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Defence sought fresh advice on shifting subs jobs to WA, ASC reveals


SA-based shipbuilder ASC has been directed to investigate a series of options for shifting hundreds of jobs involved in Collins Class submarine maintenance to Western Australia – including one as early as 2022, federal parliament heard today.

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Under questioning from Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick, ASC CEO Stuart Whiley conceded in a Senate estimates hearing that he had “received a tasking statement [from Defence] to look at options for a potential move to WA”.

He said four options were being considered, with three involving shifting full cycle dockings – the deep level sustainment of the fleet – to WA, in either 2022, 2024 or 2026. Only one of the four would see the jobs remain in SA – a prospect dismissed by Patrick as a “political ruse”.

“It’s a shift to WA, but around three different dates, yes,” Whiley said of the “pivot options” being countenanced.

“I can see where this is going,” Patrick told the hearing.

“It’s clear there’s a move on.”

In a later statement, he said: “We are talking about 500 highly skilled SA jobs, we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity, not to mention the adverse national security effects of disrupting submarine sustainment.”

Options for shifting maintenance jobs west have been long countenanced, but Whiley said the new directive had only come in recent months, with the scoping studies to be completed by mid-year.

A spokesman said Defence “always prepare for contingencies” but no decision has been taken by cabinet’s National Security Committee to shift jobs to WA.

ASC Submarines will continue to maintain the existing Collins Class vessels for more than a decade, until the first of a dozen Naval Group Future Submarines comes into service.

Whiley conceded the prospect of the maintenance work moving interstate has “been an open conversation for at least two years” and “the workforce are aware of that as a potential”.

But, he added, “it’s only potential”.

“The feasibility of moving, how many will move and those types of issues will be considered in the analysis.”

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told the hearing: “Obviously at the right time, all of these processes will be brought together in the right way [but] it’s not surprising there’s a level of exploratory work happening.

“Any indications for ASC’s current operations and future operations will have to be considered and addressed in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time.”

David Knox – the head of Australian Naval Infrastructure, which will oversee the delivery of the construction yard where the Future Subs fleet will be built – confirmed the ASC North precinct where the Collins Class full cycle dockings are currently carried out was being looked at.

“The use of the existing yard – those decisions are still in front of us,” he said.

“It’s in the hands of Defence as to how they make those decisions.”

Patrick said Defence was “playing the long game on this”, calling for SA-based Defence Minister Christopher Pyne to “step up and stop this reckless proposal”.

“Collins sustainment should stay in SA and the minister needs to appreciate that the Future Submarines’ sustainment should also be based in Adelaide, half way between the planned west and east coast basing locations,” he said.

“Not only would such a move cause job losses in SA, it would also jeopardise the success of extending the life of the Collins Class fleet which need to be in service until at least the late 2040s.”

InDaily sought comment from Pyne’s office, with a spokesman responding: “The Government has not made a decision to move full cycle docking to Henderson from Osborne.”

“ANI has been working with Naval Group on plans for the submarine construction yard at the Osborne Naval Shipyard because that’s where it is being built,” the spokesman said.

“Defence is creating options because they always prepare for contingencies but it’s the NSC [cabinet’s National Security Committee] that decides these matters, not the Department.”

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