Senator Payne argued any release of correspondence, information or documents related to the SEA 5000 Future Frigates Project would not only harm Australia's reputation among the selected tenders, but also impair the government's ability to negotiate the best deal for Australian tax payers.
"Releasing tender information at this time could also adversely affect Defence's ability to negotiate a contract that protects the interests of the Commonwealth and achieves the best value for money for Australian tax payers," argued Senator Payne.
"What this order of the Senate would have us do, frankly, is to damage the Future Frigate tender process to allow it do be derailed, to damage our professional reputation internationally. that's why the government has claimed pubic interest immunity. That's why the release of the documents would have the potential to damage our national security and defence interests and our international relations."
After the request for tender (RFT) document was leaked and revealed the use of an Australian workforce – with specific mention of ASC Shipbuilding – was not mandated, South Australian senator Nick Xenophon and Victorian senator Kim Carr last week moved a motion to have Minister Payne and Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne provide:
- Gateway Review briefs and decisions in relation to the Future Frigates projects "to the extent that those briefs and decision go to Australian industry capability, the partnering or use of Australian shipyards and how Techport and other Australian facilities might be used in the program";
- Any correspondence between Defence and ASC, and Defence and Austal, in response to the announcement that Australian shipbuilders Austal and ASC would partner to win the contract to build the $35 billion Future Frigate Project in Adelaide;
- Any correspondence between Defence and the three prospective design partners in response to the announcement that Australian shipbuilders Austal and ASC would partner to win the contract to build the Future Frigates in Adelaide; and
- Any other documentation held by the Future Frigate Project that discusses Australian industry capability, the partnering or use of Australian shipyards and how Techport and other Australian facilities might be used in the program.
At last week's Senate hearing into Australia's naval shipbuilding industry, Senator Carr presented claims Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) deputy secretary Kim Gillis and other CASG representatives spoke with all three international tenders and told them to ignore Austal and ASC Shipbuilding's teaming arrangement to act as builders on the project.
"I'm advised that Kim Gillis and other members of Defence phoned each of the designers and informed them to ignore the teaming agreement, is that true?" the senator put to Department of Defence representatives, who confirmed there had been contact with the down-selected organisations following the Austal and ASC announcement.
"There was contact with the designers to reassure them that the integrity of the tendering process was maintained," said Associate Secretary of the Department of Defence Brendan Sargeant.
Senators Xenophon and Carr have rubbished the government's claim for public interest immunity, arguing the government is forbidding the Senate from holding the government to account and ensuring sovereign capability is achieved.
The $35 billion SEA 5000 Future Frigates Project will see the successful foreign tenderer construct nine vessels in South Australia from 2020.