Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

Shadow Minister for Trade and Investment

Senator for South Australia


Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

Shadow Minister for Defence


25 November 2014




SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Today we saw a Minister under pressure in Question Time launching an outrageous attack on Australian workers. An outrageous attack on the men and women we trust to keep our submariners safe. The men behind me, who work to make sure we can maintain our naval capability. An outrageous attack on workers, particularly on those who work in South Australia. Completely unwarranted.

And what I would say is this: I know that David Johnston’s under pressure, everybody knows that. But he should do the honourable thing as a Minister. He should go into the Senate today, he should withdraw what he said, and he should apologise, to the workers who are standing behind me, and to all the men and women who work so hard to keep our submariners and sailors safe.

SENATOR STEPHEN CONROY, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Thanks. Clearly, from the attitude of the Minister… I mean, if you can say something like ‘I wouldn’t let the ASC build a canoe’ there is no possibility of a fair process in the Government’s selection process for our new submarines. It is clear that they are determined for them not to be built in Australia.

The French, the Swedes, the Germans, have all said they can build them here in Australia. The ASC have said they can build them in Australia. Only one bid that we know of is not to build them in Australia, and that’s the Japanese bid.

So you have to ask yourself, no matter what process that the Government set up, and announced that they’re going to set up, can we have any confidence in, when the Minister is so determined for these submarines to be not built here in Australia, and in Adelaide.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) shooting himself in the foot?

CONROY: Well I think today’s outburst was just as Penny said: a Minister who is flailing around. He has completely mishandled the Defence pay issue. It’s now under consideration, and the Minister has said repeatedly there’ll be no change. Steven Ciobo this morning said there’d be no change. But what we’re hearing today is, yet again, the Minister’s been sidelined. Tony Abbott is now negotiating with Jacqui Lambie about an increase. So the Minister has been sidelined.

We know for a fact, it’s open knowledge, that the Prime Minister’s staff are running the bid for the submarines. It’s being driven from the Prime Minister’s office, and the Minister has again been sidelined. This is a Minister that doesn’t have the confidence of the Prime Minister. This is a Minister who doesn’t have the confidence of his own colleagues. And he should, as Penny said, go back into the chamber and apologise to some of the people we’re standing in front of right now.

The workers at ASC – I recently toured there – do a fantastic job. And despite the ongoing claims by the Prime Minister, and by the Minister, the productivity levels there are improving. The productivity levels at Williamstown hit all the benchmarks. And what we are seeing is a despicable attack and undermining of the workforce simply to pursue a political end of giving the submarine build to the Japanese.

JOURNALIST: Senator Johnston says that Senator Wong knew about all the problems at ASC, and that there’s price tag of $80 billion. There’s some document, somewhere.

WONG: There’s a lot of things Senator Johnston says in Question Time which I think don’t make a lot of sense. And you saw, an example of that today. But let’s understand what this Minister has done in the last twelve months. He made a promise to build twelve submarines here in Australia, at Adelaide. He has then spent months trying to crab-walk away from that promise, and today he trashed the reputation of workers, submarine maintenance workers, at the ASC. Now, that is a Minister who really needs to lift his game. And as I said, he should walk back into the Senate chamber and do the honourable thing, which is to withdraw, and to apologise.

JOURNALIST: So there’s no $80 billion price tag on a document that (inaudible)

WONG: If he’s so confident about that he can table the document. What I would refer you to though is, we had evidence at the Senate Estimates Committee about that figure, and the ASC gentleman said he doesn’t know where that figure came from.

JOURNALIST: What do you make about the ‘canoe’ comment in particular? What’s your response to (inaudible)?

WONG: What a devastating thing for Australia’s Defence Minister to say. I mean, he is calling into question Australia’s defence capability. That’s what he’s done today. It’s irresponsible, and it is an outrageous slur on those workers who spend so much of their effort and time dedicated to making sure that the Australians we send out in our submarines are safe.

JOURNALIST: What do you think it means for the Future Frigates as well?

CONROY: This is part of the ongoing commitment – that to be fair that the Howard government setup with bi-partisan support – that we wanted build the capacity so that we had continuous flow of work for our defence shipbuilding and submarine building industry. It’s only this government that’s started turning its back on John Howard’s policy.

We’ve already seen with the supply ships that no Australian company was allowed to tender for the supply ships. It was only a Spanish company and a Korean company.

We’ve now seen an attempt to trash the workforce as a pathetic excuse to give the submarines to Japan and what we’ve got to see is a government that stands up and tells the truth. Keep its commitments and tell the truth.

We’ve already seen improved productivity at Williamstown; we’ve seen improved productivity at Forgacs; we’ve seen improved productivity at ASC and we always understood that in the early stages we’d have a lower level of productivity as we learnt.

So all of the evidence is available, except there’s one document that this government won’t table and that’s the ‘Winter Report’. David Johnston commissioned the Winter Report’ written by John White. There are many claims about what’s in that report, but we understand that this is a report that talks about how we could continue all of our ship building industry here in Australia.

So release the report. Let’s have some honesty from David Johnston. Release the report and let’s then have an honest discussion about Australia’s ship building future.

JOURNALIST: How do you think Sophie Mirabella feels about the comments made by the Senator?

WONG: Well, she is a member of the Board, so I’d be interested to see if she supports what the Minister has said. I’d be interested… you should ask Minister Cormann, if he also believes what the Minister has said is appropriate. He’s the shareholder Minister, it’s up to him to defend them.

JOURNALIST: Can we hear from the workers how they feel about the comment?

ANDREW DANIELS, ASC WORKER: It’s pretty disgusting. There’s 3000 ASC workers across two states, South Australia and Western Australia. And we do our best. We maintain submarines, and we also build AWDs.

There’s no way that we would put at risk our sailors, Australian sailors. No way would we be giving them second-class work, shoddy jobs, or anything like that. We give them the best. That’s what our job is, to maintain the submarines, to build the best AWDs. We will do that, we will continue to do that.

We’ve got an Acting CEO who’s doing a great job, a fantastic job. He’s got us ahead of schedule in our contract on the submarines. We are ahead. And we’re looking at… we will commit, and make that two-year cycle. So we’re doing really well there. The warships, they’re doing well, the second ship is coming along. It’s fantastic to see – because we can see it from the fence from the submarine side. That’s coming along fantastic, they are doing a brilliant job.

And here we are, we’re being trashed. Well I go home to my family, and this guy’s telling me I’m useless. And I don’t feel useless. That’s pretty gutting to 3000 workers in South Australia and Western Australia. It’s not a great feeling to have your Defence Minister, who you’re out there doing your best job for, for the country, and he’s trashing it. That’s not good.

WONG: Thanks everyone.