Subjects: Visit to Townsville and Palm Island; visit to Lavarack Barracks; Victorian floods; the government’s broken promise on a $275 cut to your power bills; the Voice; AFP data hack; defence procurement; Black Hawk helicopters; military support to Ukraine.
I’m Phillip Thompson, I’m the Federal Member for Herbert and Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence.
Thank you for coming out this morning. It’s always good to welcome Peter Dutton back to town. He has a frequent flyer card for the North and especially here in Townsville. He came in yesterday afternoon and we spent some time with a construction company, listening to the issues that they face, which they spoke about skills shortages, supply shortages, and as well as just the cost of living that has been skyrocketing in what we’re seeing here locally.
We then went over to Palm Island and Peter and I got to Palm and we went out and we just walked the streets. We spoke to locals at the shopping centre, we spoke to people out the front of the council building and we sat down and we had a chat and the message was very clear: that the cost of living hurts everyone and people are doing a tough, not just on the mainland here but also on Palm Island.
It was really good to get Peter Dutton to Palm Island. This is the first time a leader of a party has traveled to Palm and it was recognised from the people that live there. They were coming over very regularly wanting to talk to Peter, get photos with him and ask questions, but also, give really good advice on how we can support our First Nations people here in the North.
Just before, this morning, we’ve been out at Lavarack Barracks, listening to soldiers and listening to what affects them, how they’re travelling through deployments they’ve been on, the training missions they’ve been on and getting their first-hand experience. Because our role in opposition, it’s not just to sit back and do nothing, it’s to ensure we’re listening to people to develop our policies as the alternative government. Hearing from soldiers first-hand on what they need to do their job is very important. I know Peter knows this as he has been the former Minister for Defence, but his role as the Leader of the Opposition has changed a little bit and sitting down with soldiers, having a brew, eating some bacon and eggs, having a chat with them, talking about the kit they need, talking about the aircrafts that they want to have. We spoke about the Black Hawk and the need for the Black Hawk at Five Aviation here in Townsville. That aircraft saved lives, that aircraft was proven, that aircraft can take off – that’s something the MRH-90 cannot do, so we must be listening to our soldiers.
Obviously, Peter is getting around the country, but making sure that he spends a significant time here in Townsville, because as the largest city, the furthest away from a capital city, what we’re seeing here is replicated around the country, but it sometimes can be greater here and the cost of living pressures is something that is quite significant. So, I want to welcome Peter Dutton back to Townsville, thank him for his time on the ground, listening to locals and walking the streets in Palm Island. It’s so powerful to see a leader of a party go to the Island, stay there and listen to people – not have organised meetings where you’re getting rushed around, speaking to everyday people, nothing kind of scheduled or pushed in any direction. Having locals on Palm Island to tell Peter exactly how they’re feeling, I think it’s very powerful and, of course, listening to soldiers from the First Battalion – it’s my old unit. They love seeing politicians sit down and actually take an interest in what they’re talking about and what they need.
Having Peter be here is very important. I’d like to see Richard Marles – the new Minister for Defence – come here. We haven’t seen him here, which is very disappointing, because he finds a lot of time to travel overseas and a lot of time to meet with other people. We’ve got a Deputy Prime Minister who moonlights as a Minister for Defence. We need someone who’s going to be there and actually represent the people who put on the uniform every day. So, the invitation – again – and we’ve spoken about it before, is to have Richard Marles come up and actually listen to soldiers on the ground. I’d also like to see the Prime Minister Albanese, not worry about the name of a football stadium, not care about if it’s got a Roosters’ sign on it or a Rabbitohs’ sign on it and get into an argument with the New South Wales Premier. We want the Prime Minister to come out to the regions and listen to people. We haven’t seen that, it’s been months now and we haven’t seen any of them come to Townsville. Like I said, this is the largest city, the furthest away from a capital city and Townsville, the people here, expect to be listened to, expect their leaders to do that.
Having Peter come here as the Leader of the Opposition is fantastic and his listening that he’s done here will guide us into how we formulate policy in the future.
Phil, thank you very much. A few things I want to say this morning but I wanted to start just by acknowledging the work of the emergency services in Victoria. There are some very disturbing scenes as you’re watching houses inundate and the response of the emergency services workers – as always – is first class. It’s always a stressful environment on the ground because people are having their life’s work destroyed in many cases and there’ll be a flood of activity and a lot of work on the ground by councils to try and prepare as best they can and respond, obviously, once the waters have receded.
