17 February 2022

The Prime Minister and Defence Minister may have elevated their language on conflict and the need for greater sovereignty, but the truth is there is a yawning gap between rhetoric and reality. 

The pandemic has shown us the importance on being self-reliant, making things in Australia and improving our sovereign manufacturing capabilities. 

We’ve seen vulnerabilities and cracks in our supply chains when other countries are in crisis.

We need to take this as a warning of what may happen should international tensions escalate. 

We should be making high value, high end manufactured goods and the supplies required for them – our future should be made here, in Australia. This includes defence materiel and our defence industry.

Unfortunately, despite its rhetoric, the Morrison-Joyce Government’s commitment to Australian industry capability in the defence sector has not actually delivered the sovereign capability development our nation needs.

Until the Government addresses the way major Defence contracts are managed, question marks will remain over our sovereign Defence capability.

This Government has failed to implement strong, measurable and enforceable Australian Industry Capability (AIC) requirements in our defence contracts.

It may come as a surprise to some, but just across the border in Queanbeyan there is a thriving and sophisticated defence industry. 

There are multiple businesses that are now global leaders in defence technology. 

Which is why it is incomprehensible to me that these businesses and many other defence industry businesses across Australia have customers overseas jostling for their technology, but they struggle to get a look in when it comes to the Australian Defence Force.

An example of this is Electro Optic Systems (EOS). EOS started in Queanbeyan around 30 years ago and are now global leaders in space, communications, and defence. They have almost 600 staff, most of which are in the Queanbeyan-Canberra region. 

I’ve toured their facilities in Queanbeyan, Hume and Mount Stromlo and each time, I have been left amazed at the capabilities developed right here on our doorstep.

From it’s over $200 million in annual revenue EOS spends around $35 million or 16 per cent of revenue each year on research and development and works with high schools and universities with the goal of developing a strong defence industry workforce.

Yet Defence’s procurement processes almost completely eliminate any chance of EOS or other Australian small and medium defence industry businesses from winning a contract. 

Now around 90 per cent of EOS’ business is exported overseas. This is not uncommon in the defence industry. 

Put simply, other countries are falling over themselves for our capabilities, but our own Government is sending multibillion-dollar contracts overseas. 

The Prime Minister talks a big game on defence industry and sovereign capability. Unfortunately, the Morrison Government has a solid history of gaslighting Australians, and all the evidence points to more talk than action. 

The development and support of Australian defence industry has not been sufficiently prioritised by the Morrison Government and this needs to change.

We must ensure Defence Industry businesses receive the investment they need to scale up, so we can be as self-sufficient here in Australia as possible and have our own sovereign capability.

EOS is in the process of scaling up with plans for a new state-of-the-art facility in South Jerrabomberra. The NSW Government is supportive of EOS because it understands the importance of local space and defence capabilities. But Defence is a federal issue and while state support is welcome, the Federal Government should be supporting local Australian businesses by investing in opportunities like these. 

I have written to the Minister for Industry to outline the importance of this project in building and developing Australia’s sovereign capability.

This project means local jobs in the Queanbeyan region, career opportunities for local kids, and it will strengthen the region’s defence capabilities. It is a no brainer.

As we head into the next election period, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister will no doubt continue to espouse the same narrative, that only the Liberals are strong on Defence, but the reality is that only Labor has a plan to prioritise Australia’s defence industry. 

Only Labor will ensure defence project contracts are transparent and companies are accountable to ensuring that work happens here in Australia, that we develop the IP here in Australia, that we develop our capability and that we're not just sending this technology offshore.

Labor knows that investment in defence industry is good for our country, and most importantly, it’s good for Queanbeyan and good for our regions.

This opinion piece was first published in Defence Connect on Thursday, 17 February 2022.