WA deserves its fair share of shipbuilding investment

Published on Tue 23 May 2017 7:50pm

Last week the government released its Naval Shipbuilding Plan, and the neglect of Western Australia was as plain as day: there is $89 billion dollars of Defence manufacturing and investment, out of which WA gets barely $4 billion.

Mr Wilson (7:50pm) — As an island nation, we rely on merchant shipping and our naval defence to a greater extent than many Australians would consider in their day-to-day lives. Having our own capacity in these areas is a matter of critical self-sufficiency. It is a capacity we should have at all times; it is not something we would want to find is lacking when a crisis hits. Of the goods that Australians import or export, an overwhelming proportion is transported by ships, which travel here through a changing and volatile region.

In those circumstances, we should all be concerned that our coastal shipping industry is in decline and has been left to wither by a regulatory framework that does not accord proper value to Australian shipping and does not work effectively to protect the jobs, conditions and safety of Australian seafarers. That means there are very few Australian owned and flagged vessels, it means we do not maintain sufficient merchant marine capability, and it means there is not currently an Australian general license vessel capable of transporting petroleum. And it means our marine environment is at risk of the disasters that are more likely to occur when both ships and seafarers fall below the high standard that our industry has always set.

As I noted in the submission I made to the government’s Coastal shipping reforms discussion paper:

The Coalition Government’s record has been to undermine Australian shipping and to actively weaken the position of Australian seafarers and their representatives. Until there is a serious and meaningful change to that approach it is likely that Australia’s self-sufficiency … will be further weakened, and that jobs and skills in those areas will be further reduced.

With respect to Australia’s naval capacity and operations, the government is embarking on a significant shipbuilding program, which I support. But it is impossible to support an approach to that program which does not maximise the opportunity for Australian industry participation or provide fair opportunities for WA.

I am not some kind of mad parochialist. I understand that national projects and funding have to be shared. I am glad that South Australia will continue its important role as a shipbuilding hub. What I do not understand is why Western Australia has to be ignored and short-changed at every turn. And I get particularly frustrated—and my colleagues get particularly frustrated—when I hear Western Australian Liberals pretend that everything is peachy keen. We are getting the scraps from the table, and the WA Liberals are smiling and rubbing their tummies.

Last week the government released its Naval Shipbuilding Plan, and the neglect of Western Australia was as plain as day: there is $89 billion dollars of Defence manufacturing and investment, out of which WA gets barely $4 billion. Yet Senator Reynolds’s first response was to blame the WA minister for defence industry, Paul Papalia, because he did not accept a briefing from the government. What on earth would a briefing achieve? There is no additional investment and there are no jobs in a briefing.

In fact, the report makes clear that, with all the work South Australia is getting, there will likely be a workforce shortage in that state. So, in addition to the massive shipbuilding imbalance, the report explains that millions will be invested in South Australia to create workforce capability that does not currently exist and that workers will be brought in from interstate and overseas to make up the gap. Imagine how disappointing that is when we know that Western Australia has those skills and those workers.

Yet the Minister for Defence Industry, who is a proud South Australian, cannot wipe the smile off his face as he tries to con us in WA into believing that we have got a good deal. The minister must take us for fools if he thinks we will be comforted by his repetition that WA will build 31 of the 54 new naval vessels.

The minister knows very well that the Pacific patrol boats and the offshore patrol vessels represent a tiny fraction of the value and scope of the naval shipbuilding work.

Last weekend, the minister was quoted as saying that all the non-combatant vessels—that is, all the PPBs and the OPVs—will be constructed in WA. That simply is not true. The first two OPVs will be built in South Australia, and there is already strong lobbying underway to make it more than two. It is galling to hear the minister claim that WA is not equipped to be involved in the build of the future submarines or the future frigates while he is busy pouring millions and millions of dollars into addressing shortcomings in South Australia.

Industry experts argue that a distributed build or block build model could easily enable fabricators and shipbuilders in WA to share in the work on these massive multidecade projects. It makes a lot of geostrategic sense, but today the minister continued with the smoke and mirrors. He made a big deal of $100 million dollars in infrastructure for WA—a figure that has been announced and reannounced three times. He made a song and dance about 100 apprentices at Austal when he knows that the shipbuilding workforce nationwide is expected to be 6,000. He allocates $25 million for new maritime training facilities in South Australia when there are hundreds of skilled and experienced Western Australians out of work and he has the hide to declare WA as a big winner. We are heartily sick of being taken for mugs by the Turnbull government. The numbers do not lie. We are not getting our fair share of Defence shipbuilding work.

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