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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


May 02, 2021

DAVID SPEERS: Brendan O'Connor, thanks for your time this morning.


SPEERS: Can you just clarify, for starters, what is Labor's position? Should Australians
who are stuck in India, those in vulnerable situations particularly, should they be collected and flown back to Christmas Island?

O'CONNOR: I think there should be a great deal of focus on exactly how we will return Australians to this country. Unfortunately the Government has chosen not to do the things that matter at an appropriate time including, for example, ensuring that we have facilities for quarantining Australians returning home.

So if the Government had focused properly upon the quarantine facilities, as recommended by its own review, as recommended by state premiers, we would not be in this position, David, of having to restrain Australians from returning home.

SPEERS: I take your point on all of that, but just to clarify, what should happen right now? Should we fly, use charter flights to get some of those vulnerable Australians back here?

O'CONNOR: I think every avenue should be explored to ensure that we look after Australian citizens overseas.

SPEERS: Including that one?

O'CONNOR: Absolutely. The Government made commitments that it would return Australians before Christmas. The Government has abrogated its responsibility with respect to its role in terms of quarantine. In fact, the Constitution makes clear that the Commonwealth is responsible for quarantining and in fact has left the state governments to lead on this issue. The lockdowns that we've seen, multiple lockdowns we've seen across the country because of the deficiencies in the quarantine system is, in part, because of the Federal Government's failure to build purpose-built facilities, as should have happened last year.

SPEERS: And what about this measure they've announced, a threat of jail and big fines for anyone who does find a way back to Australia? What does Labor think about that?

O'CONNOR: Well, frankly the focus should be returning Australians home. I have to say I'm surprised that the Government is looking to go down that path. I believe that the ban on flights would be sufficient to prevent people coming back to Australia, so I think in part that is a political distraction from the main focus, which should be finding whatever means possible to ensure that Australians are able to return home.

I mean, it is a tragedy what is happening in India. It is an international crisis and we need to do more to assist that country. Indeed, all countries need to assist India at this point in time, but I don't believe the government should be focusing on how to criminalise or jail Australians for wanting to return home.

SPEERS: Just to be clear-

O'CONNOR: So they should be focused on how they can find a better way to ensure they return. That is not happening to date.

SPEERS: Just to be clear, you are opposed to this biosecurity measure threatening jail?

O'CONNOR: I think the Government can invoke those powers and the Health Minister has decided to do so, but I think it is a distraction, frankly, and I think it's important to note that if the Government had taken the advice of the Halton review and the advice of premiers.

SPEERS: Yes, you made that point.

O'CONNOR: I think it's important to note.

SPEERS: But, I just want to be clear here. You are saying they should not have used this biosecurity power?

O'CONNOR: In practical terms it is not relevant insofar as flight bans will prevent Australians returning home anyway. So to a large extent that is a deliberate political strategy to distract from their failure to build quarantine facilities that would have enabled Australians returning home more effectively.

SPEERS: The Government, just changing tack, the Government today is making a big Budget announcement on child care - $1.7 billion in extra support, targeting those who have more than one child in care. Not as generous as Labor's plan for those earning higher incomes of $400,000 a year. Nonetheless, is the Government stealing your thunder?

O'CONNOR: Well, it is too little. It won't be sufficient to provide the support needed. Child care costs are going through the roof. They are not affordable for families and this will not assist in improving employment participation for women in particular, so it doesn't in any way steal the thunder of Labor. It actually fails dismally to respond to a social and economic need in this country and that is to make sure that child care is affordable for families, that this does not past that test.

SPEERS: But it is more generous hand Labor's at least for those on lower incomes with multiple kids in child care?

O'CONNOR: It excludes three quarters of the families that would be able to be accessing the support if Labor were elected and were able to implement that policy. It is a big difference between what we were suggesting and what they have announced

SPEERS: Let's turn to the regional security situation. What have you made of China's increased military exercises and incursions into Taiwan's airspace?

O'CONNOR: Well, there is no doubt that China has become more forceful in the way it behaves in the region. There is no doubt about that in recent times. Of course, we need to make sure that we play a role in the region to maintain peace and stability. That's critical. Therefore, we should be conscious of what is happening, be aware of what's happening, ensure through diplomatic means we maintain the stability and the peace in the region. That's something that is critical, but I think it's also important that when we talk about these issues, David, we do so in a sober and cautious way and we don't create anxiety unnecessarily which, I think, we've seen on display in the last week.

SPEERS: We have seen Taiwan's Foreign Minister, though, say that China has been conducting hybrid warfare and seems to be "preparing for their final military assault against Taiwan". Do you agree?

