February 16, 2022

I'm always pleased to make a contribution on appropriations bills. I always start by reminding the House that, unlike the Liberal Party, the Labor Party is not a party of constitutional vandals, and we will support supply. As this could well be my last contribution before the election, I'd like to take some time to reflect on the last three years of this parliamentary term and highlight some of the issues that are affecting my constituents' lives. I'd like to highlight what's important to them and recognise the immense privilege I have in representing my local community.

The number one issue in my community, like in most communities in this country, is health—adequate and universal healthcare. Medicare matters to the people I represent in this place. Shortland is the sixth-oldest electorate in the country and has an average household income below both the state and national average. Access to Medicare is a necessity, not a luxury, for my constituents, and primary health care is fundamentally important in taking the pressure off our already overstretched public hospital system, particularly our emergency departments.

A brilliant initiative developed in the Hunter region is the GP Access After Hours service. This provides out-of-hours consultations with a GP for people needing medical advice, and it takes huge pressure off our emergency departments. It sees 70,000 patients a year, and, importantly, there's a triage service at the start of the process, where families will talk to a registered nurse on the phone. This process helps 25,000 people who then do not have to see a GP. The other 45,000 people do see a GP, instead of clogging up an emergency department. This service is much loved and much used by Hunter locals. The Liberals and Nationals, in their wisdom—at the height of the omicron wave, just before Christmas—cut funding to this essential service. This has meant that the service has had to close completely at the Calvary Mater Newcastle hospital, in Waratah, and that services have been halved on weekends at public hospitals and at the Belmont and Toronto hospitals in Lake Macquarie. My community is justly outraged by these cuts. They know what a quality and efficient service GP Access is and how important it is—now more than ever, in the pandemic—to take pressure off public hospitals. I'm so proud that the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, visited the region over the summer break and committed a future Labor government to fully restoring funding to GP Access.

One of the other very common complaints from constituents is bad or non-existent mobile phone coverage in their homes and places of work. I represent an area where whole suburbs are mobile phone black spots, and yet the Morrison-Joyce government refuses to provide funding for them through the Mobile Black Spot Program, a program that is only subscribed through half its funds. The other half of the funds gets returned to Treasury each year. Yet my electorate, which is a regional electorate, is deemed not to be eligible for this funding. It is insulting. Two of the most severely impacted suburbs are Mount Hutton and Dudley. Although the telecommunications companies have invested in new towers in these suburbs, this has not solved the issue for many of my constituents. I'm talking about people who, for the past two years, have had to study and work from home and have not had the ability to do so. I've had an elderly constituent with Parkinson's disease having to do telehealth appointments in his front yard, on the main road, in the rain because there is no mobile phone reception inside his house. There's also a doctor who misses calls when he's on call and is needed for emergency work, and many people are unable to use QR codes in the suburban shops. The Morrison-Joyce government has ignored Shortland and the issue of mobile phone reception, and it is disgraceful that they continue to refuse to provide funding through the Mobile Black Spot Program.

I also want to take this opportunity to recognise and pay tribute to some of the extraordinary constituents I've encountered over the past three years, who I have the privilege to represent in this place. Because of the last two years of the pandemic, I'm sure I'm not alone in having encountered constituents who have adapted to very difficult situations and thrived in the changed world we live in. I have the greatest admiration for Greg Gates and his great workforce at Sirron Holdings Group at Caves Beach. Before COVID, Sirron was a successful dishwasher manufacturer. Because of the economic downturn, they pivoted to manufacturing hand sanitiser and now have an extensive range of disinfectants, cleaners, hand and surface sanitisers and soaps and are just going from strength to strength. This is a real Australian manufacturing success story, and I'm so proud to represent Greg and his Sirron team in the parliament.

CrocQ Lucero is a talented musician. Because of the lockdown, this work basically dried up, so he focused on his other passion, Filipino cuisine. CrocQ is quite the entrepreneur and successfully pivoted to expanding his Filipino cuisine company, Mini Pinoy Grill. Mini Pinoy specialises in spicy sauces. Having cooked and barbecued with these sauces, I can attest that they are truly quality products—and not for the faint-hearted! CrocQ, you are an example of someone facing a difficult life and work situation who was able to embrace the challenges posed by the pandemic and successfully grow a business. I wish you and Mini Pinoy Grill every continued success.

COVID hasn't stopped internationally acclaimed filmmaker Jye Currie going from strength to strength with his films over the past few years. Jye's film Victim won 11 international awards last year. His new movie, Beat, filmed in Newcastle, premiered in January and explores themes of homelessness and fame. I have every confidence Jye will enjoy as much success this year as he did in 2021.

I want to mention a few of my constituents who have excelled in both their professional and private lives and have achieved success and acclaim both nationally and internationally: Paralympian Rheed McCracken, who won silver in Tokyo last year; Emily van Egmond, who played with the Matildas in Tokyo; Whitebridge's Geraldine Viswanathan, who has achieved much success in Hollywood and recently featured in a Super Bowl ad with Jim Carrey; Red Bull cliff diving world champion Rhiannan Iffland, who continues to thrive in this competition; and Hayden Gavin, who was recognised for not only playing 150 rugby games for the mighty Southern Beaches but also being a finalist in the prestigious Australia's Most Ordinary Rig competition!

Finally I want to thank my constituents who have been recognised in the recent Australia Day Honours List: Pamela Comerford, Elizabeth and John Dickeson, Denis Gordon, Lauretta Morton, Brian Rudder, John Thomas and Derek Brindle. Thank you for all your service to our community. I'm very proud of the people I represent, and I look forward to the coming months, when I will seek the support of my constituents to continue to be their voice in Canberra. I look forward to speaking and meeting with them in the coming weeks, as I have done over the past nine years. I will be campaigning on Labor's plan for a better life for working families, with cheaper child care, strengthening of Medicare, affordable housing, secure work and a future made in Australia, which is so important for the Hunter region, which has a proud industrial and manufacturing heritage and has much to gain from Labor's plan.