Again, we say it repeatedly, I’m sure everyone’s sick of hearing this message, but if it just changes one decision – please heed the advice from the authorities, don’t go into the floodwaters, evacuate in time, listen to the expert advice. We just don’t want to see a loss of life on top of the significant loss of property that takes place in these events. So, we’re watching anxiously over the next few days.
I spoke this morning with Anne Webster MP and with Sam Birrell MP, two of the most affected electorates on the ground and I’ll continue to speak with them. I’ve conveyed to both of them that whatever we can do to provide support, to work with the government, we will do that because it’s a very difficult time for a lot of Victorians at the moment and we’ll as a Coalition work very closely with the government to provide support, to get that support to people on the ground as quickly as possible.
Well, I want to say thank you very much to Phil Thompson for not only just being a passionate Member for Herbert, but his connection on the ground, the respect that he has for his constituents, the way in which that is reciprocated is quite remarkable. He knows his electorate, he understands the issues that are going on, he knows that families at the moment are hurting, particularly because of the cost of living pressures. Interest rates have gone up, the price of petrol has gone up under this government, we know that energy prices have gone up and yet the Prime Minister promised on 97 occasions that power prices would go down by $275. We now find out that they’re going to go up by 35 per cent, maybe more, over the next few years because of the policies being implemented by Chris Bowen and Anthony Albanese.
We don’t want to go down a European path where you get blackouts and massive cost increases to the point where people can’t afford – in a climate like this over summer – to turn the air conditioning on, particularly for pensioners, that has a very significant impact on older Australians, a very significant impact for small businesses, for manufacturing businesses. Ultimately, they just take a decision to pack up because it’s too hard to do business in this country. The energy costs are too great, the security is not there so the energy is not guaranteed and they go offshore. There’s no net benefit to the environment and all you do is end up losing Aussie jobs and the economic productivity here. So, Labor is walking a dangerous path at the moment. They promised before the election that they had a plan and it’s clear to all Australians now that they have no such plan.
Look, a couple of issues. The Prime Minister seems to be at odds with the Treasurer, who’s at odds with other senior ministers about what is happening on the tax cuts. Labor went to the election with a promise that they would implement the tax cuts and now we’ve got one minister saying that there’ll be a guarantee, that they’ll honor this commitment until the next election. We’ve got another minister saying that it’s only this budget that we provide the guarantee for, and Australians are living with that uncertainty and Labor is killing confidence at a time when we should be trying to build confidence up.We’ll see the US and the UK, unfortunately, go into recession over the course of the next 12 months. But the resilience and the strength of the Australian economy that Labor inherited after nine years of Coalition management means that we’re in a much stronger position. But if we’re driven into a recession by bad Labor decisions, it’ll be families, it’ll be pensioners, it’ll be people on fixed incomes and it will be many, many small businesses across the country that ultimately pay the price for that failure.
I’m happy to take any questions.
What should the government be doing to contain gas prices and supply?
Well, I think a couple of points. One is that they went to the election saying that they had a plan and they said that they had a plan that they would implement. They knew all of the settings – all of the policy settings, they knew the pressures and they had a policy which they said was going to reduce power prices by $275. The Prime Minister has not mentioned that figure any day since the election, since May, and we’re now knowing that power prices are going up by 35 per cent. So, the government needs to preside over a policy that is going to discover more gas fields to bring that gas online, to deal with the shortages in the system.
Madeleine King says that this is the solution, that it is decisive action. Then we get the AWU that comes out and says that it’s a dud policy. Then we’ve got Chris Bowen, who as you know in the past has called any suggestion that we should discover more gas in our country ‘BS’. Well, I think from the man who gave us FuelWatch and GroceryWatch, we’re starting to see a train wreck in slow motion under Chris Bowen, and I worry that it doesn’t only mean a jacking up of prices – of gas and electricity prices under Labor – but that we’re going to see failure within our system as well. If they turn off fossil fuels too quickly, before the technology is available to replace it, then we’re going to have a gap and that’s just the reality. In France they’ve got a very significant mix of nuclear into their system which they can firm up their renewables and this is why we’ve started the discussion about nuclear energy in our country. It’s a reality in France and Canada, the small modular reactor and the technology now is world class, and this government needs to really get their act together because otherwise, we don’t want the rolling blackouts that we’re seeing in California, we don’t want the massive price increases that we’ve seen in the United Kingdom, and if they don’t discover more gas and don’t support those projects coming online, then Australians will pay the price for it.