O'CONNOR: No, that's not the advice that has been provided to the Australian Government or indeed advice that has been provided to the Federal Opposition. Of course we have to be concerned about what's happening in our region, but that's certainly not the advice that has been provided to me in briefings.

SPEERS: You mentioned some of the language we've seen in the last week or so. In his Anzac Day memo to staff, Mike Pezzullo, the Home Affairs Secretary said, "As free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues we had until recent year thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace." Did you have a problem with these comments from Mike Pezzullo?

O'CONNOR: I don't think they were particularly helpful, David. Those types of comments are not going to assist, I believe, but what's more concerning, I think, is the fact that if indeed there is a need to say such things because there has been some material change since the Defence strategic update of last year, then they should have been said by a minister. If they are not to be said by a minister, then what was the point of them? And why are they inconsistent with the comments made by the Minister for Defence on this program, your program, last Sunday?

I don't think they were necessary, I don't think they assisted in any way. Nor, too, do I think the fact that the Prime Minister chose to re-announce an announcement of two years ago in Northern Territory was very helpful in the way in which it just seemed to be using defence and defence announcements to distract from the failure of Government to deal with the pandemic and deal with quarantine. That seems to be the reason for decisions made by the Government to re-announce the Northern Territory facility training that occurred this week.

I say in combination, there seems to be a lack of discipline and coherence by the Government in relation to defence, and the real focus should be on implementing the defence asset contracts which have become a major problem for the Government, major blowouts on the Future Submarines program.

SPEERS: I will come to that. Just quickly on Mike Pezzullo, do you have any problem if he were to be made Defence Secretary, would you be opposed to that?

O'CONNOR: No, look, Mike Pezzullo is a competent public servant and I've worked with him in government. That's up to the Government what they do. Although, I have to say having a new Home Affairs Minister and new Home Affairs Secretary probably wouldn't be the best decision made, but that's entirely up to the Government.

SPEERS: Let's talk about defence spending, does Australia need to continue its defence spending?

O'CONNOR: I think it's fair to say that the first thing we need to do is make sure we fulfil the contracts that we have to build submarines and frigates and other defence assets. The problem we have at the moment, David, is we have major blowouts in time lines and costs in relation to the biggest defence asset contracts we've had in our history. The Government can talk rhetorically about defence all it likes, but unless it ensures that the Future Submarine Program is on track, that the frigates are also on track and other defence assets, we are going to have real issues in terms of fulfilling defence capability going forward. That should be the focus of the Government right now. What's happened instead, we've seen major blowouts, $40 billion blowout in the Future Submarine Program, a delay of up to 10 years of getting new submarines in the water. There has been no announcement of whether the Collins Class submarines will be upgraded and if so when. When are they going to have their life extended?

SPEERS: What do you think the Government should do, Brendan O'Connor? Should they stick with the Naval contract for the French designed and built submarines or should they walk away from it?

O'CONNOR: They'll know better than we do because they are privy to information that is not always provided to the Opposition or to the public. The real problem here has been a failure to fulfil the commitments made when the contract was signed. Of course they will have to consider what they do here, but at the very least we need to have a decision made in relation to the life extension of the Collins Class submarines. We have yet to hear what the Government will do there. We have yet to hear whether they will maintain the full-cycle docking of Collins Class submarines in Adelaide or Western Australia, even though we were told we would be advised of that by the end of 2019. There are a whole range of issues and decisions that need to be made by the Government which have yet to be made. So we would be better placed if the Government came clean and explained exactly where we were with respect to the Future Submarine Program, the frigates and other defence asset contracts.

SPEERS: Given what you've said about the need to get the programs back on track, as a quantum, though, just coming back to the question about defence spending, it is now just over 2 per cent of GDP. Is that enough? Does it need to be more?

O'CONNOR: Labor supports the minimum of 2 per cent and have done so since the 2013 white paper. Every Labor leader since has committed to that minima. If there needs to be an increase in defence spending, it will depend on the circumstances and that's why, for example, the Government needs to brief the Opposition as to whether there has been any change to the situation since the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. If there has been material change to the circumstances in the region, then there may well be a need to increase defence spending, but that's the sort of advice that the Opposition would need to be briefed on by the Government, but to date, I would say the main thing to do is to fulfil the commitments made when entering into those contracts for those major defence assets. That's the priority, and Peter Dutton needs to focus on that more than anything else.

SPEERS: Shadow Defence Minister Brendan O'Connor, thank you.

O'CONNOR: Thanks very much, David.