Government announces SA, WA shipbuilding capacity upgrade

The government has set out the details of its ambitious shipbuilding agenda.

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Almost $90 billion is to be spent building 12 new submarines, nine frigates and dozens of patrol boats.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the objective is to make sure that every dollar spent on defence capability is spent in Australia.

“We believe that historically we have been too much of a customer and not enough of a supplier for our own defence capability needs. That is the big strategic objective. Now this is nation-building, it is unashamedly nationalistic.”

But the government’s own plan concedes finding the workers will be a challenge.

By 2026, demand for construction workers will peak at just over 5,000.

The government will try to get former shipbuilders, carmakers and oil and gas workers – including from interstate.

But minister for defence materiel, Christopher Pyne, says some roles will still need to be filled by skilled foreign workers.

“It’ll be a miniscule number of the 5,200-plus. But obviously we want them to transfer their intellectual property to our workforce. We can’t just learn that from reading a manual. We need them here. So the workforce will be overwhelmingly Australian.”

Labor leader Bill Shorten has attacked the plan.

He says the government should make a promise that no more South Australian shipbuilders will lose their jobs.

“Christopher Pyne said that he believed that 90 per cent of the submarine build would be done locally in Australia. Now there’s no Liberal backing up that number. And as late as this morning, Malcolm Turnbull has yet again failed the jobs test when he can’t even guarantee that there won’t be further job losses in the South Australian naval shipbuilding industry. We’ve already lost too many trained workers.”

The government says the only foreign workers will be highly educated specialists from the French company DCNS, which won the contract to build the new fleet of submarines.

“No, we’re not bringing foreign workers in to build these ships or submarines; we’ll be asking white-collar workers from DCNS to come and train aspects of our workforce in the design and building of Barracuda Shortfin submarines that are designed for Australian needs.”

But Independent South Australian Senator, Nick Xenophon, has criticised the state government’s lack of planning for a skilled workforce in South Australia.

“We have known since the end of 2013 that Holden was going to leave, that the manufacturing of motor vehicles in this country was basically going to come to an end. We have had over three years’ notice for that yet we are still talking about bringing in workers from overseas and interstate because we have failed, as a state, in terms of skills and building up that workforce. That is a real concern.”

The federal government is to establish a naval shipbuilding college in Adelaide to train new workers.

Work on the new patrol boats is due to begin next year.