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February 24, 2021

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Joining us live is Brendan O'Connor, the Shadow Minister for Defence. Brendan, thanks for your time this morning. Good to see you. Well, first of all, you want Linda Reynolds to release documents about the Future Submarines by 9.30 today. Is that likely? 

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, it might not be likely, but it should happen, Peter. Good morning. This is one of the largest defence contracts in our history and we have a 10 year blowout, we have an 80 per cent increase in the projected costs, and we now have a real issue around whether in fact there's going to be sufficient local content for local businesses and workers. 

Now, the Minister had made a commitment in the Senate in October last year that they would have struck a deal with the major French provider of 60 per cent local content, at the very least. They said they would have that done by the end of last year. That hasn't happened. The CEO of Naval is here in Canberra today. At the National Press Club today the Minister, who's presenting a speech, must assure the Australian public that indeed 60 per cent, at the very, very minimum, of local content has been secured with the French company.

STEFANOVIC: The company says, Brendan, it has agreed to that 60 per cent target you're speaking about, but it says that if it doesn't, then any penalty should be taken off the profit of the last submarine. But the kicker here is that that might not be completed until, what 30 or 40 years away?

O’CONNOR: That's right. I mean there was a commitment that we'd have the first sub in the water by midway through this decade. Now it's no earlier than 2035. The idea that we would look to penalise a contractor in 20 years plus time, that's not going to satisfy local businesses and workers who need the opportunities to work on these submarines. And it's not the commitment that the government made prior to the last election. Nor is it what the Minister has said she'd undertaken and secured late last year. 

Now the Minister needs to come clean and explain to the Senate, to the Australian public, what commitments have been secured by the Morison Government in relation to this huge contract that requires local content being used, because we need that capability going forward to maintain those assets. And we need to make sure that thousands of Australians are given opportunities of jobs and local businesses too. That's critical. 

STEFANOVIC: Should the deal be called off? Should we be looking elsewhere? Is it too late for that? 

O’CONNOR: Well, these are huge, huge undertakings, and it's not easy to turn around these things and go elsewhere. But we had commitments made by the Prime Minister, the Minister and previous ministers Christopher Pyne, and Marise Payne that local content would at the very least exceed 60 per cent. It would appear that has not been secured. And Minister Reynolds at the National Press Club today must explain what agreement has been struck, whether in fact that commitment that she said would be undertaken and secured by last year has been secured. And if not, why not? And this is therefore not surprising that Scott Morrison has commissioned two naval officers to look at other options, which really is a vote of no confidence in relation to the role of the Minister for Defence. 

STEFANOVIC: Well, she's got her speech, as you rightly point out there. It's coming up at 12.30 at the Press Club. Is she up to the job, Brendan? I mean, it's not just the subs deals, which many people find controversial, as a matter of fact. It's the handling of the Afghanistan war inquiry. There's the handling of the Brittany Higgins sexual assault allegations as well - rape allegations to put it more bluntly. I mean, is she up to the task?

O’CONNOR: Well, there's serious questions about the competency of the Minister to date. Firstly, she needs to correct the record. She misled the Senate yesterday and when answering questions in relation to the terrible assault on Ms Higgins. Clearly there's some errors there. Whether they're intentional or not, she now needs to correct the record. She needs to focus on this major contract, this critical contract for our national security. That needs to be fully explained with respect to local content. 

There are a series of other things that the Minister must attend to but is very distracted and needs to focus on the core issues in her portfolio. If that doesn't happen then obviously the Prime Minister has some decisions to make in respect to that Minister. 

STEFANOVIC: Okay, just finally, we are standing by to go to Craig Kelly. He is doing a doorstop very soon. As it happens, it'll be live. But just before that happens, Brendan, will Labor be looking to exploit his newfound independence?

O’CONNOR: Well, I'm not sure we would accord with much of what Craig Kelly says on any given matter. I mean, the only reason why Craig Kelly's in the parliament is because Scott Morrison intervened to ensure that he'd be elected at the last election. That's turned out to be a dreadful mistake given the misinformation, the quite dangerous misinformation, that's been spread by Mr Kelly. And for that reason, I can't see Mr Kelly voting with Labor too often. But certainly it does point to the fact that it's a terrible error of judgment by the Prime Minister in supporting Craig Kelly's pre selection before the last election. Now we have a rogue MP who misinformed the public on health matters, which is really quite dangerous, particularly as we roll out the vaccine. 

STEFANOVIC: Okay. Brendan O'Connor, thanks for your time this morning. We'll talk to you again soon.