air Arm, Commodore Matthew Royals, grew up on the South Coast. He went to Shoalhaven High School. He says himself that his passion for the Navy started at home, with his exposure to helicopters flying over his school—an inspiring story for many.

We're investing in our local bases to make sure they can support our defence personnel and technology. We believe in defence, we understand how important it is for our country, and we are so proud of our Defence Force members.

3:52 pm

Photo of Melissa McIntoshMelissa McIntosh (Lindsay, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention) Share this | | Hansard source

To start off, I would like to give a shout-out to my local veterans, particularly our veterans at the St Marys Vietnam Veterans Outpost. The extraordinary work that you do in our community to ensure that we remember the sacrifices that are being made is something that really touches me, my family and our whole committee. Thank you very much.

There has never been more of a wake-up call on sovereign capability than COVID, which meant securing our supply chains and protecting our country, and today, post-COVID, we are experiencing some of the most uncertain times globally. What should we have in a time like this, which is so uncertain and so unstable? We should have urgency. Do you know what urgency is, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is the importance of swift action, imperativeness, haste. There is no definition of urgency that says, 'We should have another review, another meeting and go slow.' That is what this government is doing.

As my friend the honourable member for Canning said, there is nothing more pressing for an Australian government than the defence of the nation, and I would particularly like to give a shout-out to those who work so hard at Defence Establishment Orchard Hills, in my electorate of Lindsay, to ensure our weapons are kept safe. They are maintaining such extraordinary work in the most uncertain times. Unfortunately, we have the Labor Party at the helm when we are in the midst of the most challenging geostrategic moment in our lives, with China consistently knocking on the doors of our Indo-Pacific neighbours with promises of infrastructure and security in exchange for not recognising Taiwan and cutting strong and, previously, enduring relationships with Australia. China is building its defence capability at a rapid speed and this is troubling for what could occur should tensions rise for us and the Indo-Pacific community yet, again—go slow, no urgency—this Albanese Labor government is stalling on strategic defence decisions and is just not up to the job of defending our country. Not only is China causing disturbance but we have conflict waging in Ukraine against the Russian invasion, yet we have the Albanese Labor government continuing to use this conflict as a cover for inflation and price rises at the bowser despite committing to savings when he was in opposition while the situation overseas was advancing.

The ongoing crisis occurring in the Middle East, with Hamas still refusing to release hostages to Israel, is a disgrace. As part of this, militants in the region have started to attack ships. What is the Albanese Labor government doing to assist in the Red Sea? There were revelations out of estimates yesterday that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had no involvement in whether we would send a warship to assist in efforts and operations in the Red Sea. Why was the United States' request not important enough for the Minister for Defence and our nation's Deputy Prime Minister to not take the matter to the Prime Minister for discussion by the National Security Committee? This is extraordinary. There has been question after question not answered—failure after failure after failure, no urgency, just go slow.

The Prime Minister and the defence minister were ministers in the previous Labor government when defence spending was slashed to levels below that of 1938. I wonder if the Prime Minister had anything to say in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years when China's defence spending and capability grew extraordinarily despite the government he was a senior member of not commissioning a single vessel in the Australian shipyard, not a single one.

The world is watching us, our AUKUS partners are watching us but, even more importantly, our enemies are watching us, and what are we doing? The global strategic environment is increasingly facing harder headwinds. If we had a government that was focused on key priorities like boosting defence capability, boosting recruitment, looking after our Defence Force—not putting them down—and boosting investment at a local level in defence and domestic manufacturing, we would have a safer nation.

3:57 pm

Photo of Gordon ReidGordon Reid (Robertson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Like the member for Lindsay, I also acknowledge the veterans and active ADF personnel both here in this chamber and back in my electorate of Robertson. Thank you for keeping us safe and secure. Right at this very moment and across the world, we are witnessing and experiencing the effects of great power competition. The path, the progress and the outcome of that competition are extremely complex and extremely uncertain. There is incredible strain and incredible pressure on the global rules based order, whether that be throughout the Indo-Pacific, a region that is growing rapidly, or in Eastern Europe.

