Every level of government has the opportunity to use capital investment to stimulate economic growth. The Commonwealth is responsible for several services that provide it with the opportunity to do this on a much larger scale, one of these is investment through the Australian Defence Force. Any investment must be achieved in accordance with the primary purpose of the ADF being to defend Australia and its national interests.
There are times that the Commonwealth can align its obligation to defend its interests and the opportunity to stimulate economic growth. Examples of this include Australia’s desire to maintain a shipbuilding capability, to be self-sufficient in the manufacture of many of the munitions it uses and to grow its drone industry. When pursuing these opportunities it is critical that balance is achieved between maintaining the capability and achieving the economic stimulus.
On this basis the question regarding the movement of Fleet Base East (FBE) north should be twofold:
- Is this best for the capability?
- In gross terms, does the economic stimulus achieved outweigh the loss that would be felt in Sydney, including taking into account Sydney’s ability to replace what FBE currently provides?
The 2013 Defence White Paper and the 2012 Force Posture Review make it quite clear that given the situation to Australia’s north, a base located closer to the likely area of operations would be an improvement to capability. Therefore, from a capability point of view the argument becomes, is there a location that can meet the technical requirements that Garden Island offers?
In 2012, the Bundaberg Regional Council and Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC) published a Naval Base Opportunity report following the release of the previous Defence White Paper. The objective of the report was to investigate if there were any technical restrictions preventing the establishment of a Navy base at the Port of Bundaberg.
The review was undertaken by Vice Admiral (Ret'd) David Shackleton, AO, and Paul Barrattt, AO. They concluded that “the Port of Bundaberg has no obvious technical deficiencies that would prevent it from becoming a naval base for the RAN. From a technical perspective, there are no obvious ‘show stoppers’”.
In 2017, the Queensland government through the Coordinator General declared over 6,000 hectares of land around the Port of Bundaberg a State Development Area (SDA). The declaration of an SDA places the responsibility for planning, establishment and ongoing management of the area with the Coordinator General and ensures greater planning and development certainty for project proponents.
The Bundaberg SDA and Port of Bundaberg include waterside access. The vast majority of land within the SDA is currently free-hold and owned by a single organisation, making potential negotiations a lot simpler. The land within and immediately around the existing port is managed by GPC, a government owned corporation.
Bundaberg is located at the very southern boundary of the cyclone zone and it’s outside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The existing port is currently dredged to depths suitable for use by naval vessels, being a river port it is well sheltered and the coast has access to deep water. The Port of Bundaberg is located more than 10 kilometres from the CBD and does not suffer from urban encroachment, which Brisbane and Sydney face. Additionally, it doesn’t face competition from the resource sector or other industries that Wollongong, Gladstone and other large ports face.
Over the last 10 years, the Port of Bundaberg typically services between 12-16 vessels per year focused almost entirely on the exportation of raw sugar. The existing facilities have had a berth utilisation of 5 per cent, this has been improving with the forecast utilisation of around 20 per cent. There is currently capacity to construct 250 metres of wharf with a design depth of -9.5 metres LAT.
The design depth for the channel supports a sailing draught of around 9.80 metres and the current swing basin is 1,165 metres long and 320 metres wide. Unlike Brisbane or Sydney or any other major port on the east coast, the Port of Bundaberg could offer naval vessels the sort of priority they require.
Furthermore, private industry in conjunction with the Commonwealth government has identified the opportunity that exists at the Port of Bundaberg. The Commonwealth has supported Pacific Tug’s establishment of a marine industry site through funding from the Building Better Regions Fund.
The ship lift, repair and maintenance facilities proposed as part of this facility would be ideal to support the Navy’s requirements.
The Queensland premier has allocated $6.7 million to undertake a detailed business case for a new hospital in Bundaberg. The Queensland Minister for Health and Ambulance Services has stated that “early analysis suggests a new hospital would also lead to the creation of up to 800 new health related jobs, and more than 1,000 construction-related jobs during the project”. These are the sorts of jobs and services that Defence partners and families expect.
From a Defence capability perspective moving Fleet Base East north makes sense and from a technical perspective the Port Bundaberg appears suitable, therefore the only argument is: would the capital investment of multiple billions of dollars in regional Queensland outweigh the development opportunities offered within Sydney Harbour? And would regional Queensland or Sydney benefit more from accommodating thousands of Navy and support personnel?
Any development in Brisbane would fairly quickly face the same issues that Garden Island currently faces. If the Navy is genuine about reorientating to the north in a similar fashion to what was done in the '90s, then Bundaberg can offer a real opportunity to ensure that it is future proof.
Mayor Dempsey was elected mayor of the Bundaberg region on 10 March 2016 after an extended period in Queensland politics. Dempsey is the former state member for Bundaberg, being elected to that position on 9 September 2006. He held various ministerial positions culminating with his appointment as minister for police and community safety in 2013, a position he held until he exited state politics on 31 January 2015.
Proud of his role in state government, Dempsey brings that same pride to his position as mayor. He is passionate about the Bundaberg region and is delighted at this opportunity to serve the region and its residents and has pledged to make the Bundaberg Regional Council the envy of councils across Australia.
He is widely involved in many community groups and organisations and retains a strong interest in sport and recreation activities.