Parliamentary Speech: Matter of Public Importance

Last week, the Minister rose in this House and said that:

‘…the first responsibility of government is to provide for the safety and security of its people’.

He spoke of Australian sovereignty—and the need to protect it, along with our unique and cherished way of life.

We agreed and we answered in a spirit of bipartisanship—we pledged to work with the Government on the strategic challenges ahead.

To build our strength and sovereignty.

To show resolve in the face of authoritarian aggression and coercion.

To deliver nuclear submarines as soon as possible.

To act as a robust opposition—in the Westminster tradition—and hold the government to task and to account for their promises, the trust of the Australian people, and our national security.

We pledged to be tough, but always with the national interest as our guiding star.

To make sure that we make Australia safer now and for the generations to come.

That’s our pledge as the Coalition. And it is a solemn one

Our words matter in this place. As do our actions.

We are judged by both.

Therefore, we cannot leave unanswered this Government’s cheap, hyper-partisan misrepresentation and distortion of our record.

Today, unlike Labor, we seek not to settle scores, we seek simply to correct the record.

Let us consider Labor’s defence record over the past two decades.

The truth is that when the Coalition won government in 2013, we inherited Labor’s mess.

Chronic underinvestment, spending cuts and neglect had badly damaged capability and morale in the ADF.

The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments drove defence spending to 1.56% of GDP—the lowest since 1938. And that was after inheriting the strong economy the Howard Government had built before them.

It was a huge mess.

Since taking office in 2013, until leaving office last year, the Coalition government increased defence spending—in real terms—by 55%.

Truth matters. And the truth is that all of the investment into defence over the last decade was made by the Coalition.

Growing ADF numbers, building new capabilities, restoring morale, giving our soldiers, sailors and airmen a new sense of mission and purpose—

That was the Coalition. It was under our watch.

The truth is that the hard analysis of our new strategic reality was undertaken by the Coalition.

It was our burden and we stepped up. We did not resile from it.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which forecast the rise of authoritarian powers, the return of traditional warfare, the growth of subversive operations in the shadows—

That hard-headed work was our work, and we were on the right track.

The proofs are many, including Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine and China’s increased aggression in the region and beyond.

The truth is that we also took all the hard decisions in responding to our darkened strategic reality.

Sometimes the right commitment to investing in our national security means tough decisions.

We took the tough but necessary decision to cancel the French Attack Class submarines, and to acquire nuclear-powered submarines through AUKUS.

It was necessary in the national interest.

The tough but necessary decision to acquire Black Hawk and Apache helicopters was our call.

This was necessary in the national interest.

These calls mean that if our troops are once more deployed into harm’s way, they won’t be relying on allied airlift or air support under fire. Instead they’ll have Australian aircrew and helicopters watching their backs.

These decisions, among many others, were taken by the Coalition—informed by the lived experience of veterans on this side of the house, and followed through by the Leader of the Opposition.

We are proud of our record and we take exception to this Government trashing it in the petty pursuit of short-term partisan applause.

And we remain circumspect about the Albanese government’s commitment to the task ahead.

We have good reason for this.

In 2007, the Labor produced an election document entitled ‘Labor’s Plan for Defence’.

On page 7, we find these words:

‘Labor is committed to maintaining defence spending, including a minimum annual 3 percent real growth until 2016, and is committed to ensuring that Defence dollars are spent more effectively and efficiently.’

We know how that campaign pledge finished up.

On leaving office in 2013, defence spending under Labor had dropped to just under 1.6% of GDP.

The ADF had been fleeced.

We all became more vulnerable.

And we can’t pretend that this is ancient history.

It’s not.

In fact, two of the key contributors to this dangerous record have returned front and centre to the political stage.

Stephen Smith, Defence minister back then, was entrusted with co-leading the Defence Strategic Review and is now the UK High Commissioner.

Dr Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister & Foreign Minister back then, is now Ambassador to the USA.

They are now intimately involved with delivering our nuclear submarines and operationalising AUKUS.

We hope that they’ve learned from past failures, and neglect under their watch.

We will remain vigilant, watching carefully and reserving our judgment as AUKUS and DSR announcements are made over the next few weeks.

Perhaps more concerning even than this is the internal division, the span of difference, within the Albanese government over the nature of the challenge we face. 

While reading the Treasurer's essay this summer, I enjoyed my fill of anecdotes from Ancient Greek history about rivers. We all did. But I was left worried by the gaping hole the Treasurer left.

He covered the three crises of the past well enough - the Global Financial Crisis, the Pandemic of course, and the energy and inflation crisis we face now. But none of these are the big crisis, the one over the horizon. The one the Deputy Prime Minister has rightly called our "greatest security anxiety."

Only two years ago, Senator Wong criticised our side for "deliberately encouraging anxiety." Now, both she and the Deputy Prime Minister admit we need to be "clear eyed" about national security, or we face the risk of "avoiding a catastrophic failure of deterrence."

Mr Speaker, while the Treasurer had six thousand words, he couldn't find a dozen of substance to acknowledge the greatest threat this country has faced since the Second World War.

I was proud—we were all proud—to be part of a government that saw the crisis with clarity and responded with the creation of AUKUS and the plan to acquire the most lethal submarine in history.

Australia needs nuclear submarines—they will make us strong and change the balance of power in the region in favour of those who seek peace. This is the promise of AUKUS.

But these weapons depend on a highly powered economy. We are yet to see a plan for developing the economic power we will need in the years ahead.

AUKUS requires a nation-building approach.

We need the submarines, but we also need the highly trained military and civilian personnel, workforce and industrial capacity this most important capability demands.

How will the Deputy Prime Minister reshape the educational system to ensure that Australian students can prepare for the jobs that AUKUS will create?

How is the Deputy Prime Minister streamlining our immigration system so that the AUKUS workforce can move seamlessly between Australia, the UK and the USA?

How is the Deputy Prime Minister going to ensure that the legislation that will cut across defence, energy, education and other portfolios is managed in a bipartisan and constructive way?

Is he prepared to institutionalise the kind of bipartisan cooperation and collaboration Australia needs from this Parliament, so that AUKUS and its fruits will not just survive but thrive across successive governments?

How is the Deputy Prime Minister going to sustain and grow our defence industry?

What signal will he send to our partners that this Parliament is serious about working on AUKUS and building the institutional support for it?

We welcome answers to these.

In the meantime, we suggest that the Government gets on with the AUKUS mission and works constructively with the Opposition.

Look forward, as you’ll find no inspiration in your past. 

In November last year, the Prime Minister told Greg Sheridan that the Government will do whatever is necessary and increase investment in defence.

‘Yes, yes!’ he said. I hope for the sake of all Australians that he means it and will deliver.