4 November, 2018
Subjects: PM’s Queensland trip, leadership, veterans’ announcements, Naval Group, Nauru
DAVID SPEERS: Steve Ciobo is the Minister for Defence Industry, one of the Government’s Queensland Cabinet Ministers. He joins me now from our Gold Coast studio. Minister, a very good morning to you, thank you for joining us. Let me just start on this, Scott Morrison clearly wanting to target a lot of these Queensland seats this week. It was the concern of Queensland MPs after the Longman by-election which led to, contributed to the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull as leader. Do you think you’re any better off now under Scott Morrison in Queensland in particular?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, David, you’ll understand I’m not going to get into the history of what happened there. I don’t think it serves anyone’s purpose and I also don’t think, frankly, that Queenslanders or indeed Australians more generally care about what’s happened. What the next election will be about is a clear choice between the Coalition and the Australian Labor Party…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Let me just pull you up there, sorry, Minister, you don’t think voters care about the dumping of the Prime Minister?
STEVEN CIOBO: I think that they recognise that it’s happened, that it’s behind us and that we’re now focused on what the next election will be about. The next election, David, and this is what I do think Queenslanders and Australians care about, I think they’re passionate about what it’s going to mean in terms of their retirement incomes, I think they’re passionate about what it’s going to mean in terms of their cost of living, I think they’re passionate about what it means in terms of employment and the ability of their children to secure jobs. That’s what this next election will be about, and I understand that there’s a fascination to keep revisiting and raking over the coals of past events. What I’m saying very clearly though is that’s not my focus. I’m not stuck in the past, what I’m looking forward to is the future and the challenges that Australia will face.
DAVID SPEERS: I totally understand, I’m sure you would like to be able to move on so easily after your colleagues brought down the Prime Minister. Do you think that will that will be made any easier by Malcolm Turnbull…
STEVEN CIOBO: Well actually, David, more than that, I think Australians want us to do that. They want to know that we’re not focused on what’s happened before us. I’m responding to the demands from the community…
DAVID SPEERS: Well maybe they don’t want to be dumping Prime Ministers in the first place, with respect.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well look, leadership instability, whether it’s on the Coalition’s side or on Labor’s side, and we’ve seen it on both sides, is unfortunate. But nonetheless, David, I make the point again: what we need to focus on is what matters to Australians, everyday Australians, everyday Queenslanders about, as I said, their retirement incomes, about employment security, about economic growth…
DAVID SPEERS: And will that be made any easier with Malcolm Turnbull giving a major interview this week as well?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, anybody is free of course to speak about whatever they’d like to. That’s not for me to dictate who can and who cannot say what they choose to say. My focus, what I dedicate myself to, is being a strong representative and advocate on behalf of my constituents. What we all do in the Liberal and National Government is focus on what we can do to bring to the forefront those issues that we know that are important to Australians and solve them, have a plan in place to bring down electricity prices, have a plan in place to make sure that we restore the nation’s budget, that we start to pay down the massive mountain of debt that Labor left behind. That’s what they want us to be focused on and that’s what I’m focused on.
DAVID SPEERS: All right. Let’s talk about some of those issues today. Well, there’s a lot going on for veterans, in fact, at the moment. Today the Prime Minister is going to be announcing that Virgin Australia have agreed veterans will board aircraft first, they’ll get a special acknowledgement before takeoff as well. Would you like to see Qantas do the same?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I think it would be terrific. And it’s not just Virgin and Qantas, and I congratulate in particular John Borghetti and the management team at Virgin. I think it’s tremendous that they come on board and that they honour and salute the service of those men and women who have served our nation in uniform putting themselves in harm’s way. I think that’s terrific. If we can get, though, not just airlines but if we can do this across the board, I think that that is part of reinforcing respect in the Australian community for these men and women who really – and let’s be honest, it’s not just them, it’s also the incredible toll that it has on their families as well, that we should acknowledge that, that we should respect that. So I want to congratulate Virgin for, in many respects, being a trailblazer.
DAVID SPEERS: I’m sure veterans will welcome that note of respect. But I spoke earlier in the week to the RSL in New South Wales, some of the things they would certainly put on their wish list from the Government are things like specific mental health support for veterans, they would certainly welcome hearing aids for Vietnam veterans, they would certainly like a question on the next Census as to whether anyone has served in the Defence Force so that you, the Government, can better allocate resources to deal with their concerns. Are we going to see the Government move on some of these things the RSL wants you to?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, absolutely. I mean, I think, David, if you look at in isolation what’s happening with Virgin, if that’s all the Government was doing then that’s not enough. But fortunately it’s not all that we’re doing. In fact, Australia has one of the best if not, arguably, the best repatriation system in the world. And all of these men and women, they deserve it. They absolutely deserve to be acknowledged. But they also deserve to make sure that any war-related injuries that they have sustained, any support that they can get, that the Government’s there backing them in. Now, we’ve learned a lot over the years. We’re investing a lot more money into, in particular, veterans’ counselling services to help them with the psychological adjustment. We’re also investing, of course, through the White Card and other DVA initiatives in making sure that their health is more robust and we provide support where we can. We’re also making sure that we invest in helping them to transition from their time in uniform into the private sector in terms of securing employment, getting the skills that they need. Each of these elements works together as well as the respect that we’re building in the community, to make sure that these serving men and women can readjust back into everyday life and be acknowledged, be respected, but most importantly feel that they are giving something back to their country now that they’re no longer in the armed services either.
