Announcement of continuous naval shipbuilding at Henderson, WA

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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media@defence.gov.au

(02) 6277 7840

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minister.conroy@dfat.gov.au

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23 November 2023

JOSH WILSON: Okay. [Indistinct]. Good morning. It’s great to be here in the federal electorate of Fremantle in the City of Cockburn in Henderson at the Australian Marine Complex at Austal. It’s brilliant to have with me my friend and colleague Pat Conroy, the Minister for Defence Industry, and Paul Papalia, the Western Australian Minister for Defence Industries.

We’re here in one of the most important industrial and shipbuilding precincts in Australia. It’s contributed a lot in terms of jobs, technology and Defence shipbuilding capability over a significant period of time. It has much greater potential to deliver on that than we have yet seen. I’ve been a big advocate for this as part of my community for a long time. Austal is a Western Australian, Australian and international success story. I was glad to be in San Diego a couple of weeks ago and stand aboard USS Canberra, which, of course, Austal helped create. They’ve gone from being the manufacturer of aluminium small marine commercial and recreational craft to a shipbuilder that has facilities in the Philippines, Vietnam and in the United States as well as their headquarters here in my electorate of Fremantle. And they’ve been a success in commercial shipbuilding and Defence shipbuilding.

For a long time I’ve argue that’d the potential for this precinct and shipbuilding here in Western Australia should be supported to do its job as part of our – of building our national sovereign capability. In the past we’ve seen a lot of ads in the Western Australian newspaper about that; we haven’t seen enough commitment. We haven’t seen enough certainty. That changes today, and I’ll hand over to Minister Pat Conroy to say a bit more about that.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: Thanks, Josh. And it’s great to be joined by Josh Wilson, the member for Fremantle and a staunch advocate for all things Western Australian in the federal parliament, and Minister Paul Papalia, Minister for Police, Defence Industry, Veterans, Corrective Services and it seems like everything else that the WA government needs him to work on.        

Importantly, I’m also joined by Defence officials and representatives of Austal here today. Today I’m making a very significant announcement with Minister Papalia. In fact, it’s a seismic announcement around the future of WA defence industry and, quite frankly, the defence of the nation.

As everyone knows, we’re a maritime nation – 98 per cent of our trade is on our waterways. We are bounded by three oceans. Having a strong Royal Australian Navy is critical to the defence of our country and having a strong Australian defence industry supporting that navy is also critical.

The DSR – the Defence Strategic Review – in its advice to government identified a critical issue, which is that the Henderson maritime strip, which is critical to our navy and our national defence, does not have enough work to sustain it in its current form. That work is lumpy. That work leads to a boom-bust cycle that doesn’t allow companies to make the investments or give their workforce the certainty they need to stay in this incredibly important industry.

So today as part of our response to the Defence Strategic Review we are announcing the practical manifestation of our commitment to continuous naval shipbuilding in the west, having Western Australia as the home of continuous naval shipbuilding to support the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Army.

That will provide certainty to allow companies to make investments in infrastructure and it gives certainty to the workforce, a workforce that is incredibly skilled, a workforce that we want to stay in the defence industry and grow.

This is a vital capability. It gives greater sovereignty to Australia to have a sovereign Australian defence industry capable of designing and building the warships our navy needs. So this is about our national defence.

Today’s announcement will guarantee the future of shipbuilding in Western Australia for the defence industry. It will guarantee the future of Western Australian shipbuilding. And today I’m announcing that the Albanese Labor government will be designating a strategic shipbuilding partner for the Western Australia naval defence industry. And that strategic shipbuilding partner will be Austal Ships. This will guarantee the future of up to 1,200 jobs and deliver billions of dollars of investment into the Henderson maritime strip.

It’s also essential if we are to deliver on another of the Defence Strategic Review’s recommendations, which is to accelerate the delivery of landing craft medium and landing craft heavy capabilities. These are really important for the Australian Army as it continues its transformation into being able to specialise in littoral manoeuvre.

We are bringing forward the delivery of landing craft medium with a goal of delivering from 2026 onwards. These are 500-tonne vessels capable of delivering a main battle tank or an infantry fighting vehicle. And we are bringing forward from the mid-2030s to 2028 landing craft heavy. These are massive vessels weighing somewhere between 3 and 5,000 tonnes, capable of transporting 11 infantry fighting vehicles.

