Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 May 2020


Collins Class Submarines

10:10 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to discuss my Collins class submarine motion in the chamber today; a motion calling on the government to retain all Collins full cycle docking activities in South Australia.

The Collins class submarines are a vital capability for Australia, but they've had a chequered history. In 2010, the Royal Australian Navy was not sufficiently confident to deploy a submarine to Hawaii for a multinational exercise, one which it had never missed before. In June 2011 we had a situation where we could not put even one of our six Collins class submarines to sea. It was then that the then defence minister, Stephen Smith, announced a review into the availability of the Collins class submarines. The review, colloquially known as the Coles review, was led by Mr John Coles and delivered a series of reports to government from November 2011 through to 2016. It took more than half a decade and a significant amount of taxpayers' money to get submarine sustainment to world benchmark, where it sits today, by doing submarine intermediate work and midcycle dockings in Western Australia and submarine full cycle dockings in South Australia.

Despite this success, despite the fact that an ASC worker on average has 11½ years experience in the Collins class submarines and despite the fact that only 10 per cent, and perhaps less, of the workforce in Adelaide has expressed an interest in moving to WA, the government is considering moving full cycle dockings to Western Australia. If this shift is announced, ASC at Osborne will immediately see experienced staff leave for higher security employment around the state. This will have an almost immediate effect on our submarine availability. If this goes ahead only a small percentage of the workforce will move, resulting in about 6½ thousand years of corporate knowledge being taken from the Collins submarine enterprise. No other entity in their right mind would give up that sort of corporate experience in a core capability. Submarine availability will suffer and, as a result, it will damage national security.

All Collins class submarine sustainment activities will be situated in one location, creating a strategic vulnerability. All of our Collins submarine eggs will be in a WA basket. The loss of expertise will affect the planned life-of-type extension of Collins, which is the only real risk-mitigation strategy Defence has for the almost-certain further project delays with the future submarines project.

So let's get back to today's motion. The motion was introduced into the Senate on Tuesday 25 February, precisely 11 weeks ago. During the 11 weeks since the motion was introduced, the coalition government made no attempt to engage on this issue. Nothing was said by the Minister for Defence, Senator Linda Reynolds, or the Minister for Defence Industry, Melissa Price; or the Minister for Finance, Mathias Cormann—all representing Western Australia. All the while, government has been keeping ASC workers at Osborne waiting on a decision that was foreshadowed many months ago and promised before Christmas.

Western Australian political interests have been pushing hard to poach the Collins class sustainment work from South Australia. The Western Australian Labor government has been lobbying furiously. Federal Labor has been divided over this. It's clear, however, that Western Australian interests have the upper hand. Labor defence spokesperson Mr Richard Marles said, 'It's a decision for government.' SA federal Labor representatives have been silent. Senator Penny Wong, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, normally very articulate, has nothing to say about the prospective loss of hundreds of highly skilled shipyard workers from our state. The government clearly knew which way the wind was blowing in the Labor camp. They secretly went to the opposition and secured Labor's agreement to amendments to the motion that would gut it's text—most importantly, removing the calls on the federal government to retain all Collins class submarine full-cycle dockings in South Australia. The secrecy was broken when Western Australian coalition minister Senator Mathias Cormann introduced a last-minute—no, last-second—amendment to remove the call for support for the retention of Collins class submarines in South Australia. South Australian Liberal senators had nothing to say. They clearly had no influence. Liberal senators in the parliament today who remained silent, who betrayed South Australia today, were Minister Simon Birmingham, Minister Anne Ruston, Senator David Fawcett and Senator Alex Antic.

But let everyone understand things clearly: it wasn't just the coalition. The government was able to amend the motion and remove the call for the Collins class sustainment to remain in South Australia, because they had Labor support, including that of SA Labor senators. SA Labor senators missing in action today, who sat silently while the shift of 700 workers to WA was being floated, included Senator Penny Wong, Senator Don Farrell, Senator Marielle Smith—who, incidentally, voted against South Australia in the last similar motion—and Senator Alex Gallacher. And, turning to the Greens, Senator Hanson-Young did not stand up for SA. Now, noting her politics, I would understand that, if she were voting against defence spending. But she wasn't. She just voted against defence money being spent in South Australia. It seems it's okay for her to have defence money spent in WA.

Only two South Australian senators voted for SA today, and they were Senator Griff and myself. The rest put their party ahead of their constituents. They put their personal interests before their constituents' interests. Shame! Nine SA senators either voted against the retention of the Collins class submarines in South Australia—notably Senator Anne Ruston, who sat behind Senator Cormann as a silent assassin of SA interests, while others absented themselves from the Senate chamber, effectively voting in favour, by default—Labor, Liberals and Greens.

Moving Collins class full-cycle dockings from Adelaide to Perth will cost well over $1 billion. That billion dollars will lead to no improvements in submarine capability. On the contrary, it will result in a huge loss of corporate knowledge from Australia's premier submarine sustainment organisation. It will inject significant changes and risks into submarine sustainment at a time when the life of the Collins class submarines will have to be significantly extended, owing to the mismanagement and delays in the procurement of the new Attack class submarines. Shifting full-cycle dockings to WA will indeed increase costs, reduce submarine availability and damage national security. How this could be justified in normal circumstances beats me. How such expense could be justified—$1 billion of taxpayers money—in the budgetary circumstances we face post-COVID-19 is truly gobsmacking. Prior to COVID-19, this did not make fiscal sense. After COVID-19, it's crazy.

I have always supported sensible decisions and sensible legislation put forward by the government, but if this shift goes ahead I'll have to recalibrate my assessment of the government's ability to be sensible. That means I'll have to look much closer at their actions, their motives and their legislation. Now is not the time to take the wrong decision on a key defence capability and very significant part of the industrial capability of my home state of South Australia.

Senate adjourned at 22:20