Topics: Continuous shipbuilding under threat for South Australia; 

08:05AM AEDT
19 February 2024


David Penberthy: Simon Birmingham is a Senator for South Australia and the Federal Opposition Leader in the Senate. We have him on the line now. Senator, thanks for your time. This sounds like a pretty well sourced story tomorrow. Where do you think it would leave South Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning guys. Well, there’s plenty of concern for South Australia in what does seem to be Anthony Albanese limbering up to break yet another promise, this time the promise that South Australia would see the submarines and the frigates all built here as planned and as promised. And instead now it looks like, rather than the nine promised frigates, there’ll be some type of cut. And of course, if they cut the number, and particularly if they also change the schedule or anything like that, then that’s going to pose real threats in terms of creating another possible valley of death for shipbuilding in South Australia. Or seeing that the type of industries and jobs that are created around shipbuilding under the types of ideas being mooted in the newspapers today, may well start to think they’re better off positioning themselves in Perth rather than Adelaide, which would be deeply, deeply concerning for what it means for our defence industry.


David Penberthy: Only a couple of weeks ago we saw the Premier, Peter Malinauskas, make a bit of a mercy dash to Canberra to talk to the defence minister, Richard Marles. How would you rate the success of that if this ends up being the model that’s adopted by Canberra?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it looks and sounds like the Albanese Government is doing what it wants, and that it indeed has been wording Premier Malinauskas up about the likely things they were going to do, rather than listening to him or acting at all on what he’s had to say. Now this whole review has been a shambles from day one. We were told initially that there would be this big defence strategic review the Albanese Government would do, and it would be the review to end all reviews. So they did that when they came into government and they also when they did that told us, though, that submarines and the frigates were off the table. He was looking at everything else, but we could have certainty that these programs would go ahead. Then they got to the end of that review and said, actually, now we’re going to review the surface ships and we will take a look at the frigates. And so the whole industry has been in two years of continuous uncertainty now thinking that everything was done, locked in, then being told there’d be a review, but they wouldn’t be part of it. Then being told there was a review and they were part of it. That review itself was handed to the Albanese Government in September last year. They’ve taken longer to actually make their minds up as to how they’re going to respond to it, than the review itself took in the first place.


David Penberthy: Well, you know, based on the reassurances that that we, that we seem to be getting, I mean, the idea of having a continuous build seems to be contingent, does it not, on more than an extra three frigates. Like, if all this other work is going to go to Western Australia, do you see a way where it could get us up to the start of the AUKUS subs?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think that is a part of the concern and ultimately, it’s meant to be continuous ship build, not simply one that lurches between ships and submarines. Of course, you’ll see workforce shifts to a degree between the two over the decades ahead, but the concept is that there is sufficient certainty of continuous shipbuilding activity aligned with the investment and work in submarines, and so cutting the frigate programme from 9 to 6 will jeopardise perceptions of there being a continuous build. WA has been used for some time for smaller, less sophisticated and less significantly armed vessels. We’ll want to see the details just what the government is proposing here. But if it is a step up in terms of having WA do more sophisticated or more heavily armed vessels, and SA, are getting fewer jobs here, then there’s no doubt that that will be a significant broken promise. And as I said before, it’s not just about the work on the ships themselves, but what it means for defence industries and all of those allied companies who will be thinking, well, hang on, would I be better off being based somewhere else, namely Perth and WA rather than Adelaide? And that’s a potential real blow that could come to it.


Will Goodings: Do you have genuine concerns, Senator, that given the timeline and cost blow-outs of these Australian made projects that inevitably they’re going to butt up against the deteriorating strategic reality that we’re currently in and mean that we’re just going to simply have to look at buying off the shelf designs as opposed to sustaining a domestic shipbuilding capacity?


Simon Birmingham: Will, we’ve just got to get on with it. Is the short answer there. We actually do need the domestic shipbuilding capacity to be able to have all of the capability that’s required. One of the things that the world has seen is as a problem in helping Ukraine as much as we should, is that much of the defence industry of countries of Europe and elsewhere has just been depleted. So, what we can’t afford is a situation here in Australia where, suddenly panic buttons are hit and we go and buy more off the shelf elsewhere. That means our defence industry is further depleted, and our capacity then to respond in potential crisis situations is even weaker than it might already be. What we’ve got to do is get on, stop the reviews, start the action, get the ships being built and give ourselves the capacity and capability for our Navy in terms of the types of ships and capabilities they need. But for our defence industries, so that we’ve got the type of industry and type of jobs that can scale up even when we need it, to scale up in the future.


David Penberthy: Senator Simon Birmingham there, the Federal Opposition Leader in the Senate, thanks for joining us this morning.