The Prime Minister’s announcement of a new submarine base at one of three east coast locations is pork barrelling and risks Australia’s national security, according to independent Senator Rex Patrick, who is demanding answers as to why the government has gone against Defence’s previous recommendation for a base in Sydney.
None of the three locations were in contention for a new submarine base when east coast ports were comprehensively assessed by the Navy in a classified 2011 report.
Senator Patrick said it was unlikely Australia’s switch to nuclear propelled submarines – which requires deeper water and access to nuclear facilities – could have helped their cases and politics had influenced the Prime Minister’s latest announcement.
“I think it’s pork barrelling,” Senator Patrick told InnovationAus.
“I think it’s waving jobs and economic activity in front of three electorates.”
On Monday, the Prime Minister announced that Newcastle, Port Kembla and the Port of Brisbane had been identified as potential locations for Australia’s first major east coast submarine base.
The new base is Defence’s first since Robertson Barracks in the 1990s and part of a $10 billion infrastructure package to transition from Collins Class submarines to nuclear-propelled vessels over the next 20 years.
Mr Morrison said a new base is needed amid the rise of “autocrat adventurism” and must be located on the east coast of Australia to access advanced industrial infrastructure, naval facilities and the large populations needed to attract, recruit and retain a substantially larger crew and support workforce for Australia’s new fleet.
Australia’s only other major submarine base is Fleet Base West in Western Australia. It houses Australia’s ageing Collins Class fleet but has struggled to attract and retain personnel, according to a comprehensive Future Submarines basing study from 2011.
The 2011 study – sparked by the Future Submarines program and considered the most detailed review into submarine basing – was kept secret until 2018, when Senator Patrick had it released using Freedom of Information laws.
It revealed Defence viewed Sydney Harbour as having the three best available options for a sustainable east coast submarine base and all but ruled out the three locations now being considered.
Newcastle was ranked seventh of the nine locations considered in depth in 2011, while the Port of Brisbane was ninth. Port Kembla lacked enough merit for in-depth consideration for a base.
Port Kembla was on Monday reported as the frontrunner for a new base but is described in the report as being “impractical” to develop a submarine base because of its small, congested harbour and lack of land or wharf access for expansion.
The 2011 report said little had changed in Port Kembla in terms of a base since the Navy assessed it in 1988, determining there was “no space available within either the Inner or Outer Harbour, or a suitable foreshore area, for the development of a fleet base at Port Kembla”.
On Monday, Mr Morrison said the shortlisted locations were chosen because of their proximity to “sufficient industrial infrastructure” and large populations. The three locations are also “reasonably proximate” to primary maritime training and operational areas, with access to deep water and weapons storage and loading facilities, he said.
But Senator Patrick said politics and the looming election had influenced the shortlist and its announcement.
“If you are pork barrelling, why not try and string three electorates along rather than just announce one?” he said.
Defence has been authorised to begin engaging and negotiating with state and local governments on the potential base sites, but a final decision is not expected until the end of 2023.
Senator Patrick said politics may have also influenced the removal of a Sydney port from consideration, despite its previous recommendation and its access to Australia’s only nuclear reactor in Lucas Heights in southern Sydney.
“The switch from conventional to nuclear [powered submarines] in some sense strengthens the Sydney case because of Lucas Heights. I think they’ve stayed away from it [a Sydney base] purely because of politics,” he said.
Senator Patrick said the latest announcement does little to salvage Australia’s struggling submarine program.
“We are 13 years and $3 billion into the Future Submarine project. And the only activity taking place prior to today was a study on nuclear powered submarines,” he said.
“The Prime Minister has doubled the effort today by announcing a second study.”
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