Transcript: Press Conference, Townsville





PHILLIP THOMPSON OAM MP, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, it's great to be here in Townsville with my good friend Andrew Hastie, who's the Shadow Defence Minister. Andrew and I have known each other for some time, deploying to the Middle East together, and now working in Parliament together. It's really good to have Andrew come to Townsville to showcase our region and what we have to offer. I've been speaking with defence industry, and people that have been serving and former serving members to listen, to hear how they're tracking, what's happening, and also catch up with some people that were down at Land Forces that was in the previous week. It is good that you're here today to have a chat about Richard Marles and Pat Conroy, because it's always good to hear them do a press conference because we've got two people that don't offer much substance. We've got a part time Defence Minister moonlighting as the Deputy PM, who spends more time overseas than he does in the regions. I don't know what he is today, but as a Defence Minister, he still hasn't come to Townsville, the largest Garrison city in the nation. Pat Conroy, the Defence Industry Minister, still hasn't come to Townsville, the largest Garrison city in the country. You’ve got to two people that couldn't be bothered rocking up to Land Forces, which is bread and butter for any defence portfolio, government member and non-government member. Myself, Andrew Hastie and Luke Howarth, who’s the Shadow Defence Industry Minister, were there for three days listening to the defence industry, listening to the concerns that they have, and also hearing how they're going to be progressing our future in the defence industry in defence space. It's very important to be there because it's the largest defence industry showcase that we have in this country and it's bread and butter for a government member. So, it was disappointing that no senior government Defence Minister was there. I know that they may have been on holidays or overseas, but this is where they should be. They should be out listening to people and getting on with the job. We've seen two critical issues come out from this new government and it's a lack of commitment for LAND 400 Stage Three, and I spoke with Rheinmetall and Hanwha about this very issue. Kicking it down the road under the guise of a strategic review, to me screams cuts. And also, the lack of commitment to securing the Black Hawk. This is done deal when we were in government, we’ve changed over to Opposition - we get that - but the new government, instead of firming up getting the Black Hawk and ensuring that our soldiers have the best equipment to train in, to go and exercise with, and to keep them alive, they're not committing to. We'll see the MRH90, which is a failed platform, a failed helicopter, be in Townsville, line up on the tarmac, and only 50% capability will get in the air. We've been there and I've said it's too dangerous for me to get inside. If it’s too dangerous for me, it's too dangerous for the soldiers that get in the back, too dangerous for the loadmasters and the pilots. And these people have told me and told Andrew, that Black Hawk is a proven aircraft, a proven helicopter that we’ve seen do very well here on exercise, but even better on operations. When I was wounded in Afghanistan, I was picked up by a Black Hawk. When my mate, Paul Warren, lost his leg - he was picked up by Black Hawk. If the MRH90 was there and it failed to get off the ground, people like Paul may have died. So, what we need to see is action. We need to see leadership from this new Labor Government. We need to see Richard Marles be less concerned about what the Chief of Defence Force in sitting next to him in his office and get out of there, get back into the regions and listen to people on the ground. Because that's how you make good decisions - by listening to the end user, not by sitting in some headquarters down in Canberra. And we need Richard Marles, and we need Pat Conroy to stop travelling around the world get out to where you know, the real issues and the real people are, and that's in the largest Garrison city - that's in Townsville. So, it's It baffles me that we haven't seen him come here. And I echo the sentiment that many of the defence industry people stated just last week - we need a minister who is full-time in this capacity. We need a full-time Defence Minister, because I think that the brave men and women who put on their uniform every day deserve that, not a part-time DPM, part-time Defence Minister. I'll hand over to Andrew for some comments. Thank you.


