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Thursday, 21 March 1985
Page: 563

Senator MacGIBBON(1.20) —I take the opportunity of this non-controversial debate to raise some points about the replacement program for the Royal Australian Navy submarines. As you would know, Mr Deputy President, Australia has six of the best diesel-electric conventional submarines in the world, and they are the best because they have the best weapon systems; the electronic fit in those is equal to or better than anything in the world. But the mechanical design of those submarines has its origins in the philosophies and the technologies from the end of the Second World War. It has been known for many years that the hulls are reaching the end of their lives, and the previous Government-the Fraser Government-had this matter well in hand to build a fleet of replacement submarines. That program has been taken over by the present Labor Government.

It is generally understood in the community that from the list of possible contending designs, the designs have been evaluated in a preliminary way and the Defence Force Development Committee of the Department of Defence has supplied to the Minister a short list of two submarines, and the announcement of those two manufacturers on the short list was due to be made by this date and a funded project definition study undertaken. The difficulty seems to be that the back bench of the Labor Party, in the light of the Kirribilli agreement, have got into the act and that the Caucus Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of 43 members, including the astonishing number of 13 Ministers, have decided that they need to have a look at and vet the proposals from the Department of Defence before anything can be done, so the Minister has deferred making an announcement.

My concern is: How much time is going to be lost in a program that is already slipping down the track before the decision is taken? The Caucus Committee called up the four combat weapons systems contractors before it on Tuesday and on Wednesday the hull manufacturers appeared. My concern is the defence of the national interest. I am concerned that the best design possible for Australia is selected. I am also concerned, given the very great importance of submarines in the deterrent role for Australian defence, that we do not lose any more time on this program while people discuss and probably argue on the base of either regional loyalties-trying to get those boats built in their own backyard-or in the light of hang-ups or national political prejudices they have, and knock out designs which might be suitable.

I think that Government members and Opposition members are quite entitled to be taken into the confidence of the Department of Defence, but I do not believe that programs should be put at risk, with respect to either time or quality, by the intervention of back benchers. On the same subject, just as a matter of courtesy, I would have thought the opportunity should have been provided for the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence to meet the weapons systems suppliers and the hull suppliers, if it was possible to bring these people together for the business of the Labor Party back bench. So, my concern is that we look as though we are now embarking on an unnecessary delay in the execution of this program.

I would like to take a few minutes to move on to another point and make some general observations that have not been made on the public forum yet about the submarine replacement program. We are going to build these boats, and I hope that we build them in Australia-for a whole variety of reasons. I would like the technological skills that will be involved to be developed within the Australian community. I would like the money to be spent within Australia. I think that if we get on with the job with expedition and keep to the program and not delay for too long, it will be possible to build these ships sequentially. The trouble will come if we delay for a long while and then we have to acquire two, three or four boats simultaneously, and then we will not have the capacity to build them economically within Australia and we will have to go overseas for them.

The building of those boats naturally falls into two sections: First of all, the development and the building of the electronic weapons systems in the submarines, and the other half is the building of the hull and the propulsion systems. I go back to the point I made before. It is very important that we get the best design for Australia's needs, and it is also very important that we get those boats built as economically and as efficiently as we can for the benefit of the Australian taxpayer. That means that the hulls are going to be built in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria or South Australia. Western Australia has no shipbuilding industry, any more than Tasmania has, but the capability clearly exists in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, and maybe in South Australia, to build these boats.

Provided that the contract price comes in competitively from manufacturers in Queensland, I would argue very strongly that Queensland should win the case to build the hulls and propulsion machinery, and I will tell you why, Mr Deputy President. It is because all the offset work that has come to Australia from the aviation industry, all the electronic work, has been concentrated in the southern States. South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales have got the whole lot. Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania have not got anything out of that because they do not have the electronic industries in-house to be able to do it. The weapons systems for the submarines, which will be roughly as expensive as the hull and propulsion machinery and may even be 60 per cent of the cost of the boats, are inevitably going to go to South Australia, Victoria and to New South Wales. So, everything else being equal on the tender prices, then I would make the claim that Queensland should be considered for the hulls.

However, I come back to the point. I am very concerned at the possibility of delay on this program. I am very concerned that narrow sectional interests within various factions of the Labor Party, for reasons that I do not wish to go into in a non-controversial debate such as this, will influence and prejudice the selection and the acquisition of these boats against the best interests of Australia.

Sitting suspended from 1.27 to 2 p.m.