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March 16, 2022

 Thank you for inviting me to speak today at the United States Studies Centre.

The bond between the United States and Australia can not be overstated.

It is a connection formed through our shared beliefs, aspirations, and democratic values.

But this friendship between our two nations goes further than similarities in our cultural identity.

Our relationship with the US is fundamental to Australia’s security, sovereignty, and prosperity.

Our alliance is also critical to underpinning peace, stability, and freedom in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

This strong and enduring Australia-US Alliance precedes World War Two, but 80 years ago under wartime Labor Prime Minister John Curtin our close strategic partnership was forged, from which ANZUS was later formalised.

Now, with the recent announcement of the AUKUS partnership, that relationship is being further strengthened.

Labor has offered bipartisan support for this partnership between the three nations, as we have for several recent strategic decisions.

For Labor, national security is above politics.

That’s why we were quick to support AUKUS, understanding that accessing new technologies and increasing operational collaboration with our close allies, the US and the UK, was critical in an increasingly challenging world.

It’s why we have advocated the importance of strengthening regional bodies such as ASEAN. 

It’s why we also support the QUAD and its reinvigoration under President Biden. 

It’s why we supported assistance to Ukraine through lethal and non-lethal aid.

There is no greater priority for a government than national security, ensuring the safety and security of its people.

As outlined by the Labor Leader Anthony Albanese last week, a Labor Government will build a more secure, resilient Australia by:

1. Supporting a stronger Australian Defence Force

2. Prioritising better and smarter cybersecurity

3. Shoring up our economic self-reliance

4. Strengthening our communities and institutions

5. Deepening our partnerships in the region and globally around the world

6. Taking decisive and effective action on climate change

This is what Labor will deliver, if elected.

And as my Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister colleague Penny Wong has stressed with respect to Taiwan, and consistent with that of the United States, Labor would continue the policy of strategic ambiguity.

This is because declaring intended military action in response to hypothetical situations only serves to tilt the strategic calculation in favour of those who seek to instigate conflict.

We are facing times of global instability, particularly growing tensions within our region.

And though we share concerns on these matters we have an obligation to question the gap between what the Government says and what the Government delivers.

As the 2020 Strategic Update warns, a ten-year strategic warning time for a major conventional attack against Australia is no longer an appropriate basis for defence planning.

This reduced warning time means we can no longer assume Australia will have time to gradually adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging challenges.

This is particularly concerning when we know many of our major Defence assets and contracts are over budget, face years of delay or are not fit for purpose.

In some cases, we have assets that don’t deliver what taxpayers paid for - such as our battlefield airlifters that had to be reclassified as humanitarian planes because they couldn’t fly into battle, and our Taipan helicopters were scrapped because they couldn't provide covering fire as troops rappelled out, among other reasons.

Too much money has been spent on failed or cancelled defence contracts.

While the immediate priority of the AUKUS partnership is to deliver nuclear-powered submarine capability, after almost a decade in office we still have no contract, no delivery date, and concerns about what this means for our capability.

But as the US Studies Centre report, released today, says Australia will also likely need to consider an interim capability to fill the gap between now and when the proposed submarines arrive in roughly two decades time.

The current ageing Collins Class submarines could need two Life of Type Extensions to cover this capability gap.

This could keep them in service until the middle of the century, risking hull fatigue and operational restrictions.

Other options will most likely be needed, particularly when you consider the current strategic circumstances in our region.

The current Government is making announcements, but their inaction over nearly a decade in office means they are failing to actually deliver the capability we need, when we need it. 

While Labor is not in a position to announce specific defence acquisitions from opposition, we have said, if elected, we will undertake a full assessment of our capabilities.

This includes consideration of tomahawk missiles for our current submarines, a review of progress on the Frigates project, an assessment of potential upgraded weapons on the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels and the potential for additional Hobart Class Air Warfare Destroyers, and assessing what strike capabilities could be accelerated or strengthened in the near term.

An Albanese Labor Government would ensure all defence contracts have measurable and enforceable levels of local content, not just because it creates jobs, but because being able to manufacture our assets here is the critical element of growing our sovereign capability.

I note the Prime Minister made an announcement of increased defence personnel last week.

Labor supports this increase, but this Government has a poor track record with recruitment and retention, only meeting 90 per cent of permanent force recruitment targets last financial year and failing to meet 2016 Defence White Paper targets every year since 2015-16.

Disturbingly, we have seen an explosion in external contractors in defence under the Liberals with Defence’s external contractor workforce growing to become Defence’s largest ‘service’, bigger even than the Army.

This is a direct result of the Government’s public service staffing cap, which is deskilling and demoralising Defence’s uniformed and civilian workforce through high turnover, and eroding capability and institutional knowledge in the public service. 

It is also telling that despite the increased pressure on the ADF to respond to disasters fuelled by climate change – both at home and throughout the Indo-Pacific - there is no detail on how to fix the pressures this puts on existing recruitment, retention and training for our troops in their primary areas of expertise.

The United States identified climate change as a top priority for the US military.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said

"Today, no nation can find lasting security without addressing the climate crisis. We face all kinds of threats in our line of work, but few of them truly deserve to be called existential. The climate crisis does."

We also know it is a high priority for our military, if not the current government. 

In a recent statement at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Chief of the Defence Force General Campbell said:

“Those of us in Defence are acutely aware of the significant impact climate risks will have on the future of our region.”

We are witnessing this now, with our troops called out to assist with the current floods.

We know extreme weather events are already increasing due to climate change.

Our region is becoming more contested militarily, but as our troops are providing non-ADF focused relief, their focus is compromised. 

Obviously, there is a key role for the ADF in emergencies, but they cannot be the federal government’s only answer for every non-military crisis.

While this is evident throughout the bushfires, the pandemic, and the floods, it is particularly striking when I talk to recent ADF recruits who reflect on the impact two years of disaster call outs has had.

These are people who are meant to be honing their military skills; many who should be training for combat zones, not nursing homes.

It would be sensible to look at the capability for swift disaster response mobilisation to the scale of natural disasters that we are experiencing, and whether, as suggested by experts, a national emergency taskforce is needed.

An elected Albanese Labor Government will undertake an Urgent Climate Risk Assessment – we will commission the Director General of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defence, with the involvement of intelligence agencies and an independent panel, to develop an urgent climate risk assessment within four months.

The Assessment would be explicitly required to capture domestic and Indo-Pacific trends and considerations, and economic matters.

It would be consistent with President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.

The Assessment would also consider the appropriateness of establishing an Office of Climate Threat Intelligence, which could potentially coordinate a holistic, whole-of government approach, building capacity across the public service and government agencies.

Labor has also committed to conducting a Defence Force Posture review in the next term.

The current Government has been neglecting planning on posture, despite deteriorating strategic circumstances.

If elected, an Albanese Labor Government will conduct the first Defence Force Posture Review since 2012.

As a Minister in the previous Labor Government when the last Defence Force Posture Review was undertaken, I witnessed the significant reforms undertaken to strengthen the Australia-US Alliance. 

This included the United States Force Posture Initiative in our north and the current Marine Rotational Force in Darwin.

A Labor Defence Force Posture Review would ensure the Australian Government is considering both long-term strategic posture and whether Australian Defence units, assets, and facilities are prepared for the military to take action in a timely way.

This will also assist us in preparing for humanitarian and disaster responses, including those related to climate change.

As we face these many challenges ahead, Labor is committed to ensuring the safety and security of the Australian people, and those in our region.

We look forward to strengthening our relationship with the US as we work together to maintain peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.