The Federal Government’s plans for the future submarines project are as clear as mud after fledgling Defence Minister Kevin Andrews today committed to a “competitive evaluation process” but refused to explain what the phrase meant.
In a bizarre morning media conference at Adelaide shipbuilder ASC, Andrews was flanked by a gaggle of Liberal MPs – including Sean Edwards, Andrew Southcott, Matt Williams, David Fawcett and Rowan Ramsey as well as state colleagues Steven Marshall and Dan van Holst Pellekaan – but effectively said nothing about his plans, or how they’ve changed since last week.
“We’ve decided that in relation to the future submarines program, we’ll have a competitive evaluation process,” he said.
“That will mean there’s an opportunity for anybody who can meet the requirements important to the program to have a part in that.”
But he refused to elaborate, saying: “I’m not going to get into the sorts of definitions and ‘what’s a definition’, all I’m saying as minister is this is the approach we’re taking.”
“I’m not a commentator. What I’m doing is saying to you and everyone who may be listening to me now is the process we’re going to undertake is going to be a competitive evaluation process; there are criteria which will be spelled out in more detail as we progress through them,” Andrews said.
Asked about the distinction between a tender process and an “evaluation process”, Andrews said: “I’ll use the words I choose to use – what we’re doing is a competitive evaluation process.”
Indeed, Andrews used the word “tender” only once, when he noted that the word “has a very specific meaning”.
By contrast, he spoke of his intent to make “careful, methodical and cautious” considerations several times.
His performance cast significant doubt over Senator Sean Edwards’ claims to have successfully bartered his vote for Tony Abbott’s beleaguered leadership in exchange for a commitment to allow ASC to participate in an open tender process.
Edwards told ABC radio this morning he was not familiar with the term “competitive evaluation process”.
“It’s a new term to me, and I’ve sat on a number of inquiries but apparently it’s defence talk for what the process is when they evaluate the proposals that happen,” he said.
He said it was “the defence term for what I and laymen call a tender process”, though Andrews’ remarks appeared at odds with that explanation. Assisting Infrastructure Minister and member for Mayo Jamie Briggs had previously poured cold water on Edwards’ claim, arguing that there had been no policy shift on the submarines project.
“Ok, well that’s Jamie Briggs’s view,” said Edwards.
“I just know that … at close of business last Friday there was no indication there’d be any involvement of Australian shipbuilders in the competitive evaluation, and at opening of business on Monday they’re now included.
“They call it a competitive evaluation; it’s tied up with defence and the secret squirrel business … I’m just a simple wine guy from the Clare Valley.”
But Chris Burns, chief executive of the industry’s Defence Teaming Centre, said he’d never heard the terminology before.
“No, it’s not (industry jargon),” he told InDaily.
“I was feeling heartened yesterday but now I’m less heartened because I’m more confused; they’re using terminology we’re not used to and it doesn’t make sense to us.”
He said the Government should establish a submarine authority with representatives from the departments of finance, industry and defence – along with representatives from shipbuilding and academia – to clearly define the project’s requirements and oversee a tender.
“It’s not rocket science … you’d want to have a formal process I’d have thought,” he said.
“I can’t understand how they can do a competitive evaluation if they don’t go to a tender process.”
Labor was quick to pounce on the confusion, with Senator Penny Wong calling it confirmation there would be no open tender and saying Edwards had been “humiliated”.
Premier Jay Weatherill said he didn’t know what Andrews’ terminology meant but “it seems to have not been authored within the Defence department”.
“It seems the author is some spin doctor somewhere in a ministerial office,” he said.
The Premier said the “most constructive interpretation” was that ASC would get the chance to participate “at some level” on the project.
Minister Andrews emphasised the importance of the contract decision, “which will have ramifications for the next half century”.
How this squares with policy decisions being used as currency in a partyroom ballot is unclear.
He also extended an olive branch to ASC workers, after his predecessor David Johnston infamously stated he wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe.
“I’d say to the workers here, this is a very good workforce,” he said.
The furore came as Weatherill confirmed there would be no debate about nuclear-powered submarines in his Royal Commission on the nuclear fuel cycle.
“I can tell you it’s not our intention to include nuclear subs in the scope of this exercise,” he said.
“It’s important for there to be some boundaries, and it’s not our intention to look at that.”
He said it would be a distraction given the existing uncertainty surrounding the submarines contract.
“Presently we’re trying to establish building 12 new conventional subs here in SA; the idea that we would throw in a red herring which would potentially provide someone with the opportunity to divert attention away from that task I think is another powerful reason why we should not be talking about nuclear submarines,” he said.
Weatherill yesterday named former Governor Kevin Scarce as his Royal Commissioner.
Scarce says he comes to the role “with no preconceived views”, despite telling an SA Chamber of Mines and Energy lunch in December: “Why we’re not looking at the nuclear industry more systematically, I’ll never understand.”
“We’ve got 30 per cent of the world’s uranium resource here and it employs 1200 people nationally … Technology is changing so quickly we simply can’t, for political correctness, put our fingers in our ears and ignore it.”
The nuclear review will form a part of a broad policy agenda Weatherill will outline in a speech by new Governor Hieu Van Le when parliament re-opens today.
Weatherill said not all measures would be legislative changes, but some would.
“I hope people pay close attention to the Governor’s speech, because an enormous amount of effort’s been put into it and we’re very proud of what’s contained in it,” he said.
“We think it’s a bold agenda for not just the next three years but to set SA up for the future.”
InDaily will update details of the Governor’s speech from 2.30pm.
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