BILLS: Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2015-2016, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2015-2016, second reading

It is with a great degree of pride that I stand here tonight as the new Assistant Minister for Defence—                

Mr Tehan: Hear, hear!                

Mr McCORMACK: supporting Senator Marise Payne, who is doing a wonderful job in that very important and very intricate portfolio. I stand here in the chamber alongside the member for Wannon, who is the newly appointed Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Minister for Defence Materiel. 

We had an important meeting today to map out our continued vision for the Defence portfolio. Without giving too much away—that is certainly Minister Payne's responsibility—the Defence white paper is being released on Friday. It is a very important document that not only Defence people know but people right across the nation would be aware of. They would certainly be looking forward to seeing the sorts of commitments that our government is not only making but also funding going forward in Defence. The Defence white paper is going to be, as I said, a very important document. It continues our ongoing commitment to what is fundamentally the most important role of the government—that is, to protect its people.                

Certainly while we have been in government we have protected our borders. We have that area that is so important and so crucial to national security back under control. We are playing our part in the Middle East. I visited Afghanistan in 2014 as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program to see the wonderful work that Australian Defence Force personnel were playing at the time, and continue to play, in that theatre of war.                

People often ask me, 'Why are we in Afghanistan?' and I always remind them of the fact that so many more Afghanis are now attending university, so many more Afghanis are now going to school. And when I say 'so many more', most of them are girls, most of them are females, and the participation rate of girls and young women in primary schools, high schools and tertiary education in Afghanistan since the Afghanistan war began and the Taliban were driven back into the hills is really a great sign of the tremendous work that our troops—our Air Force, our Navy—has done in that troubled area.                

We know that under this government defence will always be a priority. We saw, in six years under Labor, defence spending fall to 1938 levels, and of course that notion was absolutely pooh-poohed by the other side. They said it was not true, but indeed it is. Fact Check says that in the 2013-14 budget that was brought down under Prime Minister Julia Gillard's government the Labor government planned to spend just 1.59 per cent of gross domestic product on defence. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the last time this nation spent below that level was in 1938, when Australia spent 1.55 per cent of GDP on defence. And we all know what happened the year after 1938: that was when World War II began. Other members of the opposition had also referred to spending being at its lowest level since 1937, but in 1937 we spent far less, at 1.06 per cent of GDP—this is according to Fact Check. So, it concludes, the 1938 claim is correct. And that is such a shame.                

It was necessary, when we took government in September 2013, that we corrected that grave error by the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments. And when Joe Hockey got to his feet in the House of Representatives to launch the Abbott government's second budget, for 2015-16, shipbuilders were worried—but they need not have been. Certainly in Adelaide we made strong commitments to ensure that we got our defence building program back on track, because we saw it absolutely whittled away under Labor. Labor has not commissioned construction of a major naval vessel in an Australian shipyard since the Anzac-class frigates in 1989, delivered on time and on budget by the Howard government. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government's only decisions on major vessels were to purchase HMAS Choules and two major customs vessels offshore. They were important projects, no doubt, but Labor cut $16 billion—$16,000 million—from defence, reducing spending as a percentage of GDP to its lowest levels since 1938. In 2012-13 the Labor government's 10.5 per cent cut to defence was the largest single cut since the Korean War. And immediately following its 2009 white paper Labor cut or deferred—and we heard about a lot of deferrals under Labor, including, I might add, school spending, but that is another topic altogether—$16 billion from the defence budget out to 2016-17. Labor's decisions led to 119 defence projects being delayed, 43 projects being reduced, and eight projects cancelled, risking critical capability gaps.                

I am the proud member of the only inland city in Australia with all three arms of Defence. We have the Royal Australian Air Force, a very strategic training facility, at Forest Hill, where there is also a Navy presence. The Royal Australian Navy has a very strong contingent at Wagga Wagga, even though we are many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest drop of seawater. Also Wagga Wagga is renowned as being the home of the soldier—Kapooka, where they train more than 5,000 recruits each year. Those brave men and women who are continuing that long line of khaki tradition dating back to Gallipoli all come out of Wagga Wagga. There is nothing that gives me a more patriotic sense of pride than to attend one of the march outs and to see people from all over Australia coming to Wagga Wagga—in fact, it is our best tourist drawcard—to watch their sons and daughters march out in unison, in uniform, from that fine military base.                

