Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:19): I do not find a lot that I disagree with in this motion on the shipbuilding industry, moved by Senator Carr. I notice that Senator Carr has moved the motion, perhaps in his role as former industry minister, but has not bothered to turn up for the debate. That suggests that perhaps Senator Carr realises that the parlous state of the shipping industry in Australia at the moment is squarely and fairly on his shoulders and on the shoulders of other people that made up the dysfunctional government of the previous six years.
We recognise the vital contribution the Australian shipbuilding industry makes. We are gravely concerned about the possible retrenchment of skilled workers. We acknowledge the heavy cost of rebuilding lost capabilities. And we have an understanding of what this means to national security. I have no real problem with those elements of the motion, but the last part of the motion is the bobby-dazzler, if I can say that. Senator Carr is calling upon the government to immediately identify suitable project work to be fast-tracked, and recognising that this cannot wait for the defence white paper. As Senator Fawcett pointed out in a very thoughtful speech, these projects need a lead-in time of six to eight to 10 years. These projects are not something you think of today and start building tomorrow. We all know that both the LHD and the AWD proposals were actually initially proposals of the last coalition government. All Labor had to do was implement those decisions. Of course, not only was Labor not able to do that, as is referred to in Audit Report No. 22, referred to in the Financial Review this morning, it sat on its hands and did absolutely nothing for defence procurement, including shipbuilding activities, in the six years it was in government. In fact, Labor's six-year record in defence is highlighted by the defence industry shedding more than 10 per cent of its workforce because of budget cuts and deferrals by the Gillard and Rudd governments. There was a reduction in the overall defence spend as a percentage of GDP that took Australia down to its lowest level of defence spending since 1938—a year before World War II started. That was the effect of Labor's management of our defence forces.
I heard Senator Gallacher saying there are no ministers to look after South Australia. I am not sure what his point was, because Christopher Pyne is a very significant member of this government, one of the senior ministers, and he has done more for South Australia in the few months of the Abbott government than all Labor ministers did in the previous six years. Senator Wong was supposedly a very senior minister from South Australia, but what did she do about looking after the shipbuilding industry in South Australia? I would be very interested to hear that, because clearly the shipbuilding industry in South Australia and Western Australia—everywhere—is in decline because the previous government, in the six years that it should have been making forward plans, did absolutely nothing. The decisions of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government led to around 100 projects being delayed, 40 projects being reduced and 11 projects being cancelled. Many if not all of these would have included important roles for Australian industry. Under Labor, we saw more than $18 billion cut from the defence budget for the next decade or so.
I would like to take 20 minutes to speak on this, as the previous two Labor speakers have done, but I am going to curtail my remarks because I do want to give the opportunity to Senator Back and Senator Edwards, who come from the big shipbuilding states of South Australia and Western Australia, to speak in this debate. However, I suspect Labor will again try to filibuster so that the real facts about Labor's inefficiency and incompetence in managing the defence budget cannot be exposed. I encourage people to read the report in this morning's Australian Financial Reviewwhich shows that the air warfare destroyer budget blew out by $10 million a month under Labor's watch.
Before I conclude I want to demonstrate Labor's hypocrisy when it comes to defence shipbuilding. I remind senators—some of the newer senators may not be aware of this—that years ago there was a very viable, substantial, professional and skilled shipbuilding industry in the northern city of Cairns. It made a substantial contribution to the local economy, employing many skilled workers, many tradesmen, many apprentices and many workers in that field. What happened to that industry? I will tell you what happened—NQEA, the Cairns shipbuilder, bid for the one of the modules of the Australian air warfare destroyer project. I understand they were well in line to get that work but, on the eve of a decision being made, the Queensland Labor government withdrew not financial support but the promise of a backing guarantee. That is all that was required—not money. The Queensland Labor government withdrew that guarantee, which meant that NQEA was not given that project and that was the death of a long-established shipbuilding industry in Cairns—a shipbuilding industry which I proudly say Malcolm Fraser, as a Liberal Prime Minister of Australia, supported with the construction of our early patrol boats. The Labor Party, rather than criticising others about the jobs of workers, needs to look at their own backyard. They need to look at what the Queensland Labor government did that shut down that industry and threw so many workers onto the unemployment scrap heap. As I say, I will curtail my remarks in hope that my colleagues from the shipbuilding states get an opportunity to speak in this important debate.