THE HON ANDREW HASTIE MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thanks Phil. Well, good afternoon or good morning I should say. It's great to be here in Townsville, Australia's largest Garrison city, home of three brigade, and it's great to be here with Member for Herbert, Phil Thompson. Phil and I met back in 2009 - we deployed together to Afghanistan in 2009 - we now serve in the Australian Parliament, and it's great to be working on defence issues with Phil. Richard Marles and Pat Conroy this morning, called a press conference to announce that they will be getting the Department of Defence to do more paperwork. They've asked for a monthly update on some of the projects that they claim are behind. And what we need from Richard Marles is not more paperwork - we need action, we need delivery. He said he will be actively managing some of these Defence projects - we need him driving them. Our strategic situation demands that he deliver results as quickly as possible. And so, while Labor over the past week has created great uncertainty about their commitment to stage three tax cuts, what we see today is Richard Marles and Pat Conroy setting the conditions for stage one of Defence cuts. The DSR is being led by Stephen Smith, the former Labor Defence Minister responsible for some of the biggest cuts in Australia's history to Defence. And so, I'm concerned that this government lacks resolve, that it lacks commitment, and that it lacks an appreciation of the strategic circumstances that we find ourselves in. We want to see, as Phil said, a commitment to the Black Hawk helicopter. Now, last year, the MRH90 had a readiness of less than 50%. If you got in your car every day and it only started once out of every two times you turn the key, you call it a lemon and you want to get a new one. That's why the former Coalition Government went for the Black Hawk, that's why they made a commitment to getting the Black Hawk and we're calling on Richard Marles and the Albanese Government to commit to the Black Hawk helicopter. Last week, Phil, Luke Howarth, the Shadow Defence Industry Minister, and I were at Brisbane at the Land Forces conference - the biggest Defence exhibition in southern hemisphere. Not a single Labor minister from the Defence portfolio attended the Land Forces conference. Instead, they sent the Assistant Minister for the Republic for high-fives and a photo op. And it's not acceptable. It's a really important time in our history, our strategic circumstances are getting worse - we know this, we've known this for some years now. And it's really important that defence industry is led well by the Defence team in the Labor Government. And that's why their absence was noted, and that's why we need a commitment from them on LAND 400 Phase Three. We met with Rheinmetall, we've met with Hunwha. There's a lot of uncertainty, and we're concerned about cuts to capability. The former Coalition Government got Defence spending up to 2.11% of GDP, and I'm concerned that this Labor Government won't hold it there. I’ll now go to any questions. Thank you.


JOURNALIST: Almost one-hundred years of delays to projects. Is it fair to say that we have a capability gap now?


ANDREW HASTIE: Look, there are potential capability gaps but we're not talking about the past, we're talking about the future. And so, all Richard Marles did this morning was announce more paperwork. We need action, we need drive, and we need to deliver the capabilities that are already in the pipeline. We invested $270 billion in future capability over the next decade as the former Coalition Government, and what we're seeing now is Labor starting to crab walk away from some of those commitments, show uncertainty, and that's the last thing we need in these dangerous times. We need commitment from the Labor Government. So whatever capability gaps they might be talking about, there's no point talking about the past, we need to talk about the future. And that's why we're asking for drive and commitment to get these projects delivered on time.


JOURNALIST: Isn't that relevant to the future if the ADF can't deliver those materials on time to get to troops on the ground. Is that relevant to the future those capability gaps?


ANDREW HASTIE: Well, the only reason why we're still waiting for an Infantry Fighting Vehicle is because this government has not taken a decision on who wins the tender for LAND 400 Phase Three. Great vehicle - our troops are still running Vietnam-era M113’s. And we need these infantry fighting vehicles soon. And defence industry needs certainly soon so they can make the investments, not just here in our manufacturing capacity, but also in our supply chain resilience as well. And that's why we're calling on this government to get on with the job, stop delaying, stop foreshadowing cuts, commit to spending the right amount of money that we need to build a Defence Force that will provide a sufficient deterrent effect into the region into the future


JOURNALIST: 28 projects running almost 100 years behind schedule, did your government let things slip under its watch?


ANDREW HASTIE: Well, if we go back to the Labor years under the former Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Governments, they took Defence spending to the lowest level since 1938. And so, for the last nine years, the Coalition Government has recovered loss, a lot of the capability that was lost under the Labor Government. So, if they want to talk about capability gaps, and they want to give lectures about capability gaps, they should pull the plank out of their own eye before they start lecturing us. We've been cleaning up their mess for the last nine years, and now having appointed the very man who drove Defence spending to the lowest level since 1938, they've put him in charge of the Defence Strategic Review – that’s Steven Smith, of course, and so I'm concerned what happens to the current levels of spending that we have, and the capabilities that we put in train under the former government.


JOURNALIST: What about former Coalition Governments through? I understand that there had to be those projects, like you said, that have to come up but $6.5 billion roughly dollar cost blowout, and that's not even including the new submarines that were announced under the Morrison Government, has the Coalition not financially managed those?


ANDREW HASTIE: There's a range of issues. We all know that the cost of living is accelerating through the roof at an exponential rate right now. The Minister has also factored in exchange variation and price indexing, there are a number of larger macro-economic factors which have led to the increased costs on a number of different things. We're all feeling it ourselves. The average mum and dad are seeing the cost of living go up, and Defence is no different, which is why we're going to have to keep spending at 2.11% and above, because inflation is going to eat into the purchasing power of every single dollar that we commit to Defence. And so, if the strategic circumstances are as bad as we know they are, well then the Labor Government has to come clean with the Australian people and have a tough conversation about what we need to invest in Defence to keep our country safe going forward.


