Dr Chris Back - Liberal Senator for Western Australia

Defence Procurement

September 24, 2014

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (16:39): I am incredulous that the Labor opposition would want to give the coalition the opportunity to ventilate their failure when in government on issues associated with the shipbuilding industry, the submarines in Adelaide, the defence industry in general and the future submarines designed to meet Australia's unique needs for range, endurance and capability. I am reading now from what was the actual letter from Senator Moore to the President calling on the government to undertake an open and transparent tender process or a funded design study. This was from a government which demonstrated its gross failure in leadership, in management, in vision and in economic control of this nation.

Let me start by telling you what a mature, measured, rational coalition government will not do. The first thing we will not do is fail the Australian people by failing to provide adequate funding and adequate capability for Defence whether that is Defence personnel, whether it is materiel or whether it is other assets in the defence sector. Secondly, this government will not needlessly waste taxpayers' money on poorly conceived, poorly designed, poorly executed Defence projects and then desert the participants. Thirdly, this government will not, to the South Australian shipbuilding workers or the industry, fail to plan, to invest, to communicate and to demonstrate a viable direction for Defence acquisition and for the maintenance and support of Defence assets, many of which are developed in South Australia.

This mature, sensible government will not leave a future government, a future parliament or the people of Australia with a shipwreck of an economy. That of course was visited upon the people of Australia by the outgoing Labor government in 2013. That government inherited no net debt and actually had some $20 billion in cash, earning interest. Only now of course we see that we are paying $1 billion every 30 days on interest. That is not repaying this Labor debt. We are paying $33 million a day interest and we are borrowing from overseas to do it. Finally, this government will not leave a Defence Force, which is now so under resourced, overstretched and exhausted and up until September 2013 with the lowest morale it had had in many years as a result of that Labor government.

Let me, if I may, go back to a statement by the then opposition leader, Mr Kevin Rudd, on 31 October 2007. I quote from his statement:

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

He went on to say—

Senator Cameron interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Williams ): Order! Senator Cameron.

Senator BACK: it is a shame Senator Cameron is not listening; he might learn something. He went on to say:

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

Mr Rudd, in opposition, went on to tell the shipbuilding industry, tell the workers of South Australia:

Starting the process this year will guarantee continuity of work for South Australia's defence industry and those employed in the sector.

What did we see in government? The first thing we saw was deferring the critical strategic decision on the submarines. The second thing we saw was deferring the critical strategic decision on the Navy tanker ships.

Senator Cameron interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron, I will not ask you again.

Senator BACK: So what did we see? We saw an empty promise; we saw no delivery. We saw a Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government cut $20,000 million, $20 billion, not out of defence in general—I will get to that. This was just the submarine program. This was after the promises of October 2007—only a couple of weeks before the election, as I remember. It cut out $20 billion, and you would not believe it, with the compliance of the then state Labor government. Where were they all at that time? Where were the fine words? I accept Senator Gallagher's concerns, because I agree with them.

This was the Labor government who appointed then Minister Stephen Smith who made it very plain to everyone, particularly to the defence community, that he did not want to be the defence minister; he wanted to be the Foreign Affairs minister but then Prime Minister Gillard, by her own statement, actually had an even worse person than him—and that was Mr Carr—to come in and do that job.

So what did then defence Minister Smith allow? He allowed defence spending—this is the great state of South Australia supported by Labor governments—to get down to 1.56 per cent of GDP. Do you know you have to go back to between the two world wars to find the previous time that defence spending got down to that low level? As if that wasn't good enough: under the great leadership of Stephen Smith, they cut yet another $16 billion out of the defence budget leading up to 2016-17.

I have not got the time to devote to the excellence of the now defence Minister Johnston but, as he said, the day he took over as minister, he opened up the box to see where all the forward plans were, to see where the vision was left to him. Do you know what was in the box? It was empty. They did not have one. They were bereft.

We are fortunate in this debate because, of the three colleagues to follow me, Senator Reynolds, has had a distinguished career in defence; Senator Fawcett himself has had a distinguished career in defence; and Senator Birmingham's knowledge of the economy of South Australia is very, very solid. I am delighted to hand over to my colleagues to conclude the discussion. My only regret is that I do not have several hours to devote to this topic. I thank Senator Moore for the opportunity.


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