Address to the Illawarra-Shoalhaven Defence Industry Conference

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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4 April 2023

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Dharawal people and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

As the Assistant Minister for Defence, I also pay my respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have served our nation in the past and continue to do so today.

My Parliamentary Colleague, the Member for Cunningham, Alison Byrnes MP;

Adam Zarth, Executive Director of Business Illawarra;

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;

It is always a pleasure to be in the great City of Wollongong ….

And among friends from the Illawarra-Shoalhaven region. I’d like to acknowledge the great work of Federal members Alison Byrnes, Fiona Phillips and Stephen Jones for your leadership in support of the region.

The region is custodian of so much of Defence’s industrial heritage, and it is also host to some of the most exciting innovators ….

Companies like Industry Spec Drones based here in Wollongong are doing interesting and innovative work, supported by Defence.

The topic you’ve asked me to speak to today is a big one:

“Our future in defence - Commonwealth leadership on development of sovereign capability and defence industry excellence”.

For the Albanese Labor Government, the answer is threefold.

It’s starts with the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines in the single biggest investment in our defence capability in our history …

On the most consequential review of our nation’s Defence needs in decades….

And in a purposeful and practical Strategy to guide the development of defence industry for the next decade.

Above all, it is grounded in a serious and considered assessment of the security challenges we face, and a commitment to ensure Australia is properly positioned to answer the challenges ahead.

When former Chief of the Defence Force Sir Angus Houston addressed the media last year he rated Australia’s current strategic circumstances as “the worst I have seen in my career and my lifetime.

This assessment is blunt, but accurate.

The world around us has become more uncertain and more precarious than at any time since the end of the Second World War. 

The war in Ukraine is a warning: it tells us that conflict is threatening the very fabric of the rules-based order that is so essential to our prosperity and security. Conflict involving a major power is no longer a hypothetical risk. It is happening now.

Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine completely subverts the principle and reality of sovereignty enshrined in the UN Charter. It cannot be allowed to stand.

Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation have only underlined that Russia poses a risk that no country, Australia included, can ignore.

And all this is occurring as the demand for international cooperation is becoming more acute: the challenges of climate change, pandemics, terrorism, food and resource security make clear the risks of a disintegrating global consensus.

Accelerating technology is also driving change in Australia’s strategic circumstances.

Innovations like artificial intelligence, automation, quantum computing, bio-tech, hypersonics and more are challenging our security in profound ways.

In 2020, the Defence Strategic Update identified that changes in Australia’s strategic environment are accelerating more rapidly than predicted in the 2012 Force Posture Review.

The Albanese Government is taking action to respond to this challenge.

A critical element in securing Australia’s future is the acquisition of a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability under AUKUS.

It is the single biggest investment in our defence capability in Australia’s history.

And a time of huge significance for Australia

It is difficult to overstate the leap that, as a nation, we are taking.

Australia will become one of only seven countries that operate nuclear-powered submarines.

Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States agreed a phased approach that delivers on the commitments of the Albanese Government and provides significant, long-term strategic benefits for all three countries.

For Australia there are three key elements.

There will be increased visits of US submarines commencing in 2023 and UK submarines from 2026, and, beginning in 2027, rotations of UK and US submarines to Australia.

This will be key to Australian jobs, infrastructure, technology and our ability to be sovereign ready.

From as early as the 2030s, Australia will acquire three US Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines – ensuring there is no capability gap.

Australia and the UK will deliver SSN-AUKUS, a new conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarine, based on a UK design, incorporating cutting edge Australian, UK and US technologies.

The UK will deliver its own first SSN-AUKUS in the late 2030s, with the first SSN-AUKUS built in Australia delivered in the early 2040s.

Australia is committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety and security as we deliver this Optimal Pathway.

A sophisticated security and safety architecture will surround the program building on Australia’s 70-year track record of operating nuclear facilities and conducting nuclear science, including the medical and research work we undertake at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights facility.

The scale of work required will be unlike any previous shipbuilding program in Australia’s history.

