AWU joins call for submarine project to shore up national security

Unions representing Australian shipbuilding workers say that with rising global uncertainty, the nation cannot afford to wait decades for a fleet of new submarines and must act now to plug a looming capability gap.

A new Australian Shipbuilding Federation of Unions report says shipbuilding continues to employ more than 30,000 workers across Australia, in the face of decades of government neglect.

But the Morrison Government’s recent decision to dump the long-planned purchase of French-designed, Australian-built submarines in favour of eight nuclear-powered submarines is a huge blow to the industry.

“The decision to walk away from the French deal has put the future of the Australian shipbuilding industry in jeopardy,” Australian Workers’ Union South Australian Secretary Peter Lamps says.

“The AUKUS subs won’t be ready for two or three decades – in the meantime, our defence capability and therefore national security is compromised, while the shipbuilding industry also loses jobs.”

The report says the easiest solution is for the Government to build up to six conventional submarines as soon as practicable.

This would prevent a capability gap for the Royal Australian Navy while preserving national shipbuilding skills and industry capacity for future submarine and major shipbuilding programs.

The Federation was established by the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), Electrical Trades Union (ETU), and Professionals Australia (PA).

The 2009 Defence White Paper said the replacement of the Collins Class submarines needed to begin “without delay”. Already there has been more than a decade of delay, and the so-called AUKUS subs will take decades more to build, if they are built at all.

It suggests building an interim capability of four to six conventional submarines in Osborne and Henderson at existing sites, to create over 4000 jobs in South Australia and 2000 jobs in Western Australia.

About 2000 jobs would come from workers building submarines, while the rest would come from supply-chain spending and new consumer spending.

In contrast to the AUKUS plan, it could take just one to two years to complete planning of the conventional submarines and award contracts, and construction could start as early as 2026.

The Federation says that as an island nation, Australia is heavily dependent on maritime trade, but if we allow our shipbuilding sector to decline, we will lose the ability to design, construct, and repair our naval ships as well as other vessels.

“The capacity to build and maintain ships is essential to developing and preserving an independent foreign policy, retaining national sovereignty, and addressing future strategic concerns,” Mr Lamps says.

“We’re calling for political action now. With growing geopolitical uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific it is vitally important that Australia can build and maintain its own defence vessels.”

The Government claims a submarine capability gap will be avoided by extending the lives of the six Collins-class submarines by another decade.

It has also said it hopes to assemble the nuclear fleet in Adelaide, but experts have questioned whether this will be possible given Australia’s lack of experience with nuclear technology.

The Australian Shipbuilding Federation of Unions says building an interim fleet of boats would allow the Government to deliver on its commitment to build a strong, sustainable, and innovative Australian naval shipbuilding industry without risking our sovereignty and national security.

“If our next generation submarines are built in Australia, up to 3600 jobs can be sustained at the Osborne Naval Shipyard between the years 2030 and 2060,” he says.

“A failure to do so would hand the economic benefits of building these submarines to another country and betray the workers in Australia who have fought to keep this vital industry alive.”

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