The government has emphasised its strong support for the Australian defence industry as playing a key role in its “plan for jobs and growth” that, along with changes to the tax system and an effort to reduce long-term debt, represent what Treasurer Scott Morrison sought to present as “an economic plan…not just another budget” ahead of the federal election on July 2.
An industry policy said to span 20 years is intended to secure the future of the domestic defence manufacturing industry, the Treasurer declared, and will help to generate employment in Australia, including 3,600 direct jobs as a result of the government’s Naval Shipbuilding Plan.
“Big improvements in the nation’s defence capability also support innovation and skills development in advanced technologies,” Morrison said in the budget night speech. “Through the 2016 Defence White Paper, we have made the decisions necessary to establish a pipeline of work that will secure an advanced defence manufacturing industry here in Australia, driving new high-tech jobs for decades.
“The nine Future Frigates, 12 Offshore Patrol Vessels and 12 new, regionally superior submarines will do the job of boosting our defence capability, but they will also drive jobs and growth in the new economy we are building, not just in the shipyards in Adelaide and Perth but right across the supply chain of our national economy.”
And let’s not forget the Pacific Patrol Boats that will be constructed at the Henderson shipyard of Austal, which the Prime Minister held up as the embodiment of not only what the government hopes to achieve through the Defence Industry Policy Statement – when he visited Western Australia on the campaign trail – but also as a company that the PM said sums up the objectives of the Coalition’s national economic plan.
This raises an obvious question: who could possibly be a better advocate for Australian manufacturing than Malcolm Turnbull?
“We have seen supply ships which should have been built in Australia now being built in Spanish dockyards,” Bill Shorten said during the leaders’ debate on May 13. “The first thing my government will do, if we are elected, is maximise Australian content.
“If it had not been for the staunch defence by Labor to make sure that the submarines were going to be built in Adelaide, do we think we would be discussing building the submarines in Adelaide today? Indeed, we had to fight so hard that my opponents got rid of Mr Abbott.”
Turnbull’s declared enthusiasm for channelling defence procurement dollars as far as possible to Australian industry has left the Leader of the Opposition with little room to manoeuvre in terms of election promises.
And so far the Labor defence team has been making headlines for reasons other than industry policy, namely David Feeney (negative gearing) and Stephen Conroy (police raid).
So with the party leaders falling over each other to show their support for Australian manufacturing, and with bipartisan support for Defence, perhaps we should focus instead on the budget.
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has pledged that an incoming Labor government would release a Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) within three months of being sworn in to “reflect the new government’s priorities and approach…our savings, our investments in schools”.
While voters may well decide to back these priorities, and Bowen’s interest in proceeding on the basis of “realistic” economic forecasts obviously sounds eminently sensible, the outlook for Defence is unknown.
That being said, Labor has made a clear commitment to funding Defence at two per cent of GDP, matching the government.
But if either side has a hope of delivering what has been promised the budget’s sunny projections on economic growth had best hold true.