With an election looming, Business News spoke exclusively with Labor defence industry spokesman Matt Keogh.
MATT Keogh has been Labor’s spokesman for defence industry since the last federal election in 2019. As he campaigns for re-election in the seat of Burt in Perth’s south-eastern suburbs, Mr Keogh spent time with me to cover several key topics.
What will Labor’s approach be to defence and national security should it secure government?
“Labor has, and always will, put Australia’s national interest first.
“Labor has a proud history of strong defence management, most memorably commencing with (prime minister) John Curtin’s assertion of Australia’s right and responsibility to act in our own interests.
“That principle of sovereignty has remained at the core of Labor’s approach to our foreign and defence policy. Whether in government or opposition, we treat national security as the first priority, in our national interest.
“Let me be clear: Labor will ensure Defence [DOD and the ADF] have the resources needed to defend Australia.
“Labor has a vision for an Australia that is stronger, safer and more resilient, more prepared to meet the challenges and threats of a less certain world.
“Labor is focused on supporting, developing and expanding our nation’s sovereign capability, investing in Australian manufacturing and developing industry of all kinds, and the skills they require.
“For Labor, national security is above politics.
“Over this last parliamentary term, under the leadership of Anthony Albanese, Labor has offered bipartisan support on all national security matters, including for AUKUS and the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.
“Fundamental to our national security is our national resilience and sovereign capability. That means building and maintaining a strong economy, resilient supply chains and the skills, technology, infrastructure and industries to make more things here in Australia, securing our self-reliance.”
Election periods are full of announcements and promises. What firm commitments has Labor made that will enhance Defence and the defence industry?
“Labor has a plan for a better future for all Australians through our Future Made in Australia plan.
“The pandemic has proven the end of a global supply chain is a precarious place to be.
“Building up our capacity for making the things we strategically need, ensures we’re not hostage to economic coercion, blocked lines of communication or global supply chain shocks."
National Reconstruction Fund
“The centrepiece of that plan is Labor’s National Reconstruction Fund (NRF), a $15 billion fund that will create secure jobs for Australian workers, drive our regional economic development, boost our sovereign capability and diversify the nation’s economy.
“The NRF will also allow us to develop and foster our current small to medium enterprises and mid-tier defence industry businesses from which we can grow indigenous prime defence contractors.
“If we don’t have required capabilities here, we must nurture and build those capabilities strategically.
"Ultimately, this means continually investing in the development of our defence and broader advanced manufacturing industry here at home.
Australian industry content
We have also released our Defence Industry Development Plan that will ensure our defence supply chains are strong and local, by further developing those, and encouraging innovation in defence and wider industry; for without a broad approach to industry policy we will be left wanting.
“Labor will maximise Australian industry involvement in major defence projects with specific and transparent contractual obligations that are audited and enforced.
“We can’t grow our local defence industry without investment in skills. A Labor government will ensure at least one in ten jobs on major projects, including major defence procurements, is filled by apprentices.”
And what about defence force posture review? Prior announcements by Labor have committed to this review. Why is that seen as a such a critical issue for Labor?
“Labor will conduct the first Australian defence force posture review since 2012, after the coalition ignored defence posture for almost a decade.
“Labor’s defence force posture review is not an excuse to press pause, to create further risk or uncertainty for industry. Rather, it will ensure that our forces, their capabilities and how they are deployed matches our strategic intent, given our rapidly evolving regional geopolitical circumstances.
“I expect this will create more opportunities for industry, not less, based on expert views and advice, not mere colour-coded spreadsheets.
“I also expect this to be particularly pertinent in Western Australia as we look to our north-west. We must ensure both our defence force, and the industry that supports it, are located strategically.”
Labor recently announced its plans to establish the Australian Strategic Research Agency (ASRA). What is the motivation behind that initiative?
“That is correct, Labor has recently announced our $1.2 billion commitment to establishing ASRA: the Australian Strategic Research Agency.
“You may have heard of the Defense Academy Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US, which developed the internet in the 1960s and more recently developed the stealth B2 bomber; there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t innovate like that right here in Australia.
“Australia has the ability, capability and know-how but it is up to government to ensure this is developed in our national interest.
“ASRA will ensure Australia can partner with DARPA and the UK’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) through AUKUS to deliver cutting-edge future looking technologies now for use in decades to come.”
An issue of paramount importance is our veterans, and ensuring they are appropriately supported. What are Labor’s plans regarding veterans’ issues?
“Labor will prioritise the welfare of veterans, who play a vital role in our Australian defence industry, thereby continuing their service to our nation.
“Under this government, the backlog of unresolved claims for veterans’ support has blown out to 60,000.
“Labor will fix the crisis in Veterans’ Affairs and restore the respect our veterans and their families deserve.
“Labor’s plan includes the following.
• Cutting waiting times by boosting Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) staffing to cut waiting times and end the backlog of claims that is creating cruel and unnecessary stress in veteran families.
• Delivering 10 new veteran hubs, one-stop shops where vets and their families can get help to access the services they need.
• Boosting the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme, which Labor created and an Albanese Labor government will expand.
• Increasing the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Veterans Pension (TPI) $1,000 for disabled veterans.
• A veteran employment program to educate businesses about the benefits of employing a veteran as well as extra civilian-ready training programs.
• A defence and veteran family support strategy to design better posting cycles, housing solutions and transition services for current and former defence personnel and their families.”
Fuel security remains one of the more pressing supply chain vulnerabilities. I understand Labor has a plan for mitigating this risk.
“Fuel security is vital to Australia’s defence capability. Alas, the government’s approach to this has seen two refineries close and placed our strategic fuel reserve on the wrong side of the Pacific Ocean.
“These circumstances in part underpin Labor’s plan for a national strategic fleet of Australian-flagged vessels.”
A key theme within the WA defence community is seeking commitments on capability. Are there any further announcements that Labor can make on capability decisions?
“While we won’t commit to specific defence acquisitions from opposition, where we do not have the benefit of detailed advice from all the experts, it is incumbent on us to assess our capabilities and indeed, opportunities on arrival in government.
“We’ll deepen our regional defence cooperation with close partners to bolster our joint capabilities, and plan for how we address any potential submarine capability gap before we receive the nuclear-powered submarines.
The culture in Defence and politics matters greatly. The Jenkins Report, for example, highlighted several recommendations to be implemented. Does Labor, and do you personally, support the efforts to improve our organisational cultures?
“The culture in both the male dominated defence [forces] and political spheres has been called into question in recent years.
“There is no question that everyone has a right to go to work, and to feel safe while there. It is up to all of us to change the culture, to change the story.
“This is not a women’s issue; it's a cultural issue. It’s a people issue, and it is incumbent on all of us to fix it.
“There is still so much work to be done and something I’ve spoken about a number of times in the parliament. The Jenkins Report and the recommendations of that have my full support.
“It is important that we recognise that we should not be placing the burden of solving these problems, and fixing this culture, on the victims. It is incumbent on those in leadership positions to make sure there is real cultural change and that must happen not by talking or taking unilateral action but by listening to those affected and making sure that their concerns are addressed.
“Labor will work with all parties to ensure the safety of everyone who works in the parliament and indeed in the ADF.
“We’ll ensure that our staff have the same rights as all Australians and that their workplace becomes the example to all Australian workplaces, be they defence industry SMEs, prime companies, government departments or anything in between that it should be.”
• Kristian Constantinides is the general manager of Airflite, and chairperson of AIDN-WA