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Defence Minister's comments show contempt for SA's proud history of skilled manufacturing

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 26 Nov 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (10:52):  I rise to take note of the defence minister's statement about the deplorable comments that he made last night. They are deplorable because these comments not only show contempt for the Australian Submarine Corporation-it is not just some faceless entity-and not just for the management of the ASC but these comments denigrate every member of the skilled workforce employed there.

It also shows contempt for South Australia's proud history of skilled manufacturing. What have we heard from the defence minister in his statement about these comments? Have we heard the word 'sorry'? Have we heard that simple five-letter word that indicates real remorse?

Senator O'Sullivan interjecting-

Senator WRIGHT:  No, we have heard a justification, an explanation, an excuse for why this was, to quote the Attorney-General, 'a slip of the tongue'. We have heard that it was a rhetorical flourish. We have heard that the minister regrets any offence that may have been caused. But we have not heard the unreserved apology that Senator Abetz, his own colleague, would require as the standard in his own speech today. So let me ask: has offence been caused by these comments? There is no doubt that, yes, there has been offence, because they actually undermine the sense of worth of skilled workers in this corporation in South Australia.

A news report quoted one of those workers today-pipe fitter, Andrew Daniels. I would like to quote this because this actually goes to the heart of what the sorts of intemperate, foolish and derogatory comments do when they are heard by the people who are affected by them. Mr Daniels said:

We are being trashed. When I go home to my family and this guy is telling me I am useless, I don't feel useless. That is pretty gutting to 3,000 workers in South Australia and Western Australia. It is not a great feeling to have your defence minister-you are out there doing the best job for the country and he is trashing you.

Senator O'Sullivan interjecting-

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Bernardi):  Order! Senator Wright, resume your seat. Senator Moore.

Senator Moore:  It is a point of order-the interjections across the chamber by Senator O'Sullivan. I am unable to follow the argument being put forward by Senator Wright.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT:  Thank you, Senator Moore. The interjector has been particularly vociferous today, so it would be helpful he desisted.

Senator WRIGHT:  Senator Abetz has tried to minimise these comments. He has tried to explain that they came about because of frustration at the Labor government legacy. But that is not what the defence minister said in his comments. What he said in his comments clearly denigrated the Australian Submarine Corporation and their workforce, pure and simple. Unfortunately today he has not been big enough to say sorry. The sad truth is that this statement comes after a series of statements from the minister not just undermining the Australian Submarine Corporation but, cumulatively, undermining and casting doubt on Australia's naval capability generally. That is not what we should be expecting from a defence minister for Australia.

The submarine project is the largest procurement in Australian history. For that reason alone it must be done with transparency and integrity. It must be done with a competitive, transparent, open process that examines both value and cost but of course also fitness for purpose, because these are vessels that we will be relying upon for our ultimate defence.

Before the election we had this same defence minister stand in Adelaide and commit to the build of the 12 submarines in South Australia. Before that we had the previous government's white paper stating, 'The future submarines will be assembled in South Australia.' Mr Johnson on 8 May last year, then opposition spokesperson on defence, accepted this commitment and stated that the coalition 'will deliver' on the white paper's commitment. What he said I will quote so it is very clearly on the record:

The coalition today is committed to building 12 new submarines here in Adelaide. We will get the task done and it is a really important task, not just for the Navy for the nation.

They were fine words but it seems they have amounted to nothing. Then again, just to make sure that South Australians were in no doubt about what the government's commitment was, the coalition defence policy a week before the election reiterated the commitment:

We will ensure that work on the replacement of the current submarine fleet occurs in South Australia.

There is clearly now an agenda because we have the defence minister telling us that there has been no decision about the submarines. Of course there is a lot of speculation. Of course there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests that there has been a decision that the submarines will be built in Japan. But we have the defence minister telling us that there is no decision yet about the submarines. There is clearly no decision that they will be built in South Australia-in breach of that election commitment. But there is clearly not an agenda to ensure that we can have these submarines made in Australia. So we have the betrayal of a promise made to South Australians before the federal election.

What confidence, indeed, can we have that this Abbott government cares at all for South Australian jobs, coming as this does on the back of other decisions which have undermined the South Australian employment market. We have had this government presiding over the demise of vehicle manufacturing in South Australia. We have had now cuts to ABC jobs, which will severely affect the ABC and employment in South Australia, even though we still have Senator Abetz maintaining some kind of ludicrous fiction that there have been no jobs lost as a result of the cuts to the ABC.

And now we have a defence minister who has not been big enough to use the word 'sorry' and has not fully resiled from the remarks he has made.

The ultimate question, then, is how can Australians trust the defence minister to run the procurement process in a truly transparent and open way? The evidence is that he is not competent to run this process transparently, and the ultimate question must then be: how can Australians trust this minister to oversee the defence of this country?


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