OPINION - BACK OUR DEFENCE INDUSTRY

By Matt Keogh MP

18 November 2021

The art of the successful magician is to be able to hold your attention on one element while making the moves he doesn’t want you to see. 

And that is Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approach to government, especially Defence industry. 

Just ask ScoMo’s good friend Emmanuel Macron — he doesn’t think. He knows. 

So it is important that we don’t let all the chatter around the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States partnership and Australia’s new direction on submarine capability distract from other critical defence capability plans and their apparent mismanagement by the Morrison Government. 

In recent weeks we heard about $1 billion worth of upgrades to WA naval base HMAS Stirling — but it was funding that had already been announced. 

This Government can’t be trusted to tell Australian industry the truth. 

Indeed, some recent behaviour of the Prime Minister calls into question his ability to tell the truth across myriad areas. 

It is abundantly clear that we must ensure small and medium-sized local defence industry businesses receive the investment they need to scale up, so we can be as self-sufficient here in Australia as possible — in the interests of our sovereign capability. 

Instead, we recently discovered in Senate estimates that the Pacific Support Vessel slated in 2018 to be built in Australia and most likely in WA, will now be bought second-hand overseas. 

The reason for this purchase overseas? 

The Government took too long getting its act together to build a new vessel. This was despite local industry making it clear they were ready and able to undertake the work. 

It’s incomprehensible to me that many Australian, indeed West Australian businesses, have customers overseas jostling for our capabilities and inventions, but they struggle to get a look in when it comes to the Australian Defence Force. 

There is also smoke and mirrors on investment in defence infrastructure here in WA. 

When making the AUKUS announcement, the Prime Minister said that his Government would work with the WA Government to invest in a large dry dock at Henderson. 

“Work with” — that’s not a commitment, though it’s a convenient teaser for a Federal election campaign. 

We don’t know what that dock will look like, what it will be capable of, whether it will be a graving dock or a ship lift — in fact, we lack a guarantee as to whether the infrastructure will be built here in WA at all. 

The only other dock of its kind in this country is in Sydney, due to go into long-term maintenance in a few short years. 

Industry, and indeed our ADF needs certainty that we won’t lose that capability. 

Buried in the September AUKUS announcement, WA was assured of a number of other future shipbuilding projects. 

Yet, at present, there are no tenders, timelines, expressions of interest and certainly no contracts. 

The Defence Industry Minister, WA’s own Melissa Price, spruiked these projects at the WA defence industry gala recently, which I was very proud to attend. 

The minister noted work on these projects promised for WA would start at the end of the decade, after WA’s existing naval shipbuilding work would have already been completed. 

This leaves WA shipbuilders heading towards a cliff without more certainty from the Morrison Government. 

The WA defence industry is being well supported by the McGowan Labor Government, but defence is a Federal Government responsibility — a bit like quarantine — and the Federal Government needs to do its part. 

A Federal Labor government will be the partner WA needs in Canberra. 

We must provide industry the assurance of an ongoing pipeline of work in shipbuilding in our major shipbuilding centres — that is Henderson here in WA and Osborne in South Australia. 

From the continued trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the WA defence industry has proved their superiority, to the uncertainty triggered by the abolition of the Attack-class submarine contract — it’s been quite a year. 

Our Australian defence industry needs assurance it will be prioritised and supported in gaining future work across all defence domains. 

Through Labor’s “a future made in Australia” policy, a Federal Labor government will leverage our $270 billion investment pipeline, to develop sovereign industrial and research capabilities and build skills and expertise within the Australian workforce. 

A Federal Labor government will provide assurance for industry through our commitment to enforceable and transparent Australian industry capability requirements in all future defence contracts, all the while investing in and de-risking companies through our National Reconstruction Fund. 

If only this Morrison Government was focused on the truth, not just the announcement when it comes to our nation’s defence capability. 

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Thursday, 18 November 2021.