LYNDAL CURTIS: The Federal Opposition Leader outlined some of his plans for defence should he win the next election. There are some concrete plans, such as buying unmanned aircraft to patrol northern Australia, but there are also some aspirations or decisions yet to be taken. The Federal Government has announced some plans of its own, continuing to chip away at finding efficiencies in the public service. To discuss the day, I’m joined by Labor MP Laura Smyth and Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Welcome to you both.
LAURA SMYTH: Thanks, Lyndal. Good to be here.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Lyndal.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We’ll start first with the defence announcements from the Opposition Leader.
TONY ABBOTT: Our aspiration, as the Commonwealth budgetary position improves, would be to restore the three per cent real growth in defence spending that marked the final seven years of the Howard Government … Within 18 months of an election, an incoming Coalition Government would publish a new Defence White Paper with costed, affordable ways to meet Australia’s defence and national security objectives.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, Mr Abbott’s speech was about, largely, decisions yet to be taken on returning to a real increase of three per cent growth in defence funding, decisions on submarines and Joint Strike Fighters. It’s not a guarantee any of this will be delivered, is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we’re staking out some very clear territory here, Lyndal, and the first important point to make is that, whilst we have Julia Gillard in New York trying to proclaim Australia as an important middle power, if you look at our defence spending and the direction it’s heading, in many ways we are a diminishing power, in a military and defence sense for certain, and that’s a real concern. We’re now at a situation where we’re headed towards the lowest level of defence spending as a proportion of GDP [gross domestic product] since 1938, so what Tony Abbott has said today is…
LYNDAL CURTIS: But there’s no concrete timeframe, though, is there on the plan to get back to a three-per-cent real growth in defence funding, though?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, as with all areas, you will see in our policies before the election costed plans that will demonstrate, over the forward estimates period, where we will go; how we will at least put a floor underneath the reduction in defence spending we’ve seen; some firm commitments of what we will deliver, as you indicated, in terms of unmanned aircraft; some firm commitments that, rather than the five, six years of dilly-dallying around on submarines we’ve seen that… to be built here in Adelaide under the Labor Government; some firm commitments of a timeline to make decisions and get progress on these projects; and, yes, of course, we will have to outline a sensible and responsible path to get defence spending back on track but the important thing today is: we’ve made some commitments, some firm commitments in some areas, and, absolutely, some aspirations but some aspirations that indicate a stark difference between the Coalition’s commitment to Australia truly being a sensible middle power, truly having a defence force that we can be proud of and being capable and ready to deliver the services we need for future operations, be they of an Afghanistan or Iraq nature or, in our own region, of an East Timor or Solomon Islands nature which have been so critical in recent years.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could come back to the submarines, Simon, your Leader has expressed a preference for the new generation of submarines to be built in Adelaide but if, in the process that the Defence Minister has outlined to look at all the options… if there is a better, less expensive ‘off the shelf’ option from overseas, should it be taken?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, of course we’ve got to always be prudent with taxpayers’ money. Look, if there’s something better… and ‘better’ is a key thing that applies across a number of fronts – better in terms of its capability; better in terms of, of course, getting value for money; better in terms of taking into full account all of the economic pros and cons of the impact of buying ‘off the shelf’ from overseas versus fully developing in Australia and what that means for Australian industry – so you’ve got to take the whole suite of considerations there. It’s not just ‘is it cheaper?’ ‘Better’ involves that economic consideration as well. Now, I’m hopeful and confident that in Adelaide, in South Australia, we can manage to mount a case to have them built here and that it will be better to have them built here when you assess all of those different criteria but I’d also just make the point that it was 2007 that Kevin Rudd stood in South Australia and said we would build the next generation of submarines here in SA. Here we are in 2012 and we’re no closer, so, in fact, we’ve got a real problem here and there’s a real gap now, in terms of the skills capability, that could well emerge because of the lack of decision making and the pushing out of funding and projects that we’ve seen under this Government.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Laura, should the capacity to build things like the submarines in Australia, in Adelaide where some expertise has been developed, be a crucial part of the decision making?
