Interview with Geoff Hutchison, ABC Radio Perth

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The Hon Melissa Price MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for Science and Technology

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20 September 2021

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Paul Papalia yesterday on the Drive program. She was name-checked by Paul Papalia, and also refuting the Government claim that the loss of full‑cycle docking will cost the state billions is the Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price. Good afternoon to you.

MELISSA PRICE: Good afternoon, Geoff. Good to be with you.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Explain why you think those numbers and those claims are fanciful.

MELISSA PRICE: Well, I think like you and like me, Geoff, and I’m sure plenty of our listeners are feeling the same way, that we are getting a bit sick of the political spin, and as the Minister for Defence Industry I’m only interested in the facts. So, the facts are that currently down at Henderson the Collins-class submarine intermediate and what we call mid-cycle dockings – that already takes place and that will continue until the mid-2040s. And that’s already supporting about 500 Australian jobs.

It is correct that we spoke to the Western Australian and the South Australian Governments about doing the much greater maintenance job of full-cycle docking. That was probably two years ago to see how that work could take place in WA or South Australia. And as you can imagine, now that there’s definitely more capacity down in South Australia, you know, that all makes sense from smoothing out the shipbuilding workforce.

Now, one thing people need to realise is that we’ve got a very ambitious shipbuilding program at the Morrison Government. We’re going to need 15,000 people to work in shipbuilding. We’ve currently got 4,000 people working in shipbuilding, so we’ve got a long way to go. It is a task for all of us.

Now, this fanciful figure of billions of dollars that’s been thrown around, I got the Defence Department to check that only a couple of days ago, because I had been hearing that. As I said, we’re already getting a significant amount of the maintenance work here in Western Australia for Collins. But extra per year would have been $100 million for the full‑cycle docking here in WA. Now, I’m not suggesting that is an insignificant amount of money, but it’s certainly not the billions of dollars that the State Government has been spruiking. Now, what’s disappointing, Geoff, about yesterday’s media cycle, and like what has been said about the nuclear – and I’ve been practicing to make sure I say it properly – 

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Good pronunciation, yeah.

MELISSA PRICE: – after hearing you earlier today on the show. What’s really disappointing is that what we’re not hearing from the State Government – and, in fact, there are more shipbuilding projects coming to Western Australia and, in fact, the Prime Minister mentioned one of them yesterday, which is up to another eight what’s called Arafura derivatives which will be built here in Western Australia. Now, that’s a $5 billion project. Now, why didn’t the Premier mention that one? Maybe that didn’t suit the narrative. But what I’m focused on is making sure we’ve got the jobs here in Western Australia.

We have got enormous opportunities. What I’d rather is the State Government focus on what we’ve got, and it’s not just shipbuilding. We’ve got a very, very growing defence industry across all of the domains here in Western Australia, and that’s what I’m very focused on developing. But what I think we’re tired of is not getting the truth. What I would have loved to have heard yesterday about this potential for a nuclear engineering industry here in Western Australia – so we expect that WA will be home to some or all of those eight new submarines and that still will be determined, and you would have heard yesterday on many of the ABC shows that although the nuclear reactor itself will not need to be maintained, that stays intact, but we will still need an industry here in Western Australia, a brand‑new industry, to be able to maintain the other sort of supporting – the nonnuclear infrastructure elements of the nuclear subs. We’ll also need to be able to monitor the reactor and we have to understand the technology. Now, it’s a huge opportunity for Western Australian universities. It’s a huge opportunity for us to develop a new industry.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Okay, just – 

MELISSA PRICE: Why weren’t we told about that in State Parliament?

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Okay let’s just talk a bit further. Melissa Price is my guest, Minister for Defence Industry and the member for Durack, and she’s saying that, rather than this being a multimillion‑dollar disappointment for Western Australia, the turn for full‑cycle docking would have a value of about $100 million a year. I guess, Minister, if we’re talking about 20 years of full‑cycle docking, then we’re talking about $2 billion worth of opportunity, but we’ll let that pass.

I guess when you talk about the politics of this, though, it does represent an easy political point‑scoring opportunity for the Western Australian Government because two Western Australians, yourself and the then Defence Minister Linda Reynolds from a public point of view, I guess, had the inside running on all this and could have, should have, might have been able to develop these projects to this state. Could you explain why you couldn’t win the argument about full‑cycle docking in Henderson so close to where those subs live?

MELISSA PRICE: Well, the starting point is – and this was something we made very clear to the State Government and to the South Australian Government, that when the decision is made about where you will have full‑cycle docking, that decision will be made in the national interest. Now, there’s certain things I can do and focus on. I’m a Western Australian, very proudly Western Australian, and I’m very focused on making sure we are developing a shipbuilding industry here in Western Australia. Just recently, I launched a new program to be able to get more young people involved in shipbuilding. There’s things that I can do, and I’m very focused on that, but by and large, I think people would agree with me that we need these decisions made in the national interest and – 

GEOFF HUTCHISON: I guess the problem, though, and I agree with you – I guess the problem has been when we talk about the national interest, everyone likes to talk about the national interest, but recently people – maybe it’s the politics of envy too; people looked at the situation that Christopher Pyne was the Defence Minister and he came from South Australia, and South Australia seemed to be beneficiaries of certain things that were not necessarily indicative of South Australia’s ability to be the best option there. I’ll just take you back a few years. Your one‑time colleague, the former Liberal Defence Minister David Johnston, another Western Australian – he once infamously said in a Senate debate about where Australia’s future fleet should be built, quote, “You wonder why I’m worried about the Australian Submarine Corporation and what they’re delivering? You’re wondering why I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe?” This has always been politicised, hasn’t it, and isn’t it often politicised with a sense of “in addition to this decision, is there political benefit in us making it”?

MELISSA PRICE: Well, there’s a lot there to unpack, but let me say this to you. We have got two excellent locations in Australia for shipbuilding: Western Australia and South Australia. And we need thousands and thousands of more people to be able to live and work in both of those states. And what we’re seeing at the moment, and this is why the decision on full-cycle docking was made at the same time as the decision to cancel the Attack‑class submarine contract and to, obviously, talk about then developing nuclear submarines. Because ultimately this is about Australia’s shipbuilding workforce. This has got to be in the national interest. And so that’s part of the discussion. And by and large, this is why you see the Arafura OPVs that are built down at Civmec’s shed, the largest shed in the Southern Hemisphere, by the way. If you haven’t been down there, it is absolutely awesome. So, Lürssen are building the OPVs there. But they’re not building all of them there. They started the building of the OPVs in South Australia. This is about smoothing out the workforce. It is very clever. It is very clever of our Government to be doing this. So, it’s all in the national interest. But honestly, Geoff, I have a very long list of projects that have already started in Western Australia and are going to start in the next couple of years. I could read these out to your listeners. The last thing I want people to think is that Western Australia is missing out, because it is not.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: I really appreciate you speaking to me this afternoon. We can get that list from Melissa Price at any time. She’s the Minister for Defence Industry and the member for Durack. Thank you very much for your time this afternoon. You’re with Geoff, ABC Radio Perth.


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