In the time remaining to me, I want to reflect on a separate issue, which causes great sadness and, quite frankly, anger to me. It is the outrageous politicisation of national security by the Prime Minister and his ministers. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is effectively doing Beijing's bidding in his attempt to politicise national security and exploit issues for petty political advantage. This is truly desperate fearmongering by a Prime Minister deeply unpopular not only in the community but in his own party room. It runs in stark contrast to the expert advice we have heard from estimates only in the last couple of days. A senior DFAT official today said that Beijing seeks to exploit social and other divisions in countries to pursue its interests. That is why I say, with no fear of contradiction, that Prime Minister Morrison is doing Beijing's bidding by trying to portray that there is some division between the Liberal government and the Labor Party on the issue of national security. There is no distinction on attitudes to increasing Chinese aggression in our region. There is no division. There is no distinction. There is no difference. But Mr Morrison attempts to portray one, for petty political advantage, and he plays right into the hands of the aggressive policies of Beijing.

Similarly, we have seen accusations about candidates that are completely contradicted by testimony by the ASIO chief, who made it very clear that, first, the attempts at foreign influence had failed. He had absolute confidence in every single candidate of that political party some people have speculated on. More importantly, he made it very clear that these attempts at foreign interference are not restricted to one side of politics. This is a challenge every political party has to deal with. ASIO chief Mike Burgess made it very clear that it was not helpful—in fact, it was very counterproductive—to speculate about this in public.

But this is not the first time that this government and this political party, the Liberal Party, has attempted to politicise national security. This is a political party that, when it gets into trouble, goes back to this well time and time again. They have got form for doing this, reaching back to their predecessors in the United Australia Party. There great political hero, Robert Gordon Menzies, for example, was an utter hypocrite. He was a man who was very supportive of Australian intervention in World War I but yet refused to serve in the Army. He was a man who, 10 days after Hitler invaded Poland, advocated doing a peace deal with Germany, making very clear in a letter to Stanley Bruce, our high commissioner, that the troubles in Poland were not worth a hill of beans. That's why I very clearly say that Menzies was an appeaser; he sought to appease the Third Reich. The National Party—the Country Party at that time—was quite right to turf him out of their coalition. Artie Fadden, the then Leader of the National Party, did the right thing by the nation by saying he could not serve under Menzies, an appeaser of the Third Reich. That's not the only time. Let's not forget Vietnam, when, again, Menzies and the Liberal Party brought Australia into a war on a lie, a war where 500 Australians died, tragically, or the Gulf War, another lie, where John Howard brought us into war.

The great tragedy is that there is room for debate of our national security and the defence of the nation where we can talk about how the government and the Australian Labor Party have differences, and that's in procurement performance, in making sure the Australian Defence Force have the weapons and the equipment they need when they need it. This is where this government is so egregiously falling down. Twenty-five major projects are running, cumulatively, 68 years late. Let me repeat that: 25 major defence procurements that are vital to the ADF are running 68 years late under this government.

An honourable member interjecting

Mr CONROY: There is a rotating litany of defence ministers that come and go. Goldfish have a longer life expectancy than defence ministers in this government. They are spending $7 billion on new Black Hawk helicopters after spending $3½ billion on the MRH-90 failed Taipans, a helicopter where the door was not wide enough for troops to exit the helicopter while firing the helicopter machine gun. We had the $1.5 billion Spartan battlefield airlift aircraft that couldn't fly into battlefields—a minor problem, spending $1½ billion of taxpayers' money on an aircraft that couldn't perform its main purpose of flying into battlefields. We had the $3 billion battlefield management system that failed cybersecurity tests. We had $4 billion wasted on the Attack class submarines, on the contract with the French, which this government has now junked. We only learned yesterday that the Joint Strike Fighter, the $16 billion spear's edge of ADF, the frontline air defence fighter for the ADF, is flying thousands fewer hours each year than planned and budgeted for.

Probably the most appalling example is the $30 billion Hunter class frigates that have now blown out to $45 billion. They have gone from $30 billion to $45 billion, and not one of them has hit the water yet. They are running four years late; they are 2,000 tonnes overweight; they will be slower than the rest of the fleet; they will have a shorter range than the rest of the fleet; and they will be very noisy, which is a problem for a frigate that's primarily designed to hunt submarines. Noise is an issue if you are trying to hunt submarines, unsurprisingly. As concerning as that is the fact that, because it's overweight, because they have stuffed up the design, the frigate captains will have to choose between using their radar and going at full speed. In a high-threat environment, where you're facing potentially incoming missiles, being able to use your radar and go at full speed tend to go hand in hand.

So this government is failing the defence of the nation because it is failing on defence procurement. It's failing on dealing with the issue of an aggressive China. They sold the Port of Darwin, and they are now trying to politicise it, at two minutes to midnight, in a vain attempt to get re-elected.

The great tragedy is: there are many decent people in the Liberals and the National Party. There are really decent people who are united in making Australia a better place and making sure that we defend Australia and our national interest. But they are being led by people who are unworthy. They are being led by people who will stoop to anything to wring out petty political advantage. They will use the proceeds of crime money for petty political advantage. They will politicise the ADF. They will fearmonger and scaremonger to try and wring out every little political advantage as we approach an election. That's a great pity because it not only does them a disservice, it does the nation a disservice. It undermines confidence in the parliamentary system. It undermines confidence in a united Australia that will confront the many global challenges that are now arising.

So I end this speech with profound disappointment about the actions of the government. I can only say: let's bring on a Labor government. We'll fix this country.