Both those classes of vessels will be built here at Austal Shipbuilding. That’s a vital capability for the defence of the nation. As a first step in this process we are ordering two more Evolved Cape Class patrol vessels similar to the one berthed behind us. Those two Evolved Cape Class vessels will assist in the training and navigational requirements for the navy and army, and that will be the bridge to the strategic shipbuilding agreement that will be in place that will deliver the landing craft medium and the landing craft heavy.

That will deliver 10 years of certainty as a start for Austal Shipbuilding and its supply chain, subject to performance requirements being met. Importantly, landing craft medium, the design of that, will be designed by Birdon Shipbuilding. In the recent tender for Land 8710 Birdon design was the most mature and offered the greatest capability, and we look forward to them working with Austal to deliver this vital capability for the Australian Army.

In conclusion, I’d like to pay tribute to the staunch advocacy of Josh Wilson and the rest of the WA Labor contingent in Canberra. The advocacy, the patience of vision of the Western Australian government, particularly Minister Paul Papalia, who has been such a strong advocate for the WA defence industry. There is no greater advocate for the WA defence industry than Minister Papalia. And I want to applaud the tripartite approach that we're taking to the defence industry, and I particularly want to thank Austal Shipbuilding and Birdon for their cooperation and their commitment to defending our nation and the workforce, particularly the workforce represented by the Australian Shipbuilding Federation of Unions and, in particular, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union who are all committed to defending our country, committed to building ships here in the west and driving long-term future for thousands of families.

I’ll turn over to Paul to make some comments.

WESTERN AUSTRALIAN MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAUL PAPALIA: Thank you. Look, today is a red letter day. We’ve been fighting for seven years for this, and continuous shipbuilding is a massive win for Western Australia. It’s – the landing craft projects are worth billions, but continuous shipbuilding is absolutely priceless. This means that a young kid sitting in a school today in Western Australia can look at the shipbuilding industry, at defence industry and consider that they can have an entire career, their entire lives, working lives, can be in this one sector if they so desire. It’s a massive step. It’s a massive commitment, and it is something we should all be very appreciative of.

I worked with four Liberal defence ministers to get continuous shipbuilding – Marise Payne, Christopher Pyne, Linda Reynolds and Peter Dutton all failed to deliver on that. Richard Marles and Pat Conroy have delivered today. Continuous shipbuilding is an extraordinary outcome for not just Western Australia but for the nation.

What it gives us is certainty, continuity, our wonderful Western Australian shipbuilding giant Austal now who deliver to the world, who build – the only naval shipbuilder that really builds and exports to the world. They are now – know that they have certainty. They can recruit, train and retain people knowing that there will always be work in this sector for them and for Western Australia and for the nation.

It means we’re going to have a fantastic sovereign capability, which is so vital in these uncertain times, and we’re going to bring forward delivery of these important projects for the Australian Army. It’s fantastic all round. A wonderful outcome, and just so grateful that we’re able to be here today and recognise the arrangements, the strategic shipbuilding agreement, that’s going to be rolled out.

I also acknowledge Birdon. Wonderful that they’re coming over here and partnering up with – or working with Austal. It’s all good news for Western Australia. Diversity is essential. Diversifying our economy is essential. And one of our eight key pillars of achieving diversity for the state government of our economy is Defence. And this cements defence industry as a really important player.

MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, Paul. And if I can just sum up, strategic shipbuilding provides certainty, it increases efficiencies and means we get capability faster and more efficient over the long term. So it’s great news for the industry, great news for the workers and great news for the Australian Defence Force.

We’ll open up the questions on this announcement first and then if there are any questions on other issues we’ll ask the Defence officials and Paddy from Austal to step away at that stage.

JOURNALIST: Can you talk about how many jobs this is going to create, the range of jobs and how quickly they’re going to come on board?

MINISTER CONROY: Yeah, well, I’ll invite Paddy to supplement this, but the initial announcement around two extra Evolved Cape Class patrol vessels will secure the 400 jobs that are currently here. And our best advice is that the commitments to the landing craft medium and heavy projects will drive up to an additional 800 jobs.