This is going to be truly a national endeavour, and its impact will be felt throughout the nation for decades to come.

Acquiring nuclear powered submarines will create around 20,000 direct jobs over the next 30 years, across industry, government and at Defence.

This figure doesn’t include the jobs in the supply chain - the tier 2 and tier 3 suppliers.

The Government has allocated $6 billion in the first four years on what’s called industrial uplift –increasing the training of workers, increasing the capacity of companies to compete and be at the nuclear level of quality and investing in infrastructure.

We’ll be training thousands of Australians in trades, in science and in engineering to build a generational workforce, ready to fill high paid, high skilled, high-tech jobs.

AUKUS will not only help to fill our national security requirements, but also make a significant contribution to our economic security.

HMAS Stirling in Western Australia will continue to be the home of Australian submarines. 

Recently there has been a lot of conjecture on the proposed location for a new east coast naval base. I understand this has been the cause for both discussion—positive and negative—and possibly angst in the Illawarra community.

But let me be clear. A decision has not been made.

While the former Government announced the need for an east coast base, the Albanese Government will take the time required to consider all feasible options.

The work of developing the Optimal Pathway for Australia to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine ran concurrently with the Defence Strategic Review that the government commissioned.

The Defence Strategic Review was an election commitment to consider the priority of investment in Defence capabilities and assess the ADF's structure, posture and preparedness in order to optimise Defence capability and posture to meet the nation's security challenges over the next decade and beyond.

On 14 February, Sir Angus Houston presented the Defence Strategic Review report to the Australian Government, on behalf of himself and Professor Stephen Smith, as the Independent Leads of the Review.

The Government will release a public version of the Defence Strategic Review within the coming month.

The third, critical element of the Government’s defence reform agenda is the Defence Industry Development Strategy.

The Strategy will set the framework and principles for the direction of defence industry policy for what will be a consequential decade for Australia’s national security.

It will help grow Australia’s defence industry, which supports 61,600 Australian jobs and contributes more than $10.6 billion to the Australian economy.

The Strategy will be informed by the Defence Strategic Review and other Government priorities and initiatives …

To articulate the strategic rationale for Australian defence industry and how we, as a government, will work with industry to deliver the capabilities Defence needs.

One thing is clear: our partnerships with industry will be vitally important.

Government understands, and Defence understands, that industry is our critical partner.

You only need to spend a moment down at Nowra with the dedicated personnel at HMAS Albatross to realise they are enormously appreciative of the critical role played by Defence Industry in providing them with the cutting-edge solutions they need.

From the moment they step onto the Base in the morning to the moment they leave at night, our personnel are conscious of the partnership they have with industry in Illawarra Shoalhaven and throughout Australia ….

From the construction businesses who build the facilities, to the businesses who maintain them, to the specialist engineers, scientists and technology businesses who create and maintain our capability.

The Illawarra Shoalhaven is also home to many innovators, like Mellori Solutions who are developing an innovative software application to automate radio frequency analysis to improve maritime situational awareness.

Or SMETEC Services, operated by Louise and Tim Smeets, both Defence veterans, who’ve received defence industry grant funding to help them develop their specialised metal cutting and processing capabilities for use with ballistic armour in land combat vehicles.

The Albanese Government is keen to see defence industry grow and flourish, because it is a crucial element of our sovereign capability and national security, and we are keen to ensure that Australian workers have the opportunities that defence industry can generate.

The NSW Government estimates the state’s defence industrial workforce comprises 6,500 direct and 29,000 indirect workers[iii].

I’m keen to see those numbers grow.

Organisations like Business Illawarra play a vital role in the success of Defence industry, by helping to showcase and champion the innovators in the region.

Events like this Conference, which brings together experts from across Defence and across the region, can help to identify opportunities for the region to contribute to the development and maintenance of Australia’s defence.

And the work you are doing as part of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Defence Industry Development Strategy is part of a vital national conversation about how we can all work together to make Australia safer and more secure.

Thank you.


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