A freedom of information (FOI) request has revealed a draft plan is being examined to potentially move maintenance and full cycle docking of the Collins Class submarine fleet from Adelaide to Henderson in Western Australia.
If the plan goes ahead, hundreds of jobs could be moved from Adelaide to WA.
However, the government has hinted the potential move may be in preparation for an enhancement of capability in South Australia to satisfy the needs of major shipbuilding programs that will be centred in the state, including the SEA 1000 Future Submarine project.
There are currently around 700 ASC workers carrying out the maintenance and full cycle docking work in Adelaide on the Collins Class submarine fleet, while 400 staff in WA carry out other maintenance work.
The details for the possible shift of sustainment from South Australia to Western Australia were unearthed via an FOI by former submariner senator Rex Patrick, yet the government signalled the potential for this move in the Naval Shipbuilding Plan.
New development or existing information?
The documents released under FOI reveal ASC was contracted by the Department of Defence to undertake the feasibility study to assess the transition of sustainment from June 2016.
They reveal that following inquiries to the Defence Minister’s office by media in August 2016, ASC was directed to temporarily suspend its study owing to what Defence described as "current sensitivity".
During the temporary suspension, ASC replied to questions from Nick Xenophon at Senate estimates in October 2016 saying, "There is no work currently ongoing to consider moving to WA."
The documents released under the FOI include a letter dated 12 December 2017 from Defence to Stuart Whiley, ASC chief executive, that asked him to "continue to work on the study concerning the potential relocations of full cycle dockings in the 2024 to 2026 time frame as an alternative to remaining in South Australia".
During Senate question time on Wednesday, Minister for Defence Marise Payne responded to questions from Senator Patrick, saying the government will make a decision on the future of the sustainment of Collins Class submarines at the appropriate time.
"The government will make decisions about the location of the Collins Class and the Future Submarine sustainment — including full cycle docking — in due course," Minister Payne said.
“What we will do in that process is to ensure the efficient and effective construction of the Future Submarine fleet can best proceed concurrently with ongoing sustainment activities for the Collins fleet.
"That’s a perfectly reasonable position for a government to take.”
The potential for shifting Collins Class sustainment away from South Australia was slated in the Naval Shipbuilding Plan, released in May 2017.
Under the heading ‘Sustainment of the Submarine Fleet’, section 2.19, the Naval Shipbuilding Plan says the government is likely to consider advice from Defence in terms of long-term arrangements in regard to sustainment.
“The design of both surface ship and submarine construction infrastructure at the Osborne Naval Shipyard [in South Australia] will continue to be refined following release of this Naval Shipbuilding Plan,” it reads.
“In this context, the government will likely need to consider advice from Defence in coming years on appropriate long-term arrangements, including the location of Collins Class and future submarine sustainment activities.
“Decisions on this aspect of submarine capability management will not be needed for some time to come.”
Further to this statement, in the Naval Shipbuilding Plan, under subheading ‘Osborne Naval Shipyard, South Australia’, section 3.19, the government telegraphs an assessment of the capabilities of the Osborne facility to support sustainment once the Future Submarine project gets underway.
“The Osborne North facilities will continue to support Collins Class sustainment for some time to come. Planning will be required to ensure this activity can continue without detriment while the submarine infrastructure construction activity is underway,” it reads.
Political wrangling at the heart of claims
While the Naval Shipbuilding Plan indicates government appetite to shift sustainment to meet the needs of the Future Submarine project, Senator Patrick has claimed that the withholding of the FOI information until after the state election in South Australia on the weekend was a deliberate political ploy.
"Christopher Pyne, as the responsible minister, was clearly behind this deceit. The question is how much did Steven Marshall, Minister Pyne’s political protégé, know prior to the election?" Senator Patrick said.
In responding to Senator Patrick’s claims during question time in Parliament today, Minister Payne said that Senator Patrick had himself previously questioned the merit of sustainment of the Collins submarines in South Australia.
Minister Payne highlighted an article previously written by Senator Patrick for a defence trade magazine that detailed his views on the best course for Collins Class submarine sustainment.
“Let me quote [Senator Patrick]: ‘The sustainment operations must be moved to Western Australia where the submarine force operates from, and if, and when, we have submarines home based in the east, Sydney or Newcastle, supporting submarine sustainment out of the Adelaide site 2,600 kilometres from where the submarine force operates isn’t smart. It is disruptive to the crews, time consuming and costly to the Navy’,” Minister Payne said.
“Now, Senator Patrick might have made his mind up about Collins Class sustainment, but the government will consider the requirements of sustainment, of capability, of the development of the Future Submarine and make decisions in due course… because that’s the wise and smart thing for a government to do," Minister Payne said.
However, Senator Patrick subsequently hit back at the comments.
"Defence Minister Payne's highly politicised response to my questions in the Senate today was nothing more than a continuation of the government's obfuscation," he said.
The former submariner said transferring the work to Western Australia could disrupt the success of the program.
"Transferring major sustainment work to Western Australia would no doubt be welcomed by the [local] government, but would obviously disrupt both a successful program that now delivers much improved operational reliability for the Collins submarines," Senator Patrick said.
"This will break up the critical mass of defence maritime construction and sustainment capability and expertise that has been developed in South Australia. There will be many shocked ASC subcontractors and suppliers after today's news.
"The essentially political nature of the federal government’s decision-making in this vital national security area is obvious, but is further demonstrated by the Defence Department’s action in delaying the release of documents on this matter until after last Saturday’s SA election, when the FOI decision was actually made prior to the poll."