February 20, 2024

CULLIVER: But first, let’s go straight to the Defence Industry Minister. His name is Pat Conroy. Of course, he’s got that ministerial portfolio. He’s also the Member for Shortland right here in Newcastle. Minister, good afternoon to you.

CONROY: Good afternoon, Paul.

CULLIVER: What are you buying for the Navy?

CONROY: Well, the Albanese government is investing in the biggest surface fleet since World War II, and this is reflecting the strategic circumstances that we face. But our plan is to deliver a surface fleet of 26 warships that is essential to the defence of the nation but also critical to our defence industry. And our announcements today will support 3,700 high-skilled direct jobs and then thousands of additional jobs in the supply chain in our manufacturing cities such as Newcastle and Illawarra. So it’s great news for the defence of the nation and great news for manufacturing.

CULLIVER: Why does Australia need more warships?

CONROY: Well, we face the strategic uncertainty since World War II. We’re seeing the biggest arms race in our region in the same time frame. We’re seeing breakdowns of the rules-based order whether it’s the illegal invasion of Ukraine or the conflict in the Middle East or ongoing issues in the South China Sea. It’s essential that we have the strongest Navy to deter conflict. The best way of deterring conflict is to have a strong Defence Force so you never have to use it. And we inherited the oldest surface fleet since World War II when we came to power. We inherited big black holes in terms of funding, and we’re fixing that with this plan where we’re bringing new funding to support the construction of new, modern ships that will give us a bigger Navy that’s more lethal as the times demand.

CULLIVER: Just so I understand, 11 combat-ready warships as it stands to rise up to 26 when you’ve fully commissioned all of these. What’s the hypothetical scenario where 11 wasn’t enough?

CONROY: Well, we’re responding to what the Defence Strategic Review recommended, which is for the tasks that we can envisage our Navy being needed for 11 surface vessels would not cut it. So we’re talking about not just providing air defence for the north of Australia; we’re talking about escorting convoys. We’re a three-ocean country. We’re the only nation in the world that has three oceans, and over 99 per cent of our trade is via sea. So protecting our sea routes is critical. And you just have to look at the interruptions to our sea trade through Covid to know how dependent we are on trade with the rest of the world. So we need a bigger and more powerful Navy to really protect our sea lanes as well as just defend the nation.

CULLIVER: So is it not so much just about being able to respond to an emerging conflict but also being able to do more and help more nations in the world?

CONROY: Well, obviously supporting sort of humanitarian relief and other things is a critical part of what the Navy does, as well as war fighting. We made the announcement on the deck of HMAS Canberra, which is one of our two giant landing helicopter dock ships. They’ve been critical in humanitarian relief, particularly when I wear my hat as Minister for the Pacific. They’ve brought huge supplies and disaster relief to nations impacted by cyclones, for example. So a bigger, more effective fleet gives us the capabilities to do all the tasking that the government of the day may require the Navy to do.

CULLIVER: All of the ships, all of the vessels announced today, when will they actually be on the water?

CONROY: So the previous government’s plan would have the first new warship being delivered in 2034, the first of the Hunter Class. We found that that was unacceptable – or the review found that was unacceptable and we agreed with that. And so we’re funding a new class of general purpose Frigates, and the plan will be to select the Frigate next year, start cutting steel in 2026 and to have the first of those delivered by the end of the decade and at a drum beat where we’ll have four new warships by the time the last government would have had one delivered in 2034. So that’s the sort of drum beat that we’re trying to do to really deliver these vessels to the Navy as soon as possible so that they are ready for any requirement governments may task them to do.

CULLIVER: And then when are you done building?

CONROY: Well, we’re committed to continuous naval shipbuilding. Because one of the things that we’ve seen in the past is a ramp up of workforce and then a ramp down, and that’s led to people leaving the industry. For example, the Tomago – the Forgacs facility at Tomago in Newcastle ramped up to around a thousand workers to build modules for the Air Warfare Destroyer, but because the last government didn’t have a plan to follow on that work, that capability and workforce was lost.

