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Thank you very much and welcome.
I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, where you are having this very important meeting and discussion, the Ngunnawal people, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
As the Minister for Defence, I also pay my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have contributed so much to the defence of our nation in both times of peace and war.
I welcome parliamentary colleagues present here today – it’s great to see you here. Thank you also to all the delegates here, particularly those who have travelled from much warmer climates here to cold Canberra – but at least Canberra has turned on the sunshine for you. I also acknowledge the contributions by the Master Builders Association and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and of course the Northern Territory Government for this important initiative.
I would just like to make a few comments on our strategic environment and some observations I have made in my first three-and-a-half months now as the nation’s Defence Minister. The first observation I make is somewhat self-evident but I don’t always think it is self-evident enough. That is that Australia is a three ocean nation. Whichever way you look, all three oceans are increasingly contested which is something that is shaping a lot of my thinking in terms of Defence’s strategic posturing. The Northern Territory does look out on a region of opportunity in two of those three oceans rims. It’s a region of increased economic prosperity, trade and also very rich people-to-people links, and I think nowhere more so than with the Northern Territory itself. The Indo-Pacific is increasingly complex and also a less predictable strategic environment. The Northern Territory always has, and always will, play an important role in our nation’s defence and particularly to our security. That is why the Morrison Government, and now myself as Minister, is so focused on the defence presence in the north.
I also recognise the great bipartisanship we have in that endeavour with the Opposition. I acknowledge Warren Snowdon who plays a very constructive and important role in the nation’s defence policy - and as a fierce advocate for the Northern Territory.
First and foremost as Minister for Defence, my primary role is the delivery of the best capability we can possibly afford and produce for the Australian Defence Force. This is through investing in infrastructure, capability but also increasingly now in supporting local industrial bases right across the nation.
The most important point I would like to make is that this Government is investing $200 billion in completely transforming our ADF – all three services - but also the new capabilities that are becoming increasingly important such as cyber security, contention in space and also what is happening subsea as well. We are spending this money, a significant amount of taxpayer’s money, not just here in Australia but we are doing it because we need the capability. My prime responsibility as Minister is to make sure that we get the best possible capability for our men and women in uniform.
Our largest and most enduring presence in the Northern Territory today includes 12 major Defence establishments with more than nearly five-and-a-half thousand Defence personnel based in the Top End. That includes more than 700 Reservists – and we must never forget that it also includes more than 5,000 spouses and family members located in the Northern Territory supporting their service.
The $200 billion investment now comprises over 180 separate projects in Defence and they are all designed to deliver superior capabilities and fit-for-purpose infrastructure to support future operations. Just to give you an idea of the depth and breadth of the challenges that face us, and the threats we now have to prepare for, is everything from traditional but increasingly technologically advanced high-end warfighting, some of the activities that we are preparing for through practice operations with the Marine Rotational Force and Exercise Talisman Sabre, that are really at that higher end of warfare. We also have the enduring threat of terrorism – our counter terrorism activities are just as important today as they were 20 years ago. While we have territorially defeated Daesh, their tentacles are now moving even closer, not only here in Australia but to our near neighbours. We have the increasing threats of cyber security – grey zone and hybrid warfare tactics – which are those just below the threshold of kinetic activities. This includes everything from foreign interference in our elections and in our economy right through to many other areas – the depth and breadth of things that we have to prepare for is significant.
We also have to prepare for the threats that potentially have very little warning time. If someone was to ask me what keeps me up at night apart from the safety and security of our men and women on operations – it is what is happening in the South China Sea, particularly in relation to intercontinental missiles and development in terms of range and sophistication and the threats they can now impose on Australia, as well as hypersonics – an area that we must continue to work towards.
