Labor’s traditional union allies say they harbour deep concerns about Australia’s plan to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and fear the AUKUS pact will not deliver the promised bonanza of Australian manufacturing jobs.
The federal government is preparing to announce the details of its nuclear-powered submarine plan in March, with preparation under way for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to travel to Washington for a possible joint press conference with US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
During a visit to Washington over the weekend, Defence Minister Richard Marles said AUKUS would create “thousands” of new local jobs and expressed confidence Australia would not be left with a capability gap between the retirement of the current Collins class fleet and the arrival of nuclear-powered vessels.
Despite Marles’ assurances, Australian Shipbuilding Federation of Unions national convener Glenn Thompson said he remained “apprehensive” about a possible capability gap and urged the government to develop a backup plan in case AUKUS falls over.
“It’s one thing to say that this is going to create thousands of jobs, but you actually have to be able to build something well in advance of whatever AUKUS comes up with,” said Thompson, an assistant national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
“It’s of great concern to us about where the workforce is coming from and how are we addressing the issue of Australia’s sovereignty.”
Thompson noted there had been no pledge from the government that AUKUS would create as many local jobs as the 5000 positions promised under the cancelled contract with French company Naval Group.
The shipbuilding federation – which represents unions including the AMWU, Electrical Trades Union and the Australian Workers Union – is urging the government to build an additional six conventionally powered submarines in Australia before the arrival of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
Marles last week stated definitively that the government “has no plans for any conventionally powered interim submarine capability, as we move towards gaining the nuclear-powered submarine capability”. Senior defence figures, including in the Navy, have fiercely resisted the idea of an interim conventional submarine.
“There’s a whole lot of uncertainties,” Thompson said of the AUKUS pact. “I just think from a capability perspective the country needs to have a plan B.”
Thompson said he feared local construction of the nuclear-powered submarines would not begin until the late 2040s or early 2050s, a decade after the Collins-class vessels begin being decommissioned.
“It’s very rare that these defence projects deliver on time,” he said. “By the mid-2040s you could have two-thirds of the existing fleet retired, so there could be a substantial capability gap.”
Marles told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last month that AUKUS would be “a genuine three-country collaboration”, raising expectations Australia will acquire a joint next-generation submarine model combining American and British technology.
While not specifying what proportion of the submarines would be built in Australia, Marles said the Osborne Naval Shipyard in Adelaide would play a major role in the project.
“We must develop an industrial capability in Australia,” he said. “That’s the only way this can work, and that’s what will be expected of us by both the UK and the US.”
Marles told parliament on Monday the government was “on track” to make its AUKUS announcement in the very near future.
He said while there had been a “very real potential of a capability gap opening up with our submarines, I am confident that the pathway we announced will provide a solution to this”.