Barnett Government support for shipbuilding industry sinks under scrutiny

Western Australia has a world class shipbuilding industry. The wealth of experience and highly skilled workers present in the sector should be a point of pride for our state economy.

But at present, the industry is in grave danger. We’ve seen hundreds of jobs lost and entire workshops shut down as WA misses out on critical federal defence contracts awarded to other states.

Under the Barnett Government, the shipbuilding industry has been severely neglected and shoved to the back of the queue. During the mining boom, shipbuilding was regarded by the Barnett Government as a low priority, and as a result the resources needed to promote and secure federal work for our local shipbuilders simply wasn’t provided.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill didn’t pull his punches when he gave his assessment of the Barnett Government’s activity in the area. “There was a time when if you were a defence contractor you couldn’t get in to see a West Australian minister,” he said.

Mr Barnett’s response at the time: call Mr Weatherill “a dill”.

But Mr Weatherill had the last laugh when in April 2016 the Federal Government announced its $89 billion splurge on new naval vessels. South Australia would host the builds of 12 submarines worth about $50 billion, nine future frigates valued at $35 billion and two offshore patrol vessels priced at about $500 million. Direct jobs from these contracts would peak at 6000 this decade.

What did WA get? 10 offshore patrol vessels worth $2.5 billion and up to 21 Pacific patrol boats contracted to Henderson-based shipbuilder Austral for a little over $500 million. The WA build adds up to about 9 per cent of the program.

Why did WA get left with the crumbs? The West Australian’s Peter Williams pointed out at the time how far apart the two state governments were when it came to campaigning for their local industries.

SA has assembled a crack team of senior military and industry officials for their defence advisory boards. The Premier is actively involved in consultations. “Defence South Australia is a smoothly oiled machine,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute defence and strategy program director Andrew Davies says. “They’ve been very effective lobbyists.”

South Australia has backed the industry with a $2.3 million allocation to their Defence Teaming Centre over five years in the latest Budget. DTC acting chief executive Kerryn Smith says there has been a dedicated defence strategy in SA since 2000.Meanwhile, WA came to the table without a dedicated defence agency or minister.

Defence SA spent $1.2 million on promotion and events alone in 2014-15 in the lead up to the federal government’s decision. WA Commerce figures show just over $50,000 was spent last year promoting the industry. Just two full time staff are devoted to defence matters.

When you put the figures and facts side by side, it’s clear which state is fair dinkum on supporting their shipbuilding industry and which one is paying lip service only to the concept.

The hypocrisy of the Barnett Government’s $150,000 flashy new ad campaign talking up WA’s defence industry is astounding, given the hundreds of shipbuilding and defence procurement jobs that have been cut from the WA sector in recent years.

How can the Government justify spending three times as much on a local advertising campaign just before a state election as they have on promoting the industry to the key decision makers awarding these contracts?

A plan to turn the tide on WA’s shipbuilding industry should include a comprehensive strategy to win defence ship-building contracts, consisting of:

  1. The appointment of a minister directly responsible for defence procurement;
  2. The recruitment of high powered advocates who understand defence and Western Australia's capabilities;
  3. The creation of a one stop shop for companies looking to invest in WA and the formation of tri-partite defence procurement advisory board, with representatives from government, industry and the relevant unions

WA can’t afford to neglect our shipbuilding industry anymore. We don’t need hollow advertising campaigns. We need a government with a real plan to stand up for local jobs and bring defence contracts to WA.


Check out our latest video with David, a longtime submarine refrigeration mechanic, talking about WA's shipbuilding industry.


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