West Australian defence industry body the Henderson Alliance has called for parochial state-based interests to be set aside to allow a sensible decision over the future location of full-cycle docking of the submarine fleet.
The alliance’s stance comes at a time of heightened debate over the future of submarine sustainment in Australia.
ASC was tasked with undertaking a study known as the Collins Class Submarine Life of Type Extension Definition Plan, which included examining the move of the Collins Class submarine full-cycle docking to WA.
ASC CEO and managing director Stuart Whiley recently confirmed that a draft of the discussion plan relating to any potential move was delivered to Defence at the start of May this year.
"We were tasked under a letter in December of last year to recommence that study work, we've recommenced that study work and we've delivered an initial draft discussion document to Defence in early May and we've had very high level preliminary feedback on that discussion," Whiley told Senate estimates.
Whiley said ASC is awaiting feedback from Defence before it can begin work on the final document.
If the plan to relocate goes ahead, hundreds of jobs could be moved from Adelaide to WA. 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.
Henderson Alliance chairman Rohan Green said the decision needs to be based on what is best for the Navy, not politics.
"The sustainment work should be conducted in the right place – where there are excellent facilities, support services and proximity to future theatres of operation," said Green.
"A few locations potentially tick the box, so it’s important each are calmly examined on their merits – the Department of Defence needs to be given clear air to make a decision based on the merits of any option."
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Unsurprisingly, many in WA would like to see the full-cycle docking moved there given many of the vessels will be based at WA's HMAS Stirling.
"From our perspective though, we think that vessels servicing the Indian Ocean and associated domains should be home-ported at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia and in-turn Henderson looms as the ideal sustainment location," Green said.
"Henderson already has world-class industrial facilities, a vibrant SME community and is very close to HMAS Stirling – we hope these very compelling factors assist Western Australia’s chances. However, there are always going to be certain components or services which can best be sourced interstate – and just like the frigate and submarine acquisition programs, we believe that state borders should not be a barrier to entry.
"We acknowledge there will be a range of opinions on this issue and everyone is entitled to their point of view, but whatever decision is made needs to be respected by state governments and defence industry groups. We share the sensitivity of South Australia over potential adjustment impacts on the workforce in that state if submarine sustainment works are relocated to Western Australia.
"However, the bottom line is that the pipeline of work in South Australia – building new world-class submarines, frigates and even cruise ships – means that every single SA worker, irrespective of where submarine sustainment goes, already has a bright future not only for themselves but their children as well.
"Additionally, through our interstate SME collaboration programs we are always available to partner, assist and support South Australian businesses with top-class services to ensure their industry performance is optimised."
The Defence Teaming Centre (DTC), a nationally-focused member organisation supporting Australia's defence industry, has expressed concern over the secrecy of the draft plan being put together by ASC and the lack of consultation with industry.
"Why the secrecy? Let’s have an open discussion. The First Principles Review is about changing the culture of Defence procurement and decision-making; recognising industry as a fundamental input to capability. Revelations like this only seek to perpetuate the trust deficit between Defence and industry and pit states against each other," said DTC chief executive Margot Forster.
DTC said discovering the Department of Defence is investigating the feasibility of relocating a significant portion of Collins sustainment work through a FOI request has perpetuated distrust between Defence and industry.
"In short, the government cannot expect industry to take risks and invest in defence without honesty and reciprocal transparency," DTC said in a statement.
"If the government is truly committed to recognising industry as a fundamental input to capability, then decisions of this magnitude need to be discussed openly with industry."
The FOI documents also revealed 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 also include a letter dated 12 December 2017 from Defence to Whiley 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".
Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne reaffirmed the government's position that any decision would come down to the available capacity at Adelaide's Osborne facilities to Adelaide radio station FIVEaa in March this year.
"The truth is that by mid-2020s there will be submarines in full production at Osborne, employing 2,800 people directly; and frigates in full production at Osborne, employing 2,200 people directly. It would be quite insensible for the Department of Defence not to make contingency plans about what to do with the full cycle docking, which is 700 maintenance workers," Minister Pyne said.
"In the event that we find that physically it's not possible for it to all be done at Osborne, to have effectively 6,000 full-time workers at Osborne trying to do the building of submarines – which is not a small matter, the shed for the submarines is bigger than the Adelaide Oval stadium – these frigates – again, the sheds are bigger than the Adelaide Oval stadium – and also the full cycle docking. Now, it’s possible the full cycle docking will remain there, quite able to be done."