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Solving northern Australia’s defence infrastructure challenges

Opinion: Delivering infrastructure projects in the north of Australia brings an array of well-recognised challenges into play across social, economic, geographical and environmental domains. Nevertheless, ensuring that the north’s defence estate is safe, sustainable and fit-for-purpose is a critical national endeavour, and its strategic importance is highlighted by current geopolitical dynamics and disruptions. What might it take to deliver adequate defence infrastructure in the region, and what could success look like?

Opinion: Delivering infrastructure projects in the north of Australia brings an array of well-recognised challenges into play across social, economic, geographical and environmental domains. Nevertheless, ensuring that the north’s defence estate is safe, sustainable and fit-for-purpose is a critical national endeavour, and its strategic importance is highlighted by current geopolitical dynamics and disruptions. What might it take to deliver adequate defence infrastructure in the region, and what could success look like?

In its 2020 Defence Strategic Update underpinned by the 2022 budget, the federal government committed to strengthening Australia’s defence estate and infrastructure with significant investment over the decade, including key projects such as northern airbase resilience, upgrade of training facilities and logistics infrastructure, and new army watercraft basing. Prior to the 2020 update, much of the language about defence infrastructure had centred on consolidation of existing assets, but it will be interesting to see how this changes in the next Defence Estate Strategy update. Many of the main tenets – for defence infrastructure to be strategically aligned, affordable, safe and sustainable – will no doubt remain consistent.

The 2022 federal budget papers identify that $2.6 billion will be spent on infrastructure projects across the Northern Territory in coming years. From available reporting, it appears that the Department of Defence alone expects to spend at least $500 million per year in the Northern Territory – amounting to close to $6 billion over the next 10n years. Yet, delivering infrastructure in the Northern Territory is a very different mission compared with delivering projects of similar scale elsewhere. High transport and service delivery costs; harsh, extreme and often unpredictable weather; a sparse population; competition for skilled labour, especially highly qualified professionals; infrastructure challenges ... these are facts of life in the north.

The key to success will lie in developing a collaborative, cooperative approach that responds effectively to these place-based challenges – including on-the-ground local experience and perspectives when creating plans to develop the defence estate, and engaging with the Northern Territory community as projects progress. Industry, businesses and government (both federal and state/territory) should be better aligned, use consistent data, work together more closely and seek common goals. This isn’t only about ensuring that the governance framework is right; it’s also about getting the right people in the room.

What does this approach look like when set against the strategic aims for the Defence Estate?

A fit-for-purpose estate, of the right size in the right place that best enables capability and operations

Operations in and from northern Australia are key to the government’s strategic defence objectives of “shape, deter and respond”. Coupled with the government’s recent announcements on the increasing size of the Australian Defence Force and greater engagement with allies, we expect to see an increased focus on enhancing capability, capacity and survivability of the Defence Estate and supporting networks.

To achieve these goals, northern Australia will need robust, reliable and resilient logistics, transport and telecommunications networks that underpin more durable and resilient supply chain arrangements. This includes ensuring the adequacy of operational resupply through maritime and air ports – to replenish weapons, fuel and stores for Australian forces as well as for Australia’s allies.

Continuing to work together, the Department of Defence and the Northern Territory government can identify property for expanded defence activities in the north, with a view to improving defence capability, capacity and resilience.
 
An estate that is safe, secure and compliant

While infrastructure resilience is often discussed in the context of climate threats, it must also be considered in terms of security or survivability against potential threats from adversaries, from the non-kinetic, such as cyber, through to kinetic.

Urban encroachment is also a concern for defence bases, as surrounding developments and environmental impacts can restrict or curtail defence activities. As an example, gas/hydrogen facilities and explosive ordinance are dangerous neighbours. With collaboration between Defence Estate Planning, local planning authorities and utilities, encroachment protection plans can be developed and enacted, ensuring functional alignment of land uses in and around defence infrastructure assets.

Working in partnership with traditional custodians and owners will enable appropriate access and continuing connection to the land for traditional land owners, and identification and protection of Indigenous sites and objects in and around the Defence Estate. These partnerships are the pathway to culturally informed mitigation strategies and identifying employment opportunities on country.

An estate that is developed and managed to make the best use of available resources

The Department of Defence appears to be bringing forward key infrastructure projects as part of a response to increasing strategic instability. Notwithstanding the joint investment between Australia, the US and Singapore through the Force Posture Initiatives, with the resulting capital budget pressures, we are likely to see an increasing appetite to implement innovative funding models.

Complemented by data-driven requirements and decisions, city and regional deals provide opportunities to align the planning, investment and governance necessary to accelerate growth and job creation, stimulate urban renewal and drive economic reforms, but will call for broad engagement across central agencies, transport, regional development and communications, particularly when considering common user facilities. Noting the complexity of the data involved, technology will need to be harnessed to support this approach.  

An estate that is underpinned by effective and efficient governance and a skilled workforce

Large infrastructure projects in northern Australia often encounter limited availability of suitably qualified and experienced personnel. There is also a tension between (a) creating larger programs of work to reduce the overall governance and compliance overheads and (b) planning to ensure individual work packages are suitable for smaller local companies. Managing this tension relies on community engagement and building trust.

Partnering with Aboriginal landowners is critical for successful place-based approaches to infrastructure delivery in regional and remote areas. Opportunities where Defence and the private sector can contribute to reconciliation and Closing the Gap include Indigenous employment and pathway programs, culturally intelligent workplaces, and Indigenous businesses participation and empowerment through the Defence Indigenous Procurement Policy and the Australian Industry Capability program.

Greater use of joint bid approaches offers opportunities to share and balance personnel availability and maximise skills development. While defence projects have some unique aspects, actively recruiting personnel with complex infrastructure project skills grown outside of the defence sector will deliver benefits.

Australia’s northern bases, ports, airfields, training areas and logistics facilities will be critical to sustaining future military operations and disaster response in Australia’s national interests and in support of our neighbours and allies. The best solutions for the future of this key infrastructure will be citizen-centred and place-based, underpinned by data-driven decisions enabled through technology.

Elegant and effective solutions grow better in an atmosphere of trust – which develops through collaboration. With the defence focus now squarely on operations in the north, it is time to invest in effective collaboration across all levels of government and industry to solve the big challenges ahead for northern defence infrastructure in increasingly uncertain times.

About the authors

Stephanie Males is an integrated infrastructure partner and PwC Australia’s Canberra managing partner. Stephanie has over 25 years of experience in professional services, advising on the consequences of delivering a range of public policy measures. She is also responsible for delivering regulation and facilitation services on global trade, infrastructure and supply chain advisory services across the Commonwealth. Stephanie advises governments on global trade; critical, social and environment related infrastructure strategy and their role in supporting businesses build resilient supply chains.

Nick Tate is an integrated infrastructure director based in Canberra. Nick has over 36 years of experience in delivering infrastructure and logistics services for the Australian government, including national strategic infrastructure planning and managing the early government approval phases for facilities and infrastructure projects. Nick is passionate about helping project owners and industry participants realise maximum value through collaborative program management.

Solving northern Australia’s defence infrastructure challenges
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