Doorstop Interview, Henderson Maritime Precinct, Perth WA

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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(02) 6277 7840

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15 November 2022


Minister for Defence Industry: I’m Pat Conroy, I’m the Australian Minister for Defence Industry. I’m joined by Tony Dalton, who’s Deputy Secretary in Charge of Naval Shipbuilding and Sustainment, and Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm, who’s the senior ADF officer in charge of shipbuilding and sustainment in Western Australia.

Behind me is a group of trainees and apprentices that have come through either Defence Industry Pathways Program or are working and being trained by companies like BAE here. We’re at Henderson Maritime Precinct, and I’m at BAE in particular to talk about the importance of naval shipbuilding and sustainment not just to the economy of Western Australia but to the national defence of Australia.

The defence industry in Western Australia supports seven and a half thousand jobs and contributes $3 billion to the state economy each year. And here in Henderson itself, there’s nearly 2,000 people working on shipbuilding and sustainment and they’re working on three and a half billion dollars worth of contracts.

And this is the spear tip of the ADF. The work that the men and women of the defence industry do, including the trainees and apprentices behind me ensure that the ADF get the equipment and platforms they need to protect our nation and advance our national interest.

And under the Albanese Labor Government, we’re looking at more and more investment in Western Australia in the defence industry. We’re looking at the outcomes of the Defence Strategic Review when it’s delivered. We’re looking at increasing defence spending to at least 2 per cent of GDP, and that means more work for Western Australia, more work to support our ADF in the vital operations they have into the future.

Happy to answer any questions you might have.

Journalist: So, you’re doing a tour as just part of a general tour. What are you looking to – not uncover, but to find out as part of this tour today?

Minister for Defence Industry: Well, part of the briefings is getting briefed on the current projects that are happening here. As I said, three and a half billion dollars’ worth of work. Here at BAE, BAE is upgrading our Anzac Class frigates to install the latest radars, some of the best radars in the world, to increase their capability. Up and down the strip we’re seeing patrol boats and offshore patrol vessels being built. So, it’s getting a briefing about what those contracts are doing, how work is progressing, how I can support Defence and the contractors to deliver those projects as quickly as possible and also understanding the training and recruitment needs.

I’ve got some great trainees behind me. Some have come through the Defence Industry Pathways Program, and we’re going to need over 5,000 more workers in the defence industry across the nation. And that’s a real challenge and that’s where we need to work with the companies.

Journalist: There has been some concern over several years about Western Australia’s role in Defence procurement. Is that something that your government would look to address?

Minister for Defence Industry: Well, I had a very productive meeting with the WA Defence Industry Minister, Paul Papalia, yesterday. And all I can say is I see great opportunity for WA to increase its share of defence industry work. The work you’re doing around ship construction and sustainment, your expertise in autonomous systems, remote sensing out of the mining industry, is becoming more and more relevant within the ADF. And so, I think there’s great opportunity for WA to really benefit from that commitment to defence investment that this government has.

Journalist: And how important are these public-private partnerships to our defence capability?

Minister for Defence Industry: Well, I was talking to one of the apprentices who has actually come out of the ADF, and there’s other people working on these projects right now who are former ADF. And what the ADF does is phenomenal and it’s incredibly important. But they need to have a strong partner in defence industry who are a fundamental input into capability.

So, if the work here isn’t going well, then our ADF, especially the Royal Australian Navy, can’t do their job. So, it’s a true partnership between government, industry and the ADF. And I’m really excited about working closely with all parties.

Journalist: I’ve got some questions on defence spending, which might be better if it just yourself behind the camera, in front of the camera, if that’s okay.

Minister for Defence Industry: Well, thank you very much. We won’t get you involved in the argy-bargy of politics. But thank you for joining us today.

Journalist: Thank you, guys.

They’re not particularly difficult questions, Minister, but just first off, our relationship with China. The interactions between Chinese naval vessels and Australian vessels in the South China Sea, are you confident that those interactions are all convening with United Nations law?