DAVID SPEERS: Let me come to your Defence Industry portfolio. Where are negotiations at with the French ship builder Naval Group over the new Australian submarines? Because the final agreement was meant to be done a couple of months ago, it still isn’t. When will it be done?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, negotiations, David, are always complex. I recall, of course, from my trade portfolio and the same can be said in relation to Defence Industry. These are big, high value contracts. These negotiations, of course, will span many years, they’ll span tens of billions of dollars, so it’s important that we get it right. Now, if that means that it takes a little bit longer, well, so be it. And we’re working methodically and rationally through the negotiations, there’s a lot of good will on both sides. We’re determined to make sure…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] I appreciate it’s complex but what are the sticking points, what are one or two of the sticking points?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, it’s got to do with safeguarding, from our perspective, David, safeguarding the nature of the relationship that Australia will have with Naval Group out of France. This is an incredibly complex contract, it involves- and I mean we haven’t got into the detail of contractual negotiations. This is in many respects the special purpose agreement between the French company and Australia. But it’s got to do with the way in which we’ll deal with any potentialities that might occur down the track, to make sure that we safeguard our national interest and protect our national interest.
DAVID SPEERS: And will we still be getting 12 submarines, Minister?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, obviously that’s the intent that the Australian Government has. We’ve put aside $195 billion, David, to build up the Australian Defence Force. So while we’re building up our capability and building up our lethality should we need it, we’re also making no apologies for the fact that we’re investing very heavily in building up Australian Defence Industry and Australian jobs in the sector as well, that’s really important. In terms of future spending, the Coalition is absolutely committed to this massive Defence increase because we want to make sure that we are capable in a more uncertain world.
DAVID SPEERS: It may not be 12 submarines and will that be in this agreement?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, this agreement is effectively the heads of agreement between Australia and France and Naval Group in relation to the purchase of the submarines. Obviously future governments will make decisions about the way in which they choose to spend Defence money. The Coalition is clear, the Liberal National Government is going to be investing in future submarines, future frigates, offshore patrol vessels, Pacific patrol boats…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] I’m just trying to be specific here, are you locking in a certain number of submarines?
STEVEN CIOBO: We can’t bind the actions of future governments, David, that’s my point. And on the issue of what Labor does, my concern in relation to Labor is that traditionally when Labor’s come under a little bit of budget pressure we’ve seen…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] For the Coalition…
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, as I said, we’ve made our position clear. But we have an election coming up in seven months’ time, give or take…
DAVID SPEERS: Well, your intent is 12 submarines, you can’t put that in the contract?
STEVEN CIOBO: Correct, absolutely. We’re not at the detail of contractual negotiations, David, at this point in time. What we’re actually doing is having effectively a heads of agreement, what’s called the SPA, between Australia and Naval. That’s the point we’re at. I understand your question, you’re going to: is the commitment going to be there? What I’m saying to you is under the Liberal National Government it is going to be there, and what I’m questioning is whether Labor’s commitment will be there. Because when Labor has been in government we’ve seen Defence spending fall, last time they were in government fall to the lowest level since 1938 as a percentage of our country’s GDP. So I think the contrast, frankly, between the Liberal Nationals’ track record, investment, performance, job creation in this sector is incredibly strong, versus Labor’s track record which was to see spending falling to the lowest level since 1938.
DAVID SPEERS: A quick one, finally. Would you like to see the refugee kids, the remaining kids there, removed from Nauru by Christmas?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, David, I would like to see nobody in detention, ideally. And the way in which we achieve that is, of course, thanks to strong border sovereignty and making sure that we’ve stopped the boats. The Liberal National Government has done that. And let’s not forget, David, Labor’s policy is to do the same thing that the Coalition’s done. In fact the reason why families, men, women, children were placed in these centres was under Labor’s watch when our porous borders saw thousands and thousands of people come into our country.
DAVID SPEERS: Labor says they’d resettle them in New Zealand. Do you have a problem with that?
STEVEN CIOBO: Absolutely, because what we’ll see as a result of Labor’s, frankly, soft approach on border protection – you know, they think it’s more humanitarian, they think it’s more humane. The only thing that Labor’s soft approach is going to do is going to restart the trade of people smugglers in our region and that’s going to be a giant magnet for those that want to come to our country ahead of those that are sitting, unfortunately, in for example UNHCR camps, who are trying to do the right thing.
And I think that would be a great injustice to those who actually are deserving to come to countries like Australia, the United States and other countries but who can’t afford to pay a people smuggler.
DAVID SPEERS: Steve Ciobo, Minister for Defence Industry, thanks so much for joining us today, appreciate it.
STEVEN CIOBO: Good to speak with you.