So this announcement today will deliver up to 1,200 well-paid, secure, high-skilled jobs for Western Australians as well as billions of dollars of investment. Paddy, was there anything you’d like to add there?

AUSTAL LIMITED CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER PADDY GREGG: I think you summed it up.

MINISTER CONROY: Okay.

GREGG: Thanks, Minister. I think you summed up the jobs very well. This is a tremendous day for Austal. It really does secure the shipbuilders that we have today, a team that have delivered 28 ships over the last five years from this yard here in Henderson. Looking to the future, in excess of 1,200 jobs here, and then think about the supply chain too. So great news for our loyal suppliers that have worked with us over the last 30 years here in Henderson. So it’s not just about jobs physically for Austal; it’s about the wider supply chain and the security it puts in there as well. So truly tremendous day.

JOURNALIST: What types of jobs are you referring to?

GREGG: What types of jobs? Yeah, so across all trades, you know, from – we’ll take on apprentices, we’ll take on graduates. It will be tradesmen and women as well. So fabricators, welders, electricians, cabinet makers, all the way through to commissioning engineers, people who’ll take the boat on trial and hopefully work into the service sector as well in terms of after these boats are delivered. I’m sure army and navy will absolutely want to make sure they’re maintained and Austal has the capability to not only deliver ships but look after them in service. You know, so a lot of blue-dollar jobs but also engineering jobs, supply chain jobs, HR, right across the piece we will be recruiting very quickly.

JOURNALIST: Yeah, very quickly. So do you expect that demand to be instant?

GREGG: I would imagine we will be putting out requests for interest absolutely immediately.

MINISTER CONROY: And Paul might want to –

PAPALIA: Naval architects, mate. What this means is the continuous shipbuilding thing is key. It means that instead of facing peaks and troughs which we invariably did and having to regularly confront the loss of workforce, because it’s a competitive environment out there now, people can know they’ve got certainty. It’s a great opportunity for someone just to consider start their working life here and potentially go their entire life in this one location. We get the benefit of all the skills accrual over that time and the people get the benefit of certainty around their lives and being able to plan things for their entire working life if they want.

That is a wonderful thing. If you go to some other parts of the world, there are locations where generations have worked in shipbuilding, in naval shipbuilding. And this is potentially what we now have. We have the opportunity for people, entire families can commit to their futures being in this industry. It’s a wonderful – a wonderful announcement.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned Payne, Pyne, Dutton and Reynolds.

PAPALIA: Yeah, look, honestly, I was elected in 2017 and appointed as the minister. We created a defence industry portfolio. I was the minister. We created a Defence West Office to represent the industry and advocate for it. We appointed a defence advocate in Canberra. We published a defence and industry strategic plan in 2018. From the moment I was – became the minister I met with ministers for defence from the federal government. Doesn’t matter – Defence is a non-partisan activity. But we always said continuous shipbuilding commitment is essential for the nation but very much for Western Australia for our industry. And it has often been talked about, never delivered until today.

JOURNALIST: Is this the biggest milestone for you in this portfolio?

PAPALIA: It’s a massive delivery. This is huge. As I said, this – these shipbuilding projects for landing craft are worth billions, but that commitment to continuous shipbuilding is absolutely priceless.

JOURNALIST: Is there someone that can talk about the military role of these?

PAPALIA: I could do that, but I think I might hand over to someone who’s in uniform.

MAJOR GENERAL RICHARD VAGG: Good morning, and thank you. The Birdon design of the landing craft is excellent. It best meets army’s needs as we move forward and transform ourselves into an army that is optimised for littoral manoeuvre. We’ve worked very closely with the National Shipbuilding and Sustainment Group within Defence, and this arrangement enables us to deliver what is going to be a relevant and world-class capability in the most quickest and efficient time frame.

JOURNALIST: And what sort of operations are they, these sort of ships used in?

MAJOR GENERAL VAGG: These ships will be used throughout the entire operational spectrum – everything from competition and cooperation with our regional partners right through to crisis and conflicts. I see massive roles for them in humanitarian and disaster relief.