Minister for Defence Industry: Well, what the Deputy Prime Minister has said as the Defence Minister and what I continue to echo is that we call upon all nations to respect the laws of the sea and international maritime laws. And we’ve been very upfront with people that we need to make sure that that is followed and that everyone is conducting themselves in a way that is safe for all involved.

Journalist: The Defence Minister has suggested that the strategic review may lead to some difficult choices as far as spending goes. Are you confident that all current programs can be maintained?

Minister for Defence Industry: Well, we’ve been very upfront that the defence strategic review is the most significant analysis of our national defence since the white paper in the 1980s. And that involves making some hard decisions. We’ve seen a period where the amount of defence expenditure has increased, and we are committed to maintaining defence expenditure at least at 2 per cent of GDP. But we’ve got to be very careful about how that money is being spent.

We were very open with people that there are 28 Defence projects running cumulatively 97 years late. And that’s unacceptable. That means that our ADF is not getting the weapons systems they need when they need it. And we need to fix that, and we need to ensure that every dollar of taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely as well as increasing the defence expenditure, which is what we’re doing.

So that involves hard choices. And that means the DSR is asking some very hard questions about the structure of Defence – do we have the right platforms in place, do we have the right force posture to confront what is the most challenging strategic circumstances since 1945?

Journalist: Former Labor leader Kim Beazley has pointed out that we spend more now on the NDIS than defence. Do you that’s a fair comparison? They’re very different needs obviously.

Minister for Defence Industry: Look, Kim Beazley has made a contribution to defence policy over decades. He is someone whose contribution to our national defence is, I think - I can't think of anyone who has done more for our defence policy over the last few decades than Kim Beazley, and he’s making some really pertinent points about the draw on federal coffers, the draw on federal budget.

What we are committed to doing is spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on Defence. The DSR is going to make some very strong recommendations that government will consider. And that’s where we’re focused – on making sure we’ve got the ADF and the defence industry to support our national security, and that’s what we’re going to concentrate on.

Journalist: One of the, I suppose, aspirational targets is increasing ADF personnel by 100,000 by the year 2040. Do you think that’s still feasible with the – might be with the review when it comes back with its report?

Minister for Defence Industry: I’m not sure about the hundred thousand figure; I’ve got another figure in my mind. But recruitment is critical. I’ll give you an example at the leading edge. We need to more than double the number of submariners we will have to staff our nuclear-propelled submarines. That’s going to be a significant challenge. So, recruitment for both the ADF, recruitment for the Department of Defence and recruitment for defence industry is a real challenge. And it’s something I’m very focused on within the defence industry. And I know Minister Keogh is very much focused on it within defence personnel.

There’s no point having great platforms if you don’t have the crews to staff them. And we have to do both of those things. And that’s a challenge that we inherited from the last government, and we’re committed to confronting it and meeting it.

Journalist: What are some of the potential perhaps drivers of increasing that recruitment to encourage people to come forward?

Minister for Defence Industry: Well, pay and conditions is one thing that obviously we always have to look at. Making sure that the platforms are fit for purpose is really important. One of the things that I was expecting on the Anzacs is they’re upgrading the life support systems, which is a technical term for things like air-conditioning. Now, that sounds – doesn’t sound like something that is a real focus, but if you’re serving in the Gulf and the temperature on board is near 40 degrees, that impacts on how you perform, and it impacts on your experience in the ADF.

So, making sure that the platforms are fit for purpose, which improves the experience for the ADF, and then also making sure that we retain them and we make sure it’s as family-friendly as possible. And when ADF personnel choose to leave the ADF, making sure that we can retain them within the broader defence ecosystem and making sure there’s pathways to working in defence industry as well is a great example where I’m working hand in hand with Minister Keogh.

Journalist: Thank you, Minister.

Minister for Defence Industry: Great. Thanks very much.


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