Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Answers to Questions on Notice

Question No. 4291

3:50 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to seek an explanation pursuant to standing order 74(5)(a). I know the representing minister isn't in here, but the duty minister was briefed. I ask the minister representing the Minister representing the Prime Minister why question No. 4291, relating to AUKUS announcements and submarines, has not been answered.

3:51 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, Senator Birmingham isn't here. He has asked me to acknowledge the inquiry that Senator Patrick is making now into the status of the questions that were placed on notice just over a month ago into the sensitive matters around the AUKUS strategic partnership. Senator Birmingham has asked me to advise that he will inquire into the status of those answers and get back to you as soon as possible.

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the minister’s failure to provide either an answer or an explanation.

The question is about AUKUS, so it is important in relation to issues of national security, to issues relating to South Australia and also to some issues that have been very, very public. In fact, I look at the question and I see the following questions:

(b) on what dates did the Prime Minister discuss or otherwise communicate about the Attack class submarine project with the French President; and

(c) on what date did the Prime Minister tell the French President that Australia was "pulling the plug".

I'm looking to the clerks. I'm not sure that the French President can answer a question on notice through the media. I think that's a 'no' from the clerks, so this question remains outstanding.

This is an important question. It goes to a very important national program relating to submarines. A lot of people ask me: 'Why submarines? Why are they so important?' Let me tell you. At the outset of the Falklands War, as the Argentinians invaded the Falklands, the British media reported that the British had a nuclear powered submarine down off South America in the waters around the Falkland Islands. It turned out that that wasn't true. It was false. But that's the nature of submarines. You can, if you want to, create the perception that they're somewhere they're not. They are very potent tools. 'Asymmetric' is the word that is often used when we talk about submarines. There is a whole range of things that they can do in wartime that other assets can't do as easily. They can lay mines covertly. They can insert special forces. They can conduct reconnaissance. They can fire off missiles. They can sink warships. They can do a lot of things. Of course, we never want that to happen, but it's very important that we have a strong submarine capability such that no-one ever looks at Australia and says, 'We're going to take them on,' because the cost would be too high.

In order to be able to do that, you have to have a standing submarine force that is highly capable and that people understand to be highly capable. The thing that our Navy does during peacetime is make sure that the submarine crews are practised in what they do, so they train, they develop tactics and, in the case of our submarines, they also do intelligence operations so they can go into areas and monitor exactly what is going on. That's a capability that not many other assets have. You can fly a satellite over an area of a country, you can fly an aircraft over a country, but persistence and stealth working together are extremely powerful.

If you ever listen to a police radio scanner for a couple of hours, you will find out that there might be a break and enter taking place three kilometres down the road or there could be a breathalyser being set up down the road or there could be some sort of domestic violence incident taking place. That is if you listen to a scanner for a short time. But if you listen for two or three weeks, you can work out the shifts, how many officers are on duty on a Friday night versus how many are on duty on a Wednesday night and what time they change over. After listening to a few police chases, you will work out exactly what the criteria are for calling off a police chase, what the rules of engagement are. That's what submarines can do. They can go into areas and look and see exactly what is going on in peacetime, such that you will be well prepared in the event you end up in a conflict of some sort. They are very important.

We had a submarine program in place; it was the Attack class submarine. I was one of the first people who raised significant concerns about it. I'm of the view that the Prime Minister made the correct call when he cancelled the program. The program was a very expensive program. It was running over schedule. It was not meeting expectations in industry and it wasn't, in my view, likely to deliver a regionally superior submarine. So I congratulate the coalition for cancelling the program but I don't congratulate them for the manner in which they did that.

We saw on 16 September—I hope I have that date right—the Prime Minister stand up and make an announcement, a really a big distracting announcement, utilising the US President and the UK Prime Minister, whilst he shut down a $2.4 billion program that actually started under this Liberal government and concluded under this Liberal government. There was no necessity, none whatsoever, to make an announcement about AUKUS on the same day that they cancelled the Attack class program. What should have been done is the French should have been brought in; the French should have been told exactly what was happening in the Future Submarine Program. All of the diplomacy necessary to deal with that particular issue should have taken place. The announcement could have been made to the Australian public that we were no longer continuing with that program and then, a couple of weeks later, the AUKUS arrangements could have been announced. The reality is we don't know what AUKUS is really about; there's a study going on for the next 18 months to work that out. There is no reason why those announcements had to be made together and that was a failing of the government.