MINISTER CONROY: And if I can just add, one of the key recommendations of the Defence Strategic Review was the transformation of the Australian Army into one specialising littoral manoeuvre, which is moving at the interface of land and sea, the ability to project force out from Australia. And they made an incredibly powerful recommendation to bring forward, accelerate the acquisition of landing craft, both the medium and the heavy. The heavy – 3 to 5,000-tonne landing vessels that will be brought forward from the mid-2030s to 2028, matching the delivery of us bringing forward the infantry fighting vehicles that will be built in Australia, the most advanced infantry fighting vehicles in the world being brought forward by a number of years. So that both those capabilities with our advanced high mobility artillery rocket systems all being delivered at the same time so that the Australian Army has that impactful strike. That is what the Albanese Labor government is doing to deal with the strategic circumstances we face at the moment.

JOURNALIST: When you mentioned those dates being brought forward, are you referring to the start dates of the build?

MINISTER CONROY: That’s the delivery. So we aim for the first landing craft medium to be delivered by the end of 2026. The DSR recommended that they start arriving from 2027 to coincide with the delivery of the infantry fighting vehicles. So 2027 is the goal, which is a number of years in advance of the previous plan. The really aggressive one, to be frank, the one where the Albanese Labor government and Defence have stepped up, allocated resources – and this announcement is part of that because you need to move faster and partner if we’re going to deliver this – is to move the landing craft heavy from first delivery in the mid-2030s to first delivery around 2028. That’s a massive step forward.

That meant we had to move away from traditional contracting and procurement methods to say we’re going to partner with Austal, we’re going to partner with a designer, we’re going to bring it forward and get that capability in the hands of the war fighters as soon as possible.

Any other questions on today’s announcement? No? Excellent. Thank you, Defence officials. Any other questions on issues of the day?

JOURNALIST: So a broader investigation has been undertaken by the federal government about building a dry dock at Henderson. Where is that and can you today confidentially say a dry dock will be built in WA?

MINISTER CONROY: So as we provided information to the Senate estimates process a couple of weeks ago, the consideration around how the dry dock decision will be made is being informed by the requirements for Submarine Rotation Force West. So that’s the establishment of SRF West, a four-visiting US nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines and one UK nuclear-powered submarine, and then the transition into Australian Virginia class and then SSN AUKUS. At the moment we’re working through the process of working out what the needs are around the nuclear-powered submarines. That will inform the requirements for the floating – for the dry dock.

Any other questions? No?

JOURNALIST: China has accused Australia of making rude and irresponsible claims regarding the sonar incident. What would be your response?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, all I can say is refer you to the official statement released by the Deputy Prime Minister. The Australian naval frigate was in international waters within the Japanese exclusive economic zone. Importantly, it was part of a maritime surveillance patrols under the United Nations to deal with sanctions imposed upon North Korea. These were activities we’ve been involved in for decades. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Unfortunately the propellor had been fouled by a fishing net. As is standard practice, divers were deployed to clear the nets. A Chinese destroyer approached and, despite being informed that we had divers in the water, chose to use their sonar. That was not consistent with a navy or a military operating in a professional and safe way, and we’ve conveyed our deep concerns through the appropriate channels to the Chinese government. Thank you very much, everyone.

PAPALIA: Do you want questions of the day? You [indistinct].

JOURNALIST: There’s a fire burning in Wanneroo and surrounding areas and there’s reports that some people are bypassing police blockades. What would be your message to [indistinct]?

PAPALIA: Look, it’s terrible news from up there. It sounds incredibly threatening, and I would just urge everybody to listen and comply with the requests of the authorities. People are trying to save your properties and save lives. Do what they ask you to do.

JOURNALIST: Another issue the day-care –

PAPALIA: And they’re actually risking their lives to do that too. So, you know, it’s really essential that people comply. Sorry.

JOURNALIST: A day-care centre in Banksia Grove an employee has been charged with child abuse. But the centre is adamant that that person had a working with children’s clearance which involves a police check, I understand. Are you confident that those police checks are stringent enough?

PAPALIA: Look, you know, that matter, as you’d understand, is before the courts. Someone’s been charged. It’s – it is a requirement that people have the working with children’s check to be able to be employed in that sector. Beyond that I can’t really comment or make any observation.

JOURNALIST: Thanks.

PAPALIA: Okay. Thanks.

ENDS

Media contact: Chris Northam 0478 263 787

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