WA shouldn’t have to accept shipbuilding crumbs

Published on Thu 25 May 2017 1:20pm

Australia’s naval fleet and operational capacity have a special importance, which is why the naval shipbuilding plan needs to be implemented with great care.

As published in WA Today on 25 May 2017

Western Australia has a proud shipping history and my electorate of Fremantle remains a leader in maritime freight and shipbuilding.

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 critical matter of self-sufficiency, and it is a capacity we should have at all times. It is not something you want to discover is lacking when a crisis hits.

An overwhelming proportion of the goods that Australians import or export 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 doesn’t accord proper value to Australian shipping and doesn’t 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 don’t maintain sufficient merchant marine capability. It means there isn’t 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.

Australia’s naval fleet and operational capacity have a special importance, which is why the naval shipbuilding plan needs to be implemented with great care.

For that to occur, Western Australia must have a very substantial piece of the action. We have the expertise, the track-record, and the capacity to play a major role. And it makes a lot of geo-strategic sense as part of our existing ‘two oceans’ strategy, which Kim Beazley worked to establish. The rationale for that position with respect to the Indo-Pacific has only strengthened in the last twenty years.

But so far we have been comprehensively dudded by a government that is intent on playing political games and taking WA for granted.

I am not a one-eyed parochialist. I understand that national projects and funding have to be shared, and it makes sense that South Australia will continue its role as a shipbuilding hub.

What I don’t understand is why Western Australia has to be ignored and short-changed at every turn. And I get particularly frustrated when I hear WA Liberal representatives pretend that everything is peachy keen.

The truth is we are getting the scraps from the table, while 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. Of $89 billion dollars in Defence manufacturing and investment, WA gets barely $4 billion.

The government’s plan is infuriating because it acknowledges that there is a workforce shortage in South Australia and so workers will need to be ‘imported’ from interstate and overseas.

At a time of savage unemployment figures in WA, it is hard to accept that approach when we know WA has those skills and those workers.

Yet the Minister for Defence Industry, who as a South Australian can’t wipe the smile off his face, tries to con us into believing that we’ve got a good deal.

He must take us for fools if he thinks we’ll be comforted by his repetition of the fact that WA will build 31 of the 54 new naval vessels, when he knows 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 isn’t true. The first two OPVs will be built in South Australia, and there’s already a lobbying effort underway to make it more than two.

It is galling to hear Chris Pyne claim that WA isn’t equipped to be involved in the build of the Future Submarine or the Future Frigates, while he’s busy pouring hundreds of millions into addressing shortcomings in South Australia.

In fact industry experts and former senior navy officers 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, multi-decade projects.

But the Minister for South Australia isn’t listening, and his WA colleagues don’t care.

They make a big deal of announcing and re-announcing $100 million dollars in infrastructure for WA, when last week we were told SA would be getting $1200 million.

They make a song and dance about 100 apprentices at Austal, when the shipbuilding workforce nationwide is expected to be 6000-plus.

They allocate $25 million for a new maritime technical college in SA, when there are hundreds of experienced Western Australians out of work.

And on Tuesday in Parliament the Minister has the hide to declare that WA is a “big winner”.

The truth is the people in WA are heartily sick of being taken for mugs by the Turnbull Government. The numbers don’t lie, and we are simply not getting a fair or sensible or nationally responsible share of Defence shipbuilding.

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