JOURNALIST: Surely the Coalition can't blame cost of living expenses on a $6.5 billion blowout?


ANDREW HASTIE: Well, it's a complex figure. But like I said, there are a number of different factors. And I'm not here to defend the past, okay, I'm here to talk about the future. And we're not interested in history wars, we're interested in preparing for wars of the future. And they're going to be kinetic and potentially, you know, very, very dangerous for us and the region. And that's why building up our Defence Force promotes strength. Weaknesses provocative and we can't afford to be weak over the next decade, which is why the Labor Government needs to commit to building up our Defence capability and making sure that we are in the strongest possible position. Government is a


JOURNALIST: The government is accusing the Coalition of forcing Luerssen to include Austal in projects, which lead to significant delays, how accurate is that?


ANDREW HASTIE: I wasn't privy to those discussions.


JOURNALIST: just on that as well. Looking at this now, do you think that there's room for - regardless of what side of politics - that the government needs to look at reviewing how new Defence Force procurement programmes are started? Does it need to be maybe taken out of the hands of politicians and put into more professional roles?


ANDREW HASTIE: Well, this is the thing, Richard Marles spent a lot of time blaming politicians this morning, but departmental secretaries and departments have responsibility as well. Their task is to operationalise the projects that we select. And so, you know, he's taken all responsibility on himself. Richard Marles this morning, he basically said, yep, departments fine, this is on me. So, we'll be holding him to account over the next year and beyond because, frankly, he's owned the problem now. And it's now his time to deliver, which is why we're calling on him not to give more directions for paperwork, but directions for action, delivery, and leadership. That's what we want from Richard Marles.


JOURNALIST: On that as well. What's the impact for places like Townsville? Obviously, we heard about the Black Hawk potential delays, is that something that you might expect?


ANDREW HASTIE: Look, we need Black Hawks now. Last year, I think the MRH90 was about 48% ready every day. That meant that every time they went to fly, there was a one in two chance of it flying. As I said, if you own a car that only started once out of every two times, you'd call it a lemon, sell it and buy a new one. That's what we're saying with the Black Hawk - time to get an aircraft that's battle tested, proven. The Black Hawk is the most battlefield proven helicopter in existence right now. And, frankly, we needed it back in Afghanistan. But you know, we're looking into the future. And I think it's the right platform. We have State Department approval from the United States, so let's get on with it and get it done.


PHILLIP THOMPSON: Just on that, Townsville families, people that work on these aircrafts, it's an uncertain time, because they want to get on with the job of changing the show, and going to work and getting on the Black Hawks. At the moment with delays and uncertainty in the language coming from the Defence Minister, it's very uncertain times for them. And we know that people who live in Townsville want to stay in Townsville. They don't want to be moving. We want to bring more people here. But when you've got a Defence Minister that's very uncertain with his language around the MRH90 and even more uncertain language with the Black Hawk, it leaves people in the lurch and leaves people in limbo. And we want to secure the workforce we have here to change shirts from the MRH90 in order to get on to the Black Hawk because it's a proven aircraft and we know that Townsville locals want to move and get on it. So, right now we've got a bunch of families that are sitting here very uncertain about their future and I don't think it's fair on them. And that's why Richard needs to get out from under his desk and make some leadership decisions and come to Townsville.


JOURNALIST: The MRH90 is based in Townsville [inaudible], is there any expectation of where Black Hawks could be based?


ANDREW HASTIE: They'll be based where they're needed. That's always the way you do capability. So, where we have our aerosol capability, where we have our Special Operations capability - that's where the helicopters will be. They're primarily an aerosol Special Operations platform, proven, as I said, on multiple battlefields over the last two decades, and they'll go where the Army, Air Force and Navy need it.


JOURNALIST: Does the Coalition accept any responsibility in the blowout of these projects? I know you said you weren’t privy to discussions but [inaudible].

ANDREW HASTIE: Look, I'm very proud of the Henderson shipyard. I live 30-40 minutes south of it in Perth – home of great businesses like Austal and Luerssen and Civmec and other SMEs that contribute to defence industry. As I said, I wasn't privy to those discussions. But the point is, it's now time to deliver, and this Labor Government has been elected. They're now in charge. Richard Marles this morning said he's the man responsible - the buck stops with him. The speed of the boss is the speed of the team, and we're going to be holding the boss to account. Thank you very much.