22 April 2022

This Opinion Piece was first published in the Newcastle Herald.

As Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence, I get asked about the Liberals’ claim that Labor is ‘weak on Defence’ or ‘weak on China’, and what I say in response is, look at the facts.

Labor’s commitment to Defence spending is the same as the Liberals. Our position on China is the same, as is our position on Ukraine. We offer bipartisan support for AUKUS (our partnership with the US and the UK) and Quad (our partnership with the US, Japan and India) and the nuclear submarine deal.

There is no difference between us on Defence spending or national security. The contrast comes in value for money. Labor ensures Defence dollars are well spent while the Liberals are all about waste.

Project delays and cancellations, budget blowouts, and six Defence Ministers are what has defined this Liberal Government that talks tough on Defence but fails to deliver. Their failure is a national security risk.

Labor is committed to Defence spending of a minimum of 2% of GDP. We made that commitment in 2013 and we’ve stuck to it.

Peter Dutton’s claim that Labor ‘cut billions’ from Defence when last in Government is a lie. Labor increased annual Defence spending by more than $6 billion. We increased spending on personnel, sustainment, and capital investment. We grew ADF membership and approved and funded more than 100 projects.

Under the Liberals chaotic administration, their six Defence Ministers have cut investments (spending $10.4 billion less on equipment than announced in the 2016 White Paper), failed to deliver projects on time (30 major projects are running a cumulative 79 years late), lost control of 17 major projects (that are running cumulatively $4.3 billion over budget) and delivered platforms that can’t do their job (such as helicopters that can’t shoot weapons and Battlefield Airlifters that can’t fly into battlefields).

Take the debacle of the Future Submarine project, which was running 10 years late and had blown out by $40 billion before it was axed.

First Tony Abbott wanted to buy the Attack Class subs ‘off the shelf’ from Japan. Then his Defence Minister David Johnston told Australian shipbuilders they couldn’t be trusted to build a canoe. Christopher Pyne promised the submarines would be built in Australia with 90% of the work done locally. Then he revised that, saying 60% of the build would be local. Then Linda Reynolds said this would be 60% of the contract value, not the build. Then Scott Morrison told the French President by text the deal was off. After three separate deals and eight years, they are now starting from scratch.

Mr Morrison tried to woo local voters by flagging Newcastle as a potential submarine base, but that decision won’t be made until 2023 for subs that won’t be in the water till 2040.

The Liberals have also failed to recruit or retain Defence personnel in accordance with their 2016 White Paper targets and these shortages are impacting operations, with the Navy unable to crew one of its frigates at times. This hollowness could become a pressing capability issue.

On the question of China, Labor’s position is no different to the Liberals’. We agree Australia needs a pragmatic trade relationship with an important trading partner, but one that does not compromise our values and principles about democracy, human rights, and the stability of our region.

It was Labor who brought the US Marines to Darwin and the Liberals who sold off that port to a Chinese company.

It was also under the Liberals’ that China made a security agreement with our Pacific neighbour the Solomon Islands, raising serious questions about regional security and the Government’s Pacific Step-Up.

Closer to home, the issue of PFAS pollution around Williamtown RAAF Base has drawn the interest of only one Defence Minister, Marise Payne, who did meet with residents. But no solutions have been found.

Do not believe the lie that Labor is ‘weak on Defence’ or ‘weak on China’. We will ensure Defence has the resources it needs, without waste.

Our Defence spending will boost our sovereign industrial capability, with a more advanced manufacturing sector and secure, decent, long-term jobs for Australians.

We learnt this week that this government has purchased a $90 million second-hand ship from the Canary Islands instead of building here as promised. As the renamed “Reliant” sets sail for Brisbane, let’s hope it’s more reliable than this government has been.