Thursday, February 19, 2015

Opinion: Australian submarine farce is a cartoonish comedy

Minister for Defence Senator David Johnston.
Minister for Defence Senator David Johnston. Source: News Corp Australia

APOLOGIES to The Beatles, but their 1966 hit single Yellow Submarine didn’t made much sense, unless you were five years old, or under the influence of a hallucinogenic.
You’d be forgiven for thinking our federal MPs were under the influence of the same substances if you’d followed the latest dramas surrounding Australia’s submarine capability. At the end of a bizarre two weeks, we seem to have arrived at a situation in which ASC — the government-owned Australian Submarine Corporation in Osborne, South Australia — will be allowed to take part in some sort of bid process to be involved in the project to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.
But the process has been so muddied by politics — local, federal and international — that it’s impossible to say if Australians will get value for money, the right submarines, or even whether the right process has been followed. And with up to $40 billion at stake, that’s alarming.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Through the 1970s and ’80s, various federal governments worked on a process to design and build Australian submarines.
For security purposes, it was decided to do this in Australia at the Australian Submarine Corporation (which has since been renamed ASC Pty Ltd).
What became known as the Collins class submarines cost us a fortune, no other country bought any, there were delays and cost blowouts, and everyone involved was so scarred that defence chiefs and politicians alike have been unable to come up with an obvious plan for the future.
Even though the six Collins class subs are now starting to look a bit like a 1981 Toyota Corolla, the previous Labor governments stuffed around for six years and, despite spending more than $100 million, didn’t make a decision.
But the Abbott Government arrived in 2013 with a renewed enthusiasm for deciding on our next generation of submarines — yet things got messier. Last last year, then defence minister David Johnston ranted in the Senate that the ASC could not be trusted to “build a canoe”. The 4000 folk who work at ASC were understandably angry and Johnston’s career was torpedoed in the December Cabinet reshuffle. He was replaced by Kevin Andrews.
South Australian MPs were furious. The Johnston brain fade had played out very badly at ASC, where employees were nervous about the Government’s apparent refusal to allow them to bid for the next generation of submarines, which would cost between $25 billion and $40 billion. The South Australian MPs feared the loss of up to five seats. Enter Sean Edwards, the previously unheard-of senator for South Australia, who announced that his vote in the pending leadership spill motion against Tony Abbott would be decided by the PM’s position on allowing ASC to be involved.
A flurry of phones calls ensued and the senator told the media that, happily, he would be voting against the spill because Abbott had promised ASC could take part in a “open, competitive tender”.
First, the shock waves centred on the apparent realisation that Abbott had made policy on the run worth up to $40 billion just to buy a vote in the partyroom spill. Then it emerged that no, there would not be an open tender. That would mean providing the specifications to anyone who wanted to bid.
The Government did not want to hand over the specs to Abbott’s shirtfront buddy, Vladimir Putin, or North Korea’s tyrant leader, Kim Jong-un.
AND Abbott confirmed that yes, he had talked about letting Japan build the submarines, but there was no handshake deal with his mate Shinzo Abe and he’d talked to the French and the Germans, too.
Behind the scenes, panic was erupting. An RAAF jet was put on standby in Canberra and less than 24 hours after the spill motion was defeated, five MPs were whisked off to the ASC in Adelaide for a door-stop to clear things up.
Edwards and three of his SA colleagues flanked Andrews as the Defence Minister explained there would be a “competitive evaluation process”. Confused, journalists asked for details: “Just a yes or no, is it a tender process or not?’’ one asked. Andrews replied: “I will use the words I choose to use. What we are doing is a competitive evaluation process. We have to evaluate this, we have to do it in a way which is methodical, cautious, that is a process that goes forward into the future and obviously there has to be a competitive element to that.’’
Senator Eric Abetz later clarified that: “In relation to a competitive evaluation process, most people would understand that on the common usage of the Australian language. What that means is that a methodology will be employed whereby an evaluation is undertaken on a competitive basis.’’
Edwards, a winemaker before he became an MP, then ignored advice to shut up and went on Sky News, where, eventually, he seemed to say maybe that the PM hadn’t said it at all.
But, he said, ASC would now be a part of something, whereas a few days ago, they weren’t a part of anything. Okay.
The next night, Edwards went off to noted Canberra eatery Portia’s, one of the few establishments in the nation’s capital that sells his wine.
He stumbled on a group of 10 journalists who had already sampled several bottles of his Kirrihill shiraz and were loudly toasting competitive evaluation processes and open tenders.
“I wondered who was buying it,’’ he said gloomily before retreating to a far table.

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