To be absolutely clear in this chamber here today and to the community watching at home more broadly, in our country's most difficult moments, in particular throughout our defence history and national security, Australians young and old and from all walks of life look to the Australian Labor Party. Our track record on defence and national security speaks for itself and speaks to how Labor keeps our people safe. It was the Fisher Labor government in 1913 which established our Navy. It was John Curtin, a person who I particularly admire, who did what had to be done during the Second World War and organised Australia's national defence, made critical decisions, stood tall and ensured Australian independence. It was Gough Whitlam, a former Air Force navigator and veteran of the Second World War, and his government who unified the three armed services into a single Defence Force. And let's not forget Kim Beazley, former defence minister, who implemented the strategic posture for defence, which lasted 36 years. As a political party, the Liberal Party—the conservatives—do not have a history with defence policy or national security that even comes close to what has been achieved by our movement on this side of the House, the Australian Labor Party. In fact, when it comes to defence, their party is amateur. It is known throughout the history of our country, both now and into the future, that Labor is the true party of Australia's national defence.

Once again, the people of Australia are looking to our movement. Our record on defence shows how unaware and blind the opposition is. Our government has announced and delivered major reforms to the Projects of Concern process, including establishing an independent projects and portfolio management office within Defence, reporting monthly directly to the minister and fostering a culture in Defence of raising attention to emerging problems and encouraging and enabling an early response. We're providing troubled projects with extra resources and skills, convening regular ministerial summits to discuss remediation plans and ensuring the Defence budget is ready, lifting it to 2.3 per cent of GDP—0.2 per cent higher than what the opposition had planned. We have provided an additional $30.5 billion for Defence across the decade as part of our last budget.

Now let's look at our record on defence projects. We have delivered continuous naval shipbuilding in Western Australia through the selection of a pilot sovereign shipbuilder and the Army landing craft project. We are delivering on guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise, where we will manufacture missiles—the guided multiple-launch rocket systems—in Australia, and that is not just an empty promise. We have signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Lockheed Martin to see this work delivered. We are significantly uplifting and securing our war stocks, with 42 high-mobility artillery rocket systems and ammunition, 200 Tomahawk missiles, 60 advanced antiradiation guided missiles with extended range and millions for SPIKE long-range 2 antitank guided missiles for our combat reconnaissance vehicles.

It is clear from what I have just said and from speakers we have heard from on this side of the chamber that the Australian Labor Party, currently led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, is the party of national security, the party of defence and the party that will keep our people safe.

4:02 pm

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health, Aged Care and Indigenous Health Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the previous speaker's points in relation to the procurement of equipment. What I want to talk about today is something far more important. It's the people behind the equipment. It's the personnel that I'm worried about. When you start looking at the ADF's mission and purpose, which is 'to defend Australia and its national interests in order to advance Australia's security and prosperity', it is a very clear, concise, succinct and direct statement. That's what mission statements are like. If we compare that to the paradox, conundrum and inconsistency behind what has been released, talked about lately and mooted by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence, they obviously find that defence and security in this country is uppermost, and yet the Deputy Prime Minister happens to be the Minister for Defence. It's a part-time role. I find that a conundrum. I can't get my head around it. Even Beazley devoted himself when he was the Minister for Defence. He was a good minister, but that was his whole and sole role. That's the conundrum I face.

He talked about procurement, including precision guided missiles, LAND 400, LAND 8116, LAND 129 and a number of other projects. He's certainly across his subject. But I've been raising this point for several years: if we are not careful as a Defence Force—as a country—then we are going to have insufficient personnel trained to operate that equipment. It takes a long time, particularly given the specialist roles that we're seeing in Defence. Defence is becoming a multifaceted technical game. I spent two decades of my life training electronic warfare operators at 7th Combat Signal Regiment. It used to take me four to five years to train an operator. Look at the exit rates from Defence that we've seen recently. It has been revealed that in the year ending 30 June 2023 there was an outflow of 1,373 people from Defence and an inflow of 1,252. Those numbers don't add up. Defence also confirmed that in that year they were some 800 people below their recruitment target. They'd achieved only 41.7 per cent of the target. Defence is bleeding personnel in the well-trained scientific and specialist roles that we need to put behind these pieces of equipment.

The other question I continually raise is: who is controlling this? Where is what we call the C4—the command, control, communications and computer systems—to target this equipment and pick up targets? Where is that? Where are the surveillance and reconnaissance behind all that, and where are the trained operators who put a weapons system on a target? Numbers like this are disgraceful. It breaks my heart to see numbers like this out of our Defence recruiting statistics. My job was to stand in front of diggers to train them and make sure they did their job. My job, as the interface between the enlisted soldiers and the officers, was one that I took very seriously. I stood up for them, and, when the wrong thing was being done to them, I was the one who stood in front of them. You build a very close bond with those diggers. At the moment, they're doing the right thing, but at strategic and government levels they're not seeing a focus back on personnel. No-one's mentioned it today! No-one's mentioned diggers. The member for Herbert did—probably because he was one and has felt like them. We need to bring the focus back onto personnel.

