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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


June 03, 2021


DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Good morning Brendan O’Connor.


BEVAN: Is it clear to you after the evidence that was given to Senate Estimates this week - and we'll ask you to tease out exactly what was said - is it clear to you what the status of the contract with Naval Group is?

O'CONNOR: Clear as mud. Clear as mud, David, there is no guarantee that the building of the hulls or in fact the submarines will occur in Australia let alone South Australia. It's not clear as to whether in fact there'll be a Life Of Type Extension to the existing submarines. And of course, there's a real question for the 700 workers in Adelaide for Full Cycle Docking, a decision that was supposed to be made by the Government, because they gave a commitment, by the end of 2019. So you have a remarkable history in terms of building Defence assets in South Australia and yet, whether it's the Collins Class submarine, or whether it's the new Future Submarine program, everything is unresolved. No threshold decisions have been made and that leaves local businesses and workers in South Australia very anxious.

ALI CLARKE, HOST: You mentioned history here. And there's been a history in and around this agreement, Brendan O'Connor. What is new about this, though? I thought that there had always been conjecture and understanding that nothing seemed to be guaranteed.

O'CONNOR: That's not a good state of affairs. The Government had had six Defence Ministers in eight years and I think that's part of the problem. There needs to be some consistency and focus on the Defence assets. There's no point elevating rhetoric about potential threats, if you're not focusing on delivering Defence assets that our Australian Defence Force needs and our nation needs. Therefore, the government's priority must be, firstly, to make a decision about whether the hulls and the submarines are built or predominantly built in Australia and South Australians want to know whether it'll be built in Adelaide, the first three subs.

Now in Estimates this week, it was suggested that there may well be construction of hulls in South Australia or elsewhere in Australia, if it's technically feasible. Well, that's an unknown and therefore that commitment is unknown. There's a question because the blowouts in the future submarine program have gone beyond a decade, so the first new sub in the water for Australia will be now around 2035, we have to extend the life of the Collins Class vessels it would seem. There's been no decision on that. And therefore, the hundreds of South Australian workers who work on full cycle docking in Adelaide, don't know whether they're going to continue with that work, because there's conjecture that that work will be shifted to Henderson in Western Australia. There's a lot of a lot of questions that need answering and we have not heard from the Government in relation to those decisions.

BEVAN: Well, it's now being reported that the Prime Minister, no less, will take this issue up with the President of France. There's talk that the breaking out of the contract would cost about $140 million but that's cheaper than going ahead with something that you don't like. There's speculation about finding a German alternative like as a stop gap measure.

Senator Rex Patrick is the independent senator of South Australia and a former Submariner himself. He joins us now. Good morning, Senator Patrick.


BEVAN: What's actually the problem with the Naval Group, because when you look at all the options, one would just be to continue on as we are. But clearly, people are concerned about that and that's why they're looking at other alternatives and the Prime Minister is going off to talk in France.

PATRICK: Well, they describe it as a normal relationship. In layman's terms, this is a relationship where we had a great courting period, the marriage occurred and it's now estranged and we really do want to make sure we sort this out before we have any kids. The submarine project, it's a costly project. That in itself is concerning. It's a high risk project, it's not running on schedule, there are questions as to whether it will actually deliver us with a reasonably superior submarine, but perhaps most importantly of all, one of the reasons people were prepared to invest a large amount of money in this, was it was designed to build a sovereign naval shipbuilding capability and that's where a lot of the problems lie.

I expect that the submarines will built here in South Australia. In actual fact that there was some correcting evidence that Brendan may not have seen where the government made it very clear, the first submarine will be built in South Australia, but the problem is all of the equipment that's going to go into it. All the technology that we want to go into it, most of that is actually foreign and this program was designed to bring technology and manufacturing capability to Australia and in that regard it has failed.

BEVAN: There are conflicting reports about a stop gap German alternative. What's your understanding? Are we seriously talking about buying something from the Germans? And is that to replace the naval group? Or is that is that just to get a boat in the water in between Collins and the Attack Class?

PATRICK: No, I think there's two things that need to be said about that. The first is that the Department of Defence basically squashed the narrative that they're talking to the Germans and look, I believe that they're not. However, the Defence Secretary after a while, it took a bit of myself and Penny Wong working on the Secretary, for him to concede that there is a Plan B, they are talking about a Plan B and over last year or so the conversations have gotten louder and in my view, that's a good thing. There should always have been a Plan B in relation to a program like this that is extremely important. And the Auditor General back in 2017 made a very clear, we needed to maintain competitive tension in this entire program. In all projects, you need to have a fall-back, you need to have a Plan B.

BEVAN: So what's Plan B?

PATRICK: Well, that's what we don't know, Defence are being unnecessarily opaque in that regard. They should be laying out on the table exactly what the Plan B is and in some sense that will be helpful, because Naval Group need to understand they've got to pick up their game or they'll be out of this.

CLARKE: Shadow Defence Minister, Brendan O'Connor please come in.

O’CONNOR: Yes, can I just say I agree with Rex. Firstly, there should be contingencies and the Defence Department conceded there was a Plan B. And whilst they did correct the record and suggest that the hulls of the Future Submarines may well be built in Adelaide, they then subsequently went on to say there's a Plan B, which they wouldn't disclose.

Now, the Australian public, the South Australian public, the Defence industry, the Australian Defence Force, need better answers than that. We need certainty, because, as Rex rightly pointed out, this was about building capability for us to maintain and over time, build Defence assets in this country. Build up the Defence industry to say that we can rely on ourselves more than we do today. That's not occurring. The fact that there's all these potential other options that are not disclosed publicly means that everyone's left in the dark. That's just not good enough for the largest Defence contracts in this nation's history.

BEVAN: Well, we did put in a request to speak to Peter Dutton, the Defence Minister, there's a standing request with his office for an interview that goes back several weeks, if not months now. And they don't even reply now. So look, I don't know whether it's an ABC thing sometimes, I think it's fair to say relations have been a bit strained between Mr Dutton and the ABC, but we don't have any experience with him here in Adelaide. We've got a lot of experience with previous Defence Ministers, and perhaps South Australian audiences and media for that matter would expect easy access given that previous ministers included Christopher Pyne, Robert Hill, all going all the way back to McLachlan. So over decades we've had access to the person who's at the top, but not any more, which means that those workers in the office and out in the sheds building the things will they don't get to hear from him.

CLARKE: All right, but in the meantime, thank you to Shadow Defence Minister Brendan O'Connor for joining us and Senator Rex, Patrick, independent Senator for South Australia.