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Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Page: 3321

Senator JOHNSTON (3:02 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Faulkner—and I, of course, congratulate him on his elevation to that position. On a very good day, the Navy can have two of our six submarines at sea to help defend Australia and its interests. Why have the number of unit ready days for the submarine fleet fallen by a worrying 17 per cent in the current year?

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Defence) —First of all I have to indicate to Senator Johnston that I cannot confirm the statistics that he has provided to the Senate, but I will certainly outline to him information in relation to the situation we face in relation to the crewing and operation of our Collins class submarines. I am advised that three submarines are presently crewed and operating in various stages of their routine operational and maintenance cycles. I am advised that media speculation suggesting otherwise is factually incorrect and I have also been advised that Chief of Navy has previously written to newspaper editors to correct these errors. The remaining three submarines are in waiting or longer term docking cycles which involve major overhauls and refurbishment by the original manufacturer, ASC. The opposition should be aware that, of course, submarine availability is managed to ensure that we can meet a range of contingencies, some at short notice and also some which require and have a longer lead time. (Time expired)

Senator JOHNSTON —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. The budget papers, specifically at page 45, optimistically say that unit ready days will rise to 916 in 2009-10. With HMAS Sheehan and HMAS Rankin in full-cycle docking all year, HMAS Dechaineux completing a full-cycle docking later in the year, HMAS Collins tied up at Stirling in a training role from late 2009 and the remaining two—HMAS Farncomb and HMAS Waller—scheduled for short maintenance periods also in 2009-10, how will these unit ready days be achieved?

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Defence) —I would say to Senator Johnston, through you, Mr President, that, like any such complex piece of equipment, some unexpected issues and effects occasionally occur, and that requires repairs to be undertaken outside routine maintenance cycles. Such defects may lead to the imposition of an operational restriction, meaning that one or more submarines could be precluded from proceeding to sea for routine trials and training activities until the impact of the problems are fully investigated and repaired. (Time expired)

Senator JOHNSTON —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. The budget papers, similarly at page 45, further say that the submarine fleet’s unit ready days will decline by 10 per cent in 2010-11 and 20 per cent in 2011-12. Why is there such a dramatic decline in submarine availability to protect Australia and its interests over the next four years and what precisely is your plan to fix that shortfall?

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Defence) —I will certainly have a look at that information contained on the page of the budget papers that Senator Johnston refers to. But let me say this: the Collins class submarines are arguably, I think, the world’s most advanced and capable conventionally powered submarines—as you know. It should come as no surprise to anybody in this chamber that they therefore require very advanced technology and specialist skills and service to maintain them effectively. We have an absolute responsibility to the men and women serving aboard our submarines to ensure their safety at all times. I can assure you, Senator, that that is my priority and the government’s— (Time expired)

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.