You can carry on all you like and interject, but the subject of personnel is very serious to me. It's a subject that I think needs to be at the forefront—

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

Member for Hasluck, I have asked you not to interject before. You are wasting time in the debate.

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health, Aged Care and Indigenous Health Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Rather than political pointscoring, we need to get back to what is really important. As far as I'm concerned, it's those soldiers, sailors and airmen who are at the centre of all this.

4:07 pm

Photo of Matt BurnellMatt Burnell (Spence, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's great to be back for my first MPI of the parliamentary sitting year. We saw those opposite fumble on industrial relations, and we are watching in real time those opposite capitulating and joining with the Albanese Labor government in giving Middle Australia a tax cut over themselves and other high-income earners. They are clenching their teeth in doing so.

All of this is with the backdrop of those opposite putting on a third marvellous display last night in the final instalment of Nemesis. There have often been at least one or two of the cast in the chamber doing a curtain call. I'm sure that, soon enough, we'll be seeing an encore. One of the cast of Nemesis, in fact, was the one who brought the MPI here today, the member for Canning, and I sincerely thank him for doing so. He has so generously given us the opportunity to talk about defence and our defence industry, leaving on the table a blank cheque on those opposite's record during the Nemesis years. Sometimes the fish really does jump onto the hook. We are more than happy to give the opposition's record as much airtime as possible. That is more than I can say for the battlefield airlifter and our MRH-90 helicopters, $1.16 billion and $3.8 billion respectively.

As an aside, one of my favourite bands, blink-182, is touring Australia, including back in Adelaide last night and tonight. Their lyrics got stuck in my head once more when I was writing some of the remarks for this discussion: 'Don't waste your time on me.' It made me think of the billions of dollars of waste in defence spending under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments and the many time blow-outs of the projects green-lit under their watch. It's a mess that the Albanese government must clean up. How much time, might you ask, Madam Deputy Speaker? Under those opposite, 28 major projects have blown out by a total of 97 years—indeed, hardly anyone's definition of 'hasty'.

This is extremely troubling for any government that is expecting to protect our national security at a moment in history when we are tackling the most challenging strategic circumstances since World War II. I, frankly, can't blame those opposite too much for the results of their time in office. How many ministers for defence did they go through? Six. The last cab off the rack in that list was, of course, the now Leader of the Opposition, after he tried his luck with seeing how Australians responded to seeing him try to smile more. Of assistant ministers, there were six again. In defence industry, with all of the rebranding of that portfolio, we had a total of seven ministers under their government. One amongst the number of assistant ministers for defence was, of course, the member for Canning himself, whose service record prior to this place, I would gladly say, is something to be proud of, and I do thank him for his service, as well as the member for Hasluck, the member for Herbert and the member for Braddon, who are in the chamber here today.

But, in aggregate, none of their ministers and assistants was as terrible as the sum of all their parts combined. Those opposite may think 18 months is enough time for ministers in the Defence portfolio to correct their course. With the rate of turnover during the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, I can see why they would think that. But now, with the Albanese Labor government steering the ship—a ship that isn't made of faulty Chinese made aluminium, unlike the Cape class patrol boats those opposite greenlit—the record of those opposite on defence is a sunk fallacy indeed, going from littoral movements to literal mistakes—mistakes our men and women serving in the Australian Defence Force deserve better than to have settled for.

I know the member for Canning knows this through and through. As recently as March last year he conceded that he saw a lot of waste, a statement that would qualify as at least an honourable mention in the understatement of the year rankings. He even conceded the churn of ministers led to delays and inertia. I know he wouldn't debate me on this. The member for Canning has publicly stated this as a valid criticism of their time in government. But now, in opposition, their memory is seemingly wiped, unless the ABC sticks a camera in front of them.

It's ironic to hear the most insecure amongst our parliament accusing us of being weak on security. Under our government—the Deputy Prime Minister, the Assistant Minister for Defence and the Minister for Defence Industry, who we heard from earlier—we have a chance of manufacturing our AUKUS submarines, not just as an announcement under those opposite but as a longstanding part of our national defence for years to come. Labor governments so often have to be the ones to correct the mess, the rorts and the waste under Liberal-National governments. We have the vision to look toward our nation's future, whilst those opposite only have eyes for playing politics and talking about themselves.

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

The discussion has concluded.

That includes interjections, Member for Herbert.