Over the next few decades the biggest regeneration of the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War will take place, and that regeneration is the centrepiece of the firstly Abbott and now Turnbull government's fully funded and cost-assured defence white paper. This white paper is to be released on Friday and is setting out the government's plan for the Australian Defence Force as it forges a pathway to meet current and, most importantly, future strategic requirements and challenges. And there is going to be an unprecedented continuous build of surface warships in Australia, meaning that Australia's world-class shipbuilding workforce has been given the certainty that they will be building our future needs—frigates, offshore patrol vessels—for years, I will say decades, to come, and that is a great thing. And having spoken to the Minister for Defence this morning, in conjunction with the minister at the table, about how our government is getting on with the job of securing those shipbuilding jobs, securing Adelaide's future, securing our defence force's strength going forward, I know how committed this government is.                

Andrew Bellamy, Chief Executive Officer of Austal, describes our commitment as 'transformative change'. He is not alone in talking up the sort of commitment that we are making in Defence. We have had significant achievements in Defence. We have implemented a continuous building of surface warships in Australia, we are building valuable infrastructure at the dozens of Air Force, Army and Navy bases throughout the country and we are continuing the important work not just in places of conflict but also in peacekeeping operations throughout the world. Australia's reputation, in that regard, is second to none and greatly valued by our American friends, as it should be.                 

I am also pleased that the National Stronger Regions Fund is delivering, for communities, right across Australia. I was very pleased that in the second round, the last round that has just been held, three significant projects were announced for my electorate. One was a $4.4 million indoor sports stadium and cultural precinct for Wagga Wagga. The Bolton Park Sports Stadium, which has served the city proudly—particularly its basketball community of which I was once president—is past its use-by date and it is good that it is being replaced. Temora is a great little town. It prides itself on being the friendliest town in the state and it probably is. Its mayor, Rick Firman, is absolutely chuffed—that would be the word; that is c-h-u-f-f-e-d, member for Griffith—that it is getting a valuable medical precinct. The member for Griffith would know how important that is in a regional community, such as mine.                 

Gundagai is getting an upgrade to its main street development on Sheridan Street, which is the home of the famous Niagara Cafe. I will give a shout out to Tony Loukissas who owns that wonderful cafe. The member for Kingsford Smith will know that that particular establishment was where Prime Minister Curtin held a wartime cabinet meeting in 1942. It is an absolute Labor stronghold. Gough Whitlam went there and a number of other Labor luminaries have been to the Niagara Cafe in Sheridan Street, Gundagai. I have to report that they proudly, now, put National Party corflutes in their window. They make the best burgers in the south-west.                 

Tony Loukissas is in a Sydney hospital, as we speak, and is suffering a debilitating condition, which struck suddenly just before Christmas. I do hope that he gets well. He has four young children and our thoughts and prayers are with him. He owns that cafe—along with his mum, Denise, and his sister, Tina—on Sheridan Street, which is a very historic street in a very historic town, nine miles from the tuckerbox. That main street precinct is really important and I am glad that the National Stronger Regions Fund is going to provide a significant amount of money to ensure that it gets the upgrade it needs.                

I am also very pleased that the Stronger Communities Program, which my friend, the member for Parkes, initiated with $150,000 to be spent in each electorate, is being rolled out as well. Applications for the second round are open. It provides for the sorts of funding that federal members were not always able to provide for—such as Country Women's Associations and all those important community-minded not-for-profit groups, which really value that sort of money—because it has, generally, been seen as the domain of state parliamentarians. It is good that as a federal member you can provide those little things to scout groups, CWA organisations and rural fire brigades and the like to help them get on with the job of doing the important voluntary work that our communities cannot be without.                 

Our government is getting on with the job of promoting employment opportunities, particularly in regional areas, of building up our Defence network, of providing the sort of stimulus to create innovation, to foster start-ups and to promote business, to help farmers and to support families. If we go down the track—again—at the next election of the Labor experiment we will be very sorry as a nation.

Cristy Houghton