Statements by Senators

8 March 2023

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Australian International Airshow in Avalon in my home state of Victoria along with many of my colleagues on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. It was an excellent showcase of both current and emerging technologies and capabilities in defence as well as a showcase of how the state of Victoria is leading our nation in defence capability. The big news of the week was the announcement from BAE Systems of a new unmanned drone with lethal capability. In addition to the impressive technology itself, what I think is particularly noteworthy and why I wanted to raise it in the Senate is that it was designed by Australian engineers and technicians. So playing more of a role in the production of our defence technologies is not some far-off dream. It’s actually happening right now in our backyards, and I think we need to do everything that we can as a nation to encourage more of this Australian involvement and investment in this area of policy. And, to pick up on the comments from Senator Hanson, I think we do actually need to look at and see what is currently happening in this country. I think most people would be surprised to learn that there is a lot of investment that is currently occurring in defence procurement and in defence capability manufacturing.

Part of this exercise is about also supporting the many defence manufacturers, and the industry more broadly, in Australia. That’s why the Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy MP, is working on the defence industry development strategy to build Australia’s defence at industry base. Unfortunately, this task has been made more difficult due to the decline in manufacturing presided over by the previous government. But, when manufacturers took the Liberals and the Nationals up on their dare to pack up shop—because we all remember when the car manufacturers were told to leave this country—the demand for advanced manufacturing skills actually dried up. So we are now in the process of trying to repair and reverse the damage that was done.

Australians who were also looking to start or to switch their career were being sent, sadly, a very clear message by the then government that there was no future in advanced manufacturing when it came to our defence capability. There may have been some at the time that were persuaded that Australia did not need these skills, because we could always purchase these products from overseas manufacturers—it is always cheaper to import rather than manufacture domestically. But it is important to look back now and think about the decisions that led to manufacturers departing our shores. Through the pandemic, it really did bring home for many of us in this place the need to look at investing in our supply chains, because the unforeseen events that can really rupture those supply chains, both domestically and internationally, were still and, I believe, are still very much scarred on many Australians.

Australia was scrapping in the international market for products that, in the years prior, we may well have been able to produce ourselves. The lack of investment in advanced manufacture and research also limited Australia’s ability to contribute to the international effort to invent and manufacture vaccines. Of course, pandemics are not the only things that can disrupt supply chains, and, unfortunately, we do live in a world where states, who wish to cause damage to Australia, may deliberately reduce or cut off the trade of certain goods to our country. This, of course, is of particular concern when it comes to products that we use in defence. That’s why the government, the Albanese government, has acted swiftly to send a very clear message to Australian businesses and workers that we are committed to supporting manufacturing in this country. We are working hard to deliver on our commitment to establish a National Reconstruction Fund where $15 billion will be invested across seven priority areas, including both medical science and defence capability. So, when I stand here in front of that new BAE drone, as I did last week, I thought what a fantastic thing that it was not just designed here but there are also a number of components that will be manufactured in Australia. We are a clever country and, with the right support and investment, we can and should see more defence assets being designed and made here in Australia.