Yesterday on Palm Island, was there any discussion about the Voice to Parliament and do you think that funding should be given to both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns for that referendum?
Well, I certainly think equal funding should be given because I think, as is obvious on Palm yesterday, and as you move around the community – I mean, this wasn’t a contested issue at the last election, it’s not an issue that you’ve all been reporting in your packages over the course of the last 12 months or couple of years. There’s very little awareness and when you speak to some of the residents yesterday, I’m very grateful that Phil organised for us to go across to Palm Island yesterday. I hadn’t been there since the early 1990s and it was a real opportunity to speak to people on the ground. One of the constant refrains, I suppose, one of the repeated statements made to us was that people have a disconnect on Palm Island, even to Townsville, and so their argument is ‘well, is there a Voice from Palm Island that’s going to represent their views’? Because they feel we’re not being heard, even from leaders in Townsville, there’s criticism of the Mayor here in Townsville about some of the proposals she’s putting forward. So, if the government has a plan on the Voice, we need to hear it, it needs to be explained. The idea of the advertising or the funding of the campaign in equal ways for the ‘yes’ and ‘no’, people have legitimately got reasons to support, they’ve legitimately got issues of concern and reasons to oppose. We live in a country where we support a debate of ideas and with taxpayers’ money, we shouldn’t be providing support to one side or the other, it should be provided equally to both sides.
Given the massive cost of living pressures facing Australians. Do you think there’s merit in considering an increase to the JobSeeker rate in the upcoming Budget?
Well, I think the government’s ruled that out. I think they, again, at one point said it was going to be increased and then at another period, not, but I suppose we’ll wait to see what happens in the Budget. We’ve got different ministers, as I say, giving different messages about where it is that they think the budget spending should be. Again, the government knew that there were cost of living pressures, that petrol prices were going up by 23 cents a litre. They knew all of this when they went to the election promising that they had a plan and it just seems they don’t have a plan.
With the Black Hawks, more specifically here on the base. Do you concede what Richard Marles said earlier in the week, that your management of the defence portfolio during that time will lead to large delays for major defence projects?
No, and I call on Richard Marles to release the ministerial correspondence, the advice that I had from the department, the briefs that I signed off on, and the discussions that I had with the company – because this was a done deal. I’m very happy for all of that information to be released. I authorise anything that I had to be released.
It was very clear to me that the Taipans were not fit for purpose and this was a done deal. Richard Marles is playing political games at the moment on a very important issue. One of the reasons I took decisive action in ordering the Black Hawks was that I feared that we would have an accident in one of the Taipans. The longer Richard Marles plays politics on this very important issue, the greater the risk is and he can reduce the risk by getting the Black Hawks into service as quickly as possible.
I spoke in very clear terms at the time, about pulling some of the Black Hawks off the production line and bringing them into service more quickly. There was agreement in relation to that from the Americans and we’d received that advice. So, I would call on Richard Marles to provide the evidence where he says that that wasn’t the case because I can promise you that it was and he’s playing games with something that is too serious to be mucked around with this. This could be a life and death decision and that’s certainly how I approached it and it’s the urgency that I bought to it.
There had been a long run of different points of consideration about the Taipan over about 11 years from memory, and I made a decision as the Defence Minister that they needed to be replaced. We put that in train and now we’ve got five months down the track and Richard Marles is ordering all sorts of reviews and studies but no decisions. If he hasn’t got the money in the budget, if he’s been rolled in the Expenditure Review Committee, well he should be honest about that and not try and make up some fictional scenario that he gives himself cover with when he doesn’t have the announcement in the Budget. These things should be here as quickly as possible. They’re necessary and we would support additional expenditure to acquire them.
Was there real concern from troops on the ground that the Black Hawks will be delayed in their delivery from those people who you spoke to today?
It’s clear to me having spoken with troops and leaders within the ADF, not just today, but over a long period of time that they want the Black Hawks and it’s a trusted airframe for them, a trusted platform that they can use. They’ve highlighted the deficiencies within the Taipan over a long period of time and it was obvious to me then, it should be obvious to Richard Marles now. As I say, I suspect this comes down to him not having the money in the budget, and he didn’t have the strength of courage or leadership to stand up to Jim Chalmers in the Expenditure Review Committee – I can tell you now that’s more than likely what’s happened.