LAURA SMYTH: Well, I think we’ve seen a lot of rhetoric today from the Opposition about ensuring that we invest locally in defence spending and yet at the same time they’re clearly canvassing the very distinct prospect that they will look elsewhere in terms of defence spending, so far as submarines are concerned, and so I think that people in South Australia have every reason to question the details of this plan as they ultimately emerge, assuming that that they do, and when it becomes more than merely an aspiration of the Liberal-National Parties.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I thought, Laura, that the multi-million dollar committee that your Government has announced this year is also looking at all of the options for where to get submarines from.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move on. We’ll go now to the latest round of public service cuts and the Finance Minister, Penny Wong, has announced a package of measures she believes will save some money but not at the cost of jobs.
PENNY WONG: … I’ve announced today, with Gary [Gray, Minister for the Public Service and Integrity], savings of some $550 million to be found over the forward estimates through pursuing further efficiencies and saving. These are things like reducing business class travel, reducing international travel, reducing external consultants and contractors, moving recruitment advertising online and seeking to print more online, so reduce actual printing…
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, the Coalition has its own program for cutting the public service and that will cut jobs. Tony Abbott said today, in his defence speech, a Coalition Government would look at cutting the defence bureaucracy. Do examples of job cuts and the reaction to them in the states worry you at all or is it a different case in the federal public service because it doesn’t involve jobs like teachers and nurses?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think that is a core point of difference, Lyndal, and we certainly need to appreciate that and highlight that but also just mount the broader argument that, when it comes to the public service, bigger is not necessarily better. We need to make sure that the understanding across the Australian public is that we have to… all governments have to live within their means and that means deciding what the priorities are and if you want to fund a National Disability Insurance Scheme, for example, which this Government says it’s committed to but has only put a token small amount of funding on the table, then you actually have to make some difficult decisions in the longer term.
LAURA SMYTH: [unclear] billion.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A fraction of what is required, Laura, to actually fund it. Let’s not pretend that it is fully funded by any means. If you want to have those types of programs…
LAURA SMYTH: But, Simon, are you asserting that that justifies frontline public service cuts? Are you asserting that that justifies cuts in aged care…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: What are you defining as frontline there, Laura? In the end, as indeed Lyndal’s question to me pointed out, there is a fundamental difference between nurses and doctors in our hospitals, delivering services, and health bureaucrats in Canberra; between teachers in our schools and education bureaucrats in Canberra, so let’s not muddy the waters here.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But there are also bureaucrats in Canberra, Simon, who are involved in frontline services, such as providing support through Centrelink or providing support through things like Medicare. It’s not all people in the back room doing policy work, is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No. Of course, absolutely, so that is why it’s about government sensibly prioritising what it wants to do. We can’t just keep saying ‘well, we’re going to keep all the public servants we’ve got and we’re going to keep doing more different things’ because the only way you do that is to either dramatically increase the tax base or to run the type of deficits this Government has run – the four biggest deficits in the country’s history, consecutively in the last four budgets.
LAURA SMYTH: Well, Simon, Joe Hockey has talked clearly about around 12,000 public sector jobs going under a Hockey-Abbott Government. Are you able to confirm that that’s actually an accurate figure because it sounds very much as though that’s what you’re actually looking at – wholesale cutting of departments, for instance?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Laura, you know full well that, just as we did before the last election, we will be upfront in outlining what our cost savings are and, indeed, I’m sure they will involve some reduction in public service numbers…
LYNDAL CURTIS: And we’ll just have to…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … because this Government has allowed the public service to balloon. This Government has allowed the public service to balloon yet again and we need to have a situation where we get the budget back under control. You can’t keep running…
LAURA SMYTH: Just to be clear…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … huge deficit after deficit…
LYNDAL CURTIS: I’m sorry to interject but we’ve completely run out of time but, Simon Birmingham and Laura Smyth, thank you very much for your time.
LAURA SMYTH: Thanks, Lyndal.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks very much, Lyndal.