My question, the question that has not been answered about communication between the Australian Prime Minister and the French President, is relevant to examining what happened in those instances and it should be responded to in a timely fashion. I have a genuine interest in understanding the answers to these questions and it is inappropriate that the Prime Minister has not answered them in the required time frame. This is the third day in a row I have had to rise to seek explanation as to why the Prime Minister is not answering questions directed at him that come from my constituents, who are entitled to know who the Prime Minister works for, who pays the Prime Minister's salary. It's a matter of respect for questions asked by senators on behalf of their constituents to be answered in a timely fashion. I would just remind the duty minister to perhaps pass that on to Senator Birmingham.

The announcement that was made is problematic in many different ways. If we go back to 2009, it was a Labor government then. A 2009 white paper announced that we were going to double our submarine force. It was going to go from six to 12, and it was going to do that within three decades. From 2009, we could have expected that by 2039 we would have 12 new, regionally superior submarines. That was the aim. What we now see with the plan on record is something quite different. If we just go with what has been announced to date—remembering that we have had the announcement saying we're going to do a 18-month study and in 2040 we're going to get a future nuclear-powered submarine—that means in 2039, when we were supposed to have 12 regionally superior submarines, we're going to have five—only five—very aged Collins-class submarines. That just seems absolutely crazy in the context of the very reason for going to AUKUS, which was the 'rising tension'. In 2009, it must have been the Rudd government that announced the 12 submarines, and they did so on the basis of concerns about where things were going geostrategically, and it looks like Defence got that right. They have actually upped the ante, but they have, basically, left us strategically vulnerable.

The Liberal Party would claim that they are strong on national security—but you're not. You've gone from an aim of 12 regionally superior submarines by 2039 to five, aged Collins-class submarines. And that's not a criticism of the Collins class submarines at all. The men and women down at Osborne do a fantastic job of maintaining those submarines. And I'm not suggesting they wouldn't be safe—because that's what people do down at Adelaide: they make sure those submarines are in tip-top shape before they let them leave Osborne, as part of their full-cycle docking program. But that's a very different thing to a submarine that is aged and asked to go into combat. It's like taking a bow and arrow into a battle with rifles. And that's the sort of problem that's created. No matter how much you try to improve the Collins class submarines, some of these brand-new submarines in our region are very highly capable submarines, and I know, because I've been on some of them. I've been to sea on the South Korean Type 214 submarines on a number of occasions—well-trained crews, very highly capable submarines. And I've worked with a number of different navies around this region. Sadly, we've ended up with a situation where the Liberal government—who claim to be strong on national security—have left us in a very vulnerable position.

The other thing that's happened with this announcement is that we've got a whole bunch of people down in Adelaide and, actually, around the country who had committed to the Attack class program. Again, I support the closing down of that program, but the manner in which it was closed down has had a harmful effect on workers down in Adelaide and around the country, and on companies. I won't name them, because Defence can be quite vindictive in relation to bad stories coming from industry, but a company that I went and visited had two to three years worth of work booked ahead on the Attack class submarine. And that work is no longer there. Now, the way companies work—for those that haven't ever had to be a business development manager or a director of a company—is that they have to work and make sure they've got an order book that runs out to a couple of years, to make sure they can plan with their workforce to be able to achieve the objectives of the company. When someone rips out a major contract, that company would not have been pursuing work because they would have known that their workload was set for the next couple of years and they didn't have capacity to do any more. So they would have been resting in terms of trying to develop further business. Suddenly that work is stripped out from underneath them, and it leaves a company, which might have 150 people, saying, 'What do we do now?'

