WA needs decision on subs

Published on Sat 30 May 2020 11:02am

At a time when we are rightly focused on how to create greater self-reliance and sovereign capability, we cannot afford to risk WA’s proven shipbuilding and broader defence manufacturing sector. Indeed it should be strengthened so the long-held and logical ambition of a ‘two oceans’ strategy with two shipbuilding hubs can be realised for Australia’s benefit.

It is time for the Morrison Government to end the uncertainty in relation to the location of full-cycle docking work for the Collins Class submarines. Last year the Defence Minister and Senator for WA Linda Reynolds said the decision would be made by Christmas. I guess we should have asked which Christmas?

There hasn’t been an explanation for the delay and the Minister should either announce the sensible shift west or break the news that political considerations have caused WA to miss out again. Of course the latter would mean the Liberals breaking a much-advertised promise to deliver a fair share of naval shipbuilding work to WA.  Indeed full-page ads in this newspaper by the WA Liberals promised 50:50, which was always rubbish. 

Unfortunately, for all the senior federal Liberal representatives who call WA home, there is a chance that WA’s interests will be pushed aside so the Morrison Government can play Senate footsies with South Australia’s Rex Patrick.  And unsurprisingly the WA State Liberals under Liza Harvey have been deathly quiet on this issue, reinforcing the fact that they dance to the tune played by Liberals in Canberra.

The recent announcement of six new Cape Class vessels to be built in Henderson is welcome. These vessels have been designed in Western Australia and will be built here in the Fremantle electorate, supporting a workforce of 700 skilled shipbuilders, including a record number of female apprentices. But six vessels is not the foundation of a sustainable shipbuilding industry and workforce in WA. Credit where credit is due: the government has done well to grasp the nettle and address a looming capability issue with Austal’s sensible and low-cost solution, which in turn provides support for Australia’s largest naval design house.

The Cape Class platform is a perfect example of what can be achieved when Australian companies are involved to the greatest possible extent in defence procurements. The Cape Class, designed and built in Henderson by Austal, has been exported overseas and will be the basis for ongoing sustainment work. But it remains the case that right now Australia performs badly in leveraging these sorts of procurements to enhance our sovereign industrial capacity and increase export opportunities.

One of the key performance indicators for the billions of dollars being spent on the naval shipbuilding program has to be a permanent and sustainable expansion in Australia’s industrial and workforce capacity. To date there are simply too many question marks about the level of Australian industry participation in the big pieces of work, let alone the kind of leading involvement that means we retain the know-how, the know-why, the relevant intellectual property, and sufficient control over key pieces of the production and supply chain.

The Cape Class work will keep alive the prospect of a shipbuilding hub in WA by establishing a workforce bridge that stretches to 2024 when the full-cycle docking of the Collins Class submarines must come to Henderson. But if there’s nowhere to land that bridge then the future looks pretty barren. Make no mistake, if the Morrison Government turns its back on WA by shirking the tough but necessary decision to move full-cycle docking work west in the national interest, the vital achievement of an Indian Ocean shipbuilding hub will be in jeopardy.

We shouldn’t think that the economic impacts of the COVID-19 whirlwind will somehow leave defence procurement and manufacturing untouched. We know there will be strategic implications too. Australian shipping as a whole, both defence and merchant marine, is not as strong as it should be. That leaves our island continent less resilient and self-sufficient, and the pandemic provides a glimpse of what that can mean. We need an improved strategic shipping capacity, with highly-skilled shipbuilders and seafarers at its foundation.

At a time when we are rightly focused on how to create greater self-reliance and sovereign capability, we cannot afford to risk WA’s proven shipbuilding and broader defence manufacturing sector. Indeed it should be strengthened so the long-held and logical ambition of a ‘two oceans’ strategy with two shipbuilding hubs can be realised for Australia’s benefit.

 This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Saturday, 30 May 2020.

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