The Northern Territory is a significant beneficiary of this investment – because it is the right place to develop and maintain these capabilities. The Government is planning on spending $8 billion over the coming decade for Defence facilities in the Northern Territory. This funding will be invested to update facilities at Robertson Barracks, HMAS Coonawarra, Larrakeyah Barracks and RAAF Base Darwin. It will also be used to support a range of US and Australian-funding infrastructure projects to assist with implementation and ongoing operation of the US Force Posture Initiatives. As I’m sure everyone in the Northern Territory would know, we have now reached the two-and-a-half thousand Marine Rotational Force number which has taken a few years to get to. These investments in our north not only enable a more active Defence posture but also greater International engagement and support. It is through our investment in the Northern Territory that we can expand the range of training, exercises and other activities such as Exercise Pitch Black.
These capability and investment spends are also delivering unprecedented opportunities for Australian industry – which I know is something of enormous importance, particularly to the Northern Territory Government and also to your local businesses. Our Defence industrial base is a strategic asset, and our Government is the first Government since World War Two to have the confidence and the faith in our Defence industry companies, and also in the ability of our companies, to develop and maintain those capabilities by Australians here in Australia for Australians.
This is why I have tasked Minister for Defence Industry, Melissa Price, to work in partnership with industry and State Governments to deliver our key infrastructure projects right across the Defence estate. Melissa is well-placed to do this, not just because of her commercial background but also because her electorate is one of the largest in the world straddling the Northern Territory and Western Australia border. She understands more than most of the complexities of building infrastructure in often harsh and unfriendly environments. She also understands the importance of local industry, being given the opportunity to be involved in the delivery of these projects. While Melissa does have day-to-day responsibilities working with you all to deliver this infrastructure and the other technologies and training that goes around that as well, I am still working very closely with her to ensure this occurs.
I am also very keen to ensure flexibility and agility in our investment in the North is better able to respond to the changing geostrategic circumstances in our region and also recognise the vital strategic importance of the North to our defence. We are very focused now on maximising the opportunities for local industry, including in the Northern Territory. Earlier this year, I announced when I was Minister for Defence Industry, the Defence Policy for Industry Participation which will maximise industry opportunities for procurement of between $4 million and $7.5 million for construction. Similarly, the Local Industry Capability Plans initiative, which I know many of you have worked closely with Marise Payne in developing, also maximises the local opportunities. It is important to have something in paper as a plan – but then it’s the reality of how we turn the plan into reality and make sure that it actually occurs.
When having a look in preparation for speaking here today, I was very pleased to note that the Northern Territory has recorded high rates of success so far under the Local Industry Capability Plan, with local engagement sitting at 71 per cent. It doesn’t mean we don’t have more work to do because we do – but I think it’s a very good start.
The Explosive Ordnance Logistic Reform Program at RAAF Base Darwin is a great example of this. It has seen 80 per cent of subcontracts awarded to local industry, worth more than $18 million. But, I am well aware that we still have more to do to make it as easy as possible for Northern Territory businesses to access and work with Defence. For those of you who have worked with Defence for a long time know it can be quite a challenging beast to work with – but I hope it is becoming easier. I think some of the statistics are starting to show that this is the case.
Since its launch in December 2016, the Centre for Defence Industry Capability has assisted nine Northern Territory businesses with formal advisory and facilitation services, and facilitated an industry engagement program for the Patrol Boat System Program Office with Northern Territory-based maritime businesses. We are also helping to equip industry across Australia, including in the Northern Territory, with the skilled workforce that will be required over the coming decade. Earlier this year we released the Defence Industry Skilling and STEM Strategy to assist with that. I am the first to acknowledge that we have much more work to do not just in the Northern Territory but right across the nation in upskilling our workforce for these jobs of the future – we are just simply not there yet and we know that we have a lot more work to do.
In conclusion, our footprint in the north is significant for the Defence of our nation. Facing out, our relationships with traditional allies and also other allies in our region including Timor Leste Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, is increasingly important for our strategic posture in the future. At its heart, defence investment in the Northern Territory and right across Australia is all about delivering the capability we need in these changing geostrategic circumstances for our nation. Fortunately, the Northern Territory already plays a significant role in that, but there are significant new opportunities as well for defence to work in partnership with many of you in this room and the Northern Territory Government to make sure we have the capability in the Northern Territory – not only to provide jobs in the Top End but to keep playing a significant role in keeping Australia safe and secure.