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From valleys of death to promises of stability: The opposition’s election promises

Labor’s history of defence expenditure and investment is often maligned – with emphasis placed on ‘valleys of death for naval shipbuilding, reduced budgets and leadership chaos. As we count down the hours until the election, Labor is shifting the debate to focus on promises of continued investment and stability.

With less than a week to go and tightening polls, the opposition has responded to continued attacks by the government about its record of delivery in the recent past – focusing on a number of renewed commitments and promises of stable leadership in the defence and defence industry portfolios.  

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This renewed opposition focus and commitment across both the defence and defence industry portfolios is being driven by a range of factors, namely the seemingly free ride the Coalition has enjoyed in the defence space since coming to government in 2013, namely: 

  • The Coalition's push to return defence expenditure to 2 per cent of GDP following the 10 per cent reduction in real terms in FY2012-13;
  • The delivery of the first unit as part of the $5.2 billion LAND 400 Phase 2 Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles;
  • Industry partners presented their bids as part of the $10-15 billion LAND 400 Phase 3 Armoured Fighting Vehicle program; 
  • The announcement of BAE Systems Australia as the successful tender for the $35 billion SEA 5000 Hunter Class guided missile frigate program;
  • Construction commencement and milestones at the $535 million SEA 5000 Shipyard facility at Osborne, South Australia; and
  • The signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between Naval Group and the Commonwealth and the Framework Agreement between Naval Group and ASC as part of the $$50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class future submarine program.

However, as polls continue to tighten in key battleground seats – particularly in parts of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia that serve as the base for large portions of Australia's burgeoning defence industry Labor has sought to return fire and seemingly take the battle to the Coalition in one of its key policy strongholds.  

In this second part, we will take a closer look at the policies and commitments made by the opposition and its plans for securing Australia's Defence and defence industry capabilities – should it be elected on May 18. 

Industry development and self-reliance a key focus 

Labor's national policy platform places a heavy emphasis on developing a robust, self reliant Australian defence capability – "The foundation of Labor's defence policy is the principle of Australian self-reliance. Australia's armed forces need to be able to defend Australia against credible threats without relying on the combat forces or capabilities of other countries."

This commitment extends to the need for developing a self-sustaining Australian defence industry, with the opposition outlining key objectives for the Australian defence industry, with the following focus: 

  • Provide the ADF with the world’s best capability in order to keep our sailors, soldiers and aviators safe and successful on behalf of our nation;
  • Provide Australia with the sovereign capability to maintain and sustain the ADF and all of its equipment;
  • Enable Australia to project its strategic weight through an exporting defence industry; and
  • Build technological capability and workforce skills within Australia's broader industrial base.

Recently, the opposition echoed announcements made by the Coalition to support the domestic construction of three major naval vessels to be built at the Australian Marine Complex at Henderson, Western Australia – supported by an additional investment of $10 million to support the creation of the Western Australian Defence Industry Support Centre. 

The opposition also committed to supporting the development of Australia's defence industry – with a focus on supporting the creation of Australian defence industry primes by designating any Australian-owned, defence company an Australian defence industry prime provided they meet key criteria, namely: 

  • Employs more than a thousand people globally in defence industries;
  • Is high-tech in nature and is producing intellectual property of significant value in Australia; and
  • Earns the majority of its revenue from defence industry exports.

Labor’s Defence Regional Procurement Policy will ensure local economic outcomes are a key objective of Defence procurement. This policy commitment will be broken down into three distinct levels, which will require: 

  • Any contractor tendering for more than $4 million in work from Defence in regional areas to provide a Local Industry Capability Plan;
  • Defence to produce a Regional Procurement Plan ahead of key decisions for regional procurements of more than $10 million, including an analysis of local industry and workforce capability and capacity; and
  • Regional procurements over $100 million will be referred to the Minister for Defence to ensure local communities are getting a fair deal from these major
    projects.

"Labor will ensure Australia has a defence industry which will always be able to provide our nation with this sovereign capability. We will require equipment to be manufactured in Australia to the greatest extent possible. Greater export opportunities will help to sustain Australian defence industry over the long-term
and improve our economic ability to invest in superior defence capability," Labor's national platform identified. 

Force posture review and capability questions

Labor has recognised that "the world looks different from when Australia’s last force posture review was undertaken by the former Labor government in 2011-12. We now face the most challenging set of strategic circumstances since the Second World War".

Recognising this, the opposition has committed to the first review since 2011-12, with a focus on identifying whether ADF personnel, infrastructure and assets are correctly geographically positioned to meet our future strategic challenges.

A key component of the proposed force posture review and the ensuing capability questions is Richard Marles' commitment to review the $50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class submarine program to ensure the suitability of the platform and its stated needs for Australia's unique tactical and strategic environment. 

Marles has in the past raised concerns about the future viability of the submarine as a strategic deterrence platform, which appears to be the core premise of any proposed review into the Future Submarine Program, saying, "We should not assume, for example, that the state of science which makes the submarine king in 2018 will always persist ... Yet there are large numbers of scientists seeking to lift the veil of the sea. If they do, the continued role of submarines becomes uncertain."

Building on these concerns, Marles reiterated persistent concerns about capability gaps resulting from the projected delivery time frames for the Attack Class, beginning with HMAS Attack, which is expected to be put-to-sea in the mid-2030s, with a cadence of a new submarines entering service every two years following out until the 2080s. 

Despite these statements and apparent concern, both Marles and the opposition remain committed to delivery of the Attack Class, a core component of this is reducing any capability gap between the transition from the Collins Class and the Attack Class submarines. 

"That said, a Shorten Labor government would actively manage the Future Submarine Program with a view to ensuring: that our capability needs are met as measured against our competitors, that the program delivers value for money, and that the program is genuinely leveraging the building of an Australian defence industry," Marles explained. 

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From valleys of death to promises of stability: The opposition’s election promises
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