South Australia Premier Peter Malinauskas has called on federal counterparts to help develop a national plan for the workforce needed to support the AUKUS submarine program, describing the $116 billion investment as a generational opportunity to turn around Australia’s falling economic complexity.
Mr Malinauskas is using his invite to the Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra to agitate for a joint taskforce with the Commonwealth that would develop a “comprehensive national plan” for an AUKUS workforce.
He told an ‘industries of the future’ session at the summit it was hard to believe there was no work underway on a workforce plan for “the single biggest bill or investment from the Commonwealth Government in the history of our federation”.
“This task is mind bogglingly complex. Yet you could have knocked me over with a feather post our government’s election in March to find out that there is no national plan, no comprehensive effort to deal with the workforce requirements that will be necessary to undertake this build,” Mr Malinauskas said.
“There are very specific needs here. We can’t go overseas to procure these skills. They must be developed locally because of national security requirements, notwithstanding the fact that our friends and allies have massive skill shortages in this area as well.”
The AUKUS trilateral security pact was announced by the Coalition government one year ago. It includes several areas of technology and information exchange with the allies but is centred on the acquisition of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines estimated to cost at least $116 billion in out-turned dollars, which account for inflation.
A large taskforce continues to examine options for acquiring at least eight new nuclear-powered submarines, including buying some or all of them from overseas.
A highly skilled workforce will be needed to reach the AUKUS program’s submarine and advanced technology goals, according to research by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre.
In a July report, the centre called for a new ‘AUKUS visa’ for researchers and professionals working in advanced capabilities fields to expediate the three nations’ talent exchange and improve the local workforce.
Mr Malinauskas, whose state is the likely beneficiary of a revamped shipbuilding program, backed both the AUKUS program and the Commonwealth’s commitment to an increased overall defence spend because of a worsening geopolitical environment.
He called for more urgency.
“The days of living under the shell of that comfort, where we thought there was a 10-year horizon for a potential conflict is now gone. So we need to act and act quickly,” Mr Malinauskas said.
We need to act now to seize the opportunities of defence projects spanning decades. pic.twitter.com/EnRl72dq4a
— Peter Malinauskas (@PMalinauskasMP) September 1, 2022
He described the building of a naval shipbuilding program and other major defence investments as “the single biggest opportunity that we’ve had to improve in our economic complexity in a generation”.
“This requires a national effort. But more than that, it’s an effort that will actually underpin the preservation of our democratic ideals our liberal democratic ideals that everyone in this room holds dear,” he told the Canberra summit.
“So I simply submit and request that we now develop that plan to deliver the workforce that were required not just for the next 10 years, but across multitude of generations for many years to come.”
The Albanese government was also pressured at the summit to provide funding and workforce planning for the current seafarer workforce.
Earlier this year, federal Labor promised to build a strategic fleet and close loopholes which had held back the Australia shipping industry and disadvantaged the local workers.
On Thursday, Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union national secretary Christy Cain highlighted the new government’s January promise and called for immediate action to overcome a “drastic” shortage in skilled seafarers.
“We are an island nation. We have 1000s of vessels visit our ports each day. Most people wouldn’t realise that there is no Australians on them vessels that are trading around this coast,” he told the summit.
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