A couple of questions about the Colombian attack from our Canberra bureau. How much is the AFP’s work being disrupted by the leak of 35 operations targeting drug cartels?
Well, clearly this is a significant breach with very significant, maybe even life or death implications. The Australian Federal Police have an incredible international reputation. When we were in government, we increased the funding year-on-year for the Australian Federal Police and as the Home Affairs Minister I pushed very hard with the very willing Commissioner to make sure that we invested more into that international engagement so that we could disrupt some of the drug importations, because ultimately it affects kids in communities like this. It will be a very significant blow but the AFP will adapt to it, they’ll work with their partners. But it just shows the additional protections that you have to have in place around data now. The sophistication of the state actors, the non-state actors, the ability to hack into systems, shows the importance of having software upgrades in our own small businesses and own government departments. But this is going to become a regular occurrence because the value of the data is so significant that it makes it very attractive for crime groups and state-actors to take these sorts of actions and there’s a lot that they can do with the data and not just Optus and not just energy companies etc. It’s across the holdings, we’ve seen it with Channel Nine and elsewhere. This is the reality of us living online, storing our personal data online, it has a great value attached to it.
Are you concerned about the safety of officers now this information has been leaked and will this affect how much information Australia shares with South American countries?
Yes, I am concerned about the safety of those officers, but I have absolute faith in the AFP Commissioner being able to respond accordingly and providing protections around those individuals. I don’t know how much warning they had before this was made public but presumably, they would have had some warning so that the steps could be put in place to provide the protections or to withdraw those agents from harm’s way. I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the Australian Federal Police but it is difficult and naturally other partners that have worked with this particular authority – but as I say, could be any – there will be a reluctance until they can demonstrate again that there is a security around the information holdings. That happened a couple of years ago in Canada as well, it happens within our system from time to time and I have no doubt that the AFP will take all the steps necessary to keep their equities safe.
The Defence Minister also kept the door open this week to possibly deploying troops to Ukraine to train up Ukrainian troops. Is that something that the Coalition will be backing in as well?
Well, certainly to the region. I don’t think there’s a proposal to put troops into Ukraine to train, I think in adjacent countries and in a discreet way for a number of reasons. If we’re sending equipment, we should be providing the training and again, it’s an issue that there would be bipartisan support on. As Defence Minister, I certainly took that decision and I would support Richard Marles and the government in providing additional support to Ukraine.
As Defence Minister, I was very proud that we were able to provide over a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of support, including the Bushmasters, at the request of President Zelenskyy. It’s not apparent to me exactly how much support has been provided since May and I hope that the Defence Minister can detail this because I think it’s an important thing for Australians to understand. I think there’s a great deal of pride in our country at the support we’ve been able to provide the Ukrainian people, particularly given the attacks on residential areas, and to try and defend those areas into the future and prevent deaths, we should continue to be part of the support and the supply line to the Ukrainians. We don’t need to know every detail because there would be some classified elements to it, but certainly the dollar amount we were able to release and I think the Defence Minister should provide that detail. It’s also important for our allies to hear it as well, to know that we’re a serious player and we’re one of the most significant contributors so far in Ukraine and that should continue until the Russians leave and President Putin decides that his unlawful attack should come to an end, and I hope that that’s as soon as possible.
Just going back to energy – here in North Queensland there’s been plenty of renewable energy projects commissioned and are underway, except they’ve got little or no capacity to connect to the grid and even when they do, they’re potentially too powerful for the grid to handle. What’s the solution here? Does the federal government need to step in and do more or how much responsibility should state and federal governments play?
Well look, I just think in relation to this issue, we’ve just got to strip some of the emotions back and the flourishes of Chris Bowen. I mean, some of what he says is just embarrassing, to be honest. But the fact is that we all support renewables in the system, we all want to see emissions reduced. But as we’re seeing in Europe at the moment, if you haven’t got a steady supply or reliable supply, then you’re in trouble – particularly during periods of peak demand. In the European case, that is over winter, in our case – in many of our cities like Townsville – that is over summer. So, there’s a lot that needs to be done and poles and wires in every community that the government is proposing, I don’t think is sensible. So, we will support good policy, but I think the government’s on a frolic at the moment and I think prices go up and there’s uncertainty in the system which nobody wants to see.
Thank you very much.