There have been some attempts by the government to deal with individual workers but not with the companies. In my view, the response to companies has been very shallow and harmful. These are good companies. Some of these companies invested to get to the point of being able to tender for a contract to meet the requirements of Naval Group. They got to a point where they were basically ready to go and the contract was cancelled. All of that investment is lost. That is an investment that sometimes comes from the wallets of mum-and-dad company owners. Again, I don't mind the fact that we've cancelled this contract; it's about how we went about it and what we are or are not doing in respect of those companies that have been caught up in this whole thing.

I'm going to continue to ask questions on behalf of my constituents, and I don't think it's unreasonable for me to expect that those questions get answered in a timely fashion. I'm not asking for anything that's classified. I'm not asking for anything that's overly sensitive. I note the Prime Minister might be sensitive about questions about the French President, but the questions ought to be answered on time and it is disrespectful that the Prime Minister hasn't answered them.

4:06 pm

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to take note of the minister's response. On this occasion I do agree with Senator Patrick: it is not unreasonable to get an answer—a timely answer—to these questions. But it's also entirely unsurprising that we don't have an answer to Senator Patrick's questions because, when it comes to this announcement and the impact of this announcement on my state, there are many questions which remain unanswered by this government. They are questions which go to the heart of the future economic prosperity of my state—questions about local jobs and questions about local content in the new contracts. These are significant questions, and, by failing to answer them and by failing to have an open conversation with the people of South Australia, this government is creating deep anxiety in the people working on these contracts and in the people who have changed their whole lives to work on these projects, either in South Australia or, indeed, abroad. I've had families contact me from abroad who have found this incredibly stressful.

We still don't know what will be built in South Australia and we don't know when. We don't know precisely how local companies and local content will be engaged. We don't know what the future looks like. Whilst we support the AUKUS decision—we've provided bipartisanship on that, as we should—there are significant questions which remain unanswered, and they need to be answered as a matter of urgency.

South Australians are anxious about this, and it's no wonder they're anxious. Time and time again, when it comes to submarines in our state, to defence expenditure in our state or to local content requirements in our state, they have been misled by this government. They've been led down one path, fed something and then fed something else. They've been promised one thing, then had it ripped away from them. They've been promised something else, and then stepped back from that. Now we've got more than 1,100 jobs on the line that we know about, not including the people working for small businesses, the people working for businesses gearing up to tender for this work and the businesses who have spent money but do not yet have a contract in their hand.

Senator Patrick's right: it takes time, particularly for the small businesses. Not every company is a large company. Not every company can withstand this kind of uncertainty. And the workers are stressed—they are stressed and nervous and they don't trust this government to be honest with them. They don't trust this government to act with urgency. So, when Senator Patrick stands here and asks for an answer to these questions, I'm happy to stand here and support him because my state needs answers. These workers need answers. We've used estimates to do that. We're using the committee system to do that. It's reasonable that on the floor of this parliament we request all that information. We need to know urgently so that we can provide some comfort and assurance to the people in my state who are anxious.

Let me be clear: it's not just the people working directly on this program. It's not just those who are directly employed by Naval Group, although of course it is most critical for them. When there is uncertainty for this industry in my state, it affects our entire state. It affects business confidence in our state, which has a significant impact and flow-on effect on the rest of the economy, on other people's jobs and on the decisions South Australians are making for themselves, their future and their families. South Australians are already stressed around issues of brain drain. South Australians don't want their kids to go interstate for work; they want a bright future for them in our state with high-skilled jobs, secure jobs, technical jobs and jobs which will give them a long-term future in South Australia. But they need answers and they need clarity.

We need to know that this government is absolutely committed to maximising South Australian input and involvement in this. We need answers on that. The South Australian workforce that is working on these projects needs answers on that. It needs that security and that assurance, and so does every single small-business owner and employee who depends on this work in South Australia. Whilst we support the decision, we don't support the lack of clarity. We want assurances for South Australian workers. I want assurances for my state. I want to know about the future of secure and high-skilled work in my state when it comes to these defence projects.

Question agreed to.