So we’re committing to continuous naval shipbuilding. So in Adelaide, for example, when we finish building the Hunter Class Anti-submarine Frigates we will start building in the 2040s the replacement to the Air Warfare Destroyers. And in Perth we’ll do a similar ramp up of work for the landing craft for the Army then the general purpose Frigates and then the Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels.

So by maintaining a continuous lot of work, you have a workforce that knows that they can spend decades doing these jobs. They can take out mortgages, they can raise their families, they don’t have to worry about uncertainty. And that you have a really high-skilled motivated workforce.

But the important thing is it then gives you the scale to flow work around the country. So there’s a number of Hunter companies that are already involved in supporting the Hunter Class project. There’s companies in Illawarra. We’ve got the really innovative defence companies throughout New South Wales and they’ll be critical to building these ships.

CULLIVER: You are hearing from the Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy here on ABC New South Wales this afternoon. Paul Culliver is my name. We’re talking about an $11 billion injection into acquiring a whole – effectively a new fleet for the Navy.

Minister, you’ve talked there suggested some of the economic benefit that flows through to regional New South Wales, particularly in the Hunter in the Illawarra. Just how much of a boost will this be?

CONROY: Well, it’s yet to be determined because we are yet to enter into contracts for the build of the Hunter. And, as I said, we’ll select the builder for the general purpose Frigate next year. But there’s about 100,000 jobs that depend upon the defence industry, and we’ve got some great companies already doing some innovative work. To highlight a couple: 3ME in Cardiff did electrified vehicles both for the mining industry and defence. So they’ve developed an electrified version of the iconic Bushmaster armoured truck. Nupress, which, again, is also located in Cardiff, has been doing great work In the aerospace industry and also producing parts for our combat reconnaissance vehicles.

They’re the sorts of companies that you can see more work being won over the years. BlueScope steel, for example, down in the Illawarra is producing steel that will go into our new submarines – well, it’s been qualified to provide that steel. So there’s some great opportunities already there and you can expect that to grow in the future.

CULLIVER: The history of defence acquisitions in Australia has been fraught with, well, buying things that we maybe didn’t need that took too long that cost too much. What’s the guarantee? What’s the different approach that you’re taking to say that this won’t happen in this case?

CONROY: Well, we’ve learned from those lessons, and I think that’s the thing – is not to put our head in the sand and pretend there hasn’t been challenges in the past, and the key thing is to learn from that. And so, for example, the general purpose Frigates, while we build up the workforce in Perth building our landing craft for the Army and building that shipyard, we will get the first three vessels from overseas, from wherever they’re being built right now. And that could be in Germany, South Korea, Japan or Spain.

And – a couple of things: one, it means we get those ships as fast as possible so that the Navy gets them as soon as possible. Secondly, by selecting a builder that’s producing those vessels right now you reduce the risk in the project. And by minimising the number of changes that really reduces the risk. One of the reasons so many projects have got into trouble in the past is that previous governments have been ill-disciplined and just making changes to things, Australianising things for the sake of Australianising them. We won’t be doing that. We’ll be getting the frigate that most suits our needs and just dealing with what’s there rather than chopping and changing everything.

So we’ve learned from the past. We’re putting more resources in. We’re providing more ministerial oversight. For example, I’ve held five Project of Concern Ministerial Summits in the last year and a half, which is focused on getting projects that are maybe in a bit of trouble back on track. And that’s how you resolve it – by providing some ministerial leadership and energy.

CULLIVER: Will these new ships be based in regional New South Wales, in the Illawarra and such?

CONROY: Our two main fleet basis will still be Fleet Base East at Garden Island and Fleet Base West at HMAS Stirling. They’ll still be the main ports for basing requirements. But you can expect these ships to be obviously visiting other places. But the real benefit for regional New South Wales is the jobs supplying the industry building them. And I think that’s a great opportunity for regional New South Wales manufacturers. We’ve got some really innovative companies throughout the region and they just need to be given the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. And I’m confident these programs will do that.

CULLIVER: All right, Minister. Thanks for your time today.

CONROY: Thanks, Paul. Have a good day. Bye-bye.