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While the Future Frigate contract is used as a bargaining chip for the upcoming Mayo byelection, the jobs of workers on the project remain in limbo. By Royce Kurmelovs.

Shipbuilding and the Mayo byelection

Former prime minister John Howard campaigns with Liberal candidate for Mayo Georgina Downer at Victor Harbor on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Kelly Barnes

Shipbuilder Ryan Richter was watching when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flew in to Adelaide to announce a $35 billion contract to build nine anti-submarine frigates for the Australian Navy had been awarded to defence company BAE Systems. According to the headlines, the Future Frigate Project was good news for South Australia, which is still grappling with the end of automotive manufacturing after Holden closed its doors, a brain drain and a statewide unemployment rate that currently drifts between 5.6 and 6 per cent.

The prime minister may have promised that the project would include government-owned shipbuilder ASC, and create 4000 jobs with local industry contributing “65 to 70 per cent” of the work, but Richter greeted the news with a shrug.

He, like others working on the shipyards to whom The Saturday Paper spoke, tends to default to cynicism whenever a politician makes a new announcement about jobs. In 2015, then prime minister Tony Abbott flew into Adelaide to tell the country Australia’s new submarine fleet would also be manufactured locally, after then defence minister David Johnston said he “wouldn’t trust the ASC to build a canoe” – striking up fears the government was about to send future work on the fleet to Japan.

“Nothing got signed then,” says Richter, who works for ASC at their Osborne shipyards about half-an-hour outside central Adelaide. “Then we had Christopher Pyne last year, he said he had ended the ‘valley of death’ and there would be no more redundancies.

“I started getting phone calls. Everyone out in the public came up to me and said, ‘How good is that? You got a job for life.’ And within a couple of months we started to be made redundant again.”

Richter, who’s just celebrated his 32nd birthday and is expecting a baby with his partner next year, says Turnbull’s latest announcement doesn’t make him feel any safer, as the actual work cutting steel on the Future Frigate Project isn’t going to start until 2022. By then, his kid will be in kindergarten.

Instead, what caught Richter’s attention during Turnbull’s press conference was the presence of Georgina Downer – the Liberal candidate for the seat of Mayo in the fast-approaching Super Saturday byelections. “That was the most disappointing part,” he says. “Another 50 guys got made redundant in the last three weeks and yet the government seemed to hold off [its frigate announcement] until the last second, right before the byelection, to keep it fresh in the public’s mind, at the sake of the shipbuilders losing their jobs.”

For the past two months, as the marathon campaign for the seat of Mayo has ground on, Downer seemingly hasn’t been able to step outside without being flanked by senior Liberal Party members. A few days after the BAE announcement, she was joined by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the Uraidla Hotel in the Adelaide Hills for a campaign fundraiser that set supporters back $5000 a ticket. Then came another appearance with Turnbull, this time on Kangaroo Island, where they were joined by South Australian premier Steven Marshall to announce the redevelopment of tourism trails on the island. Former prime minister John Howard stopped by this week, to campaign with Downer in Victor Harbor and Goolwa, south of Adelaide.

It’s the kind of publicity most first-time candidates would only dream of, but the Liberals have clearly staked their hopes on Downer to fend off the return of Rebekha Sharkie, whose resignation from the House of Representatives over the dual citizenship saga triggered one of the five byelections happening on July 28.

Downer – the daughter of Howard era foreign minister Alexander Downer, who held the seat of Mayo for 23 years until 2008 – is as blue-blooded as they come. Before politics, she spent time as a diplomat and a lawyer, and as an adjunct fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, a free market think tank that counts Senator James Paterson, MP Tim Wilson and Speaker Tony Smith among its alumni.

In her time at the IPA, Downer took some bold stands including calling for the abolition of the minimum wage and penalty rates, and penning a 2016 op-ed for The Sydney Morning Herald, praising the election of Donald Trump as “a big rejection of the international environmental movement and its fatwa against carbon”. During the course of the Mayo campaign, however, Downer has sought to distance herself from her former employer, telling a press conference the IPA’s views were not necessarily her own.

At the same time, Sharkie has worked to position herself in contrast with Downer. She speaks of her “grassroots” campaign, which she took a second mortgage out on her house to fund. She’s been able to pull in her own high-profile supporters, too, including Bob Katter, Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie. And the numbers seem to be in her favour – a recent ReachTEL poll had Sharkie sitting at 62-38 ahead of Downer on a two-party-preferred basis.

If she’s successful, it wouldn’t be the first time the Centre Alliance candidate has triumphed as an outsider. In 2016, she was first elected to the House of Representatives as a member of the Nick Xenophon Team by beating her old boss, Liberal MP Jamie Briggs – a one-time rising star forced to resign from Turnbull’s first ministry after an incident involving a female DFAT staffer at a Hong Kong bar.

With limited resources and a larger margin this time around, Sharkie’s team, who privately refer to her as the “Energiser Bunny”, are hoping the brand she has built up over the past two years will be enough to see her over the line, despite her association with Xenophon.

After Xenophon resigned his federal seat to run unsuccessfully at the South Australian state election, the federal arm of his minor party aimed to mark out their own identity by rebranding as the “Centre Alliance”. This loose grouping includes senators Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick, who have tried to keep up pressure on similar issues to those Xenophon pushed.

Before leaving the Senate, Xenophon obtained the original tender documents for the Future Frigate Project under freedom of information and found it contained language that would have cut the government-owned shipbuilder ASC out of the process.

“The Commonwealth’s intention is that the successful tenderer will (itself or through its Related Corporate Bodies) directly manage and supervise the workforce undertaking shipbuilding work. The responsibility for build management and supervision should not be subcontracted in its entirety to a third party entity,” the document read.

By using the tender process to exclude ASC from working with whichever company won the contract, the government was guaranteeing that for all the money being spent, very little of it would be spent in Australia – at the cost of local industry, skills and experience.

When the Senate committee on the future of Australia’s naval shipbuilding industry handed down its final report the same week of the BAE announcement, it highlighted this and other concerns about attempts to “actively exclude Australian workers and shipbuilders” while raising concerns over government mismanagement.

Rex Patrick, who sat on the committee, says that behind closed doors the pressure on the government had been “tremendous”.

“Towards the end it was rumoured that of the three bidders, BAE was in front. What was a surprise to most was the fact that ASC became the shipbuilder, particularly in the context of the tender. I have never known another country that would try to exclude its own shipbuilder,” he said. “It was a betrayal. In the end, the right decision was made.”

Why?, is the $35 billion question. As for an answer, all signs point towards the Mayo byelection.

“It’s really pissed our members off that this whole thing has been politicised,” says Glenn Thompson, assistant national secretary for the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union. “[Defence] decisions historically have been bipartisan. Australia has a history since federation of stop-start shipbuilding. What we’ve been saying is that an investment up front to maintain that skills base will benefit the taxpayer and the Commonwealth in the long run, otherwise they’ll have to start from scratch.”

Ryan Richter tends to agree. Now he’s facing another round of redundancies, the fifth he has lived through.

“The worst part of that was going back to your family, not knowing,” he says. “You just keep working, working, working, expecting to be made redundant, so you try to do as much overtime as you can, and you don’t go away, and you don’t have a break because you’re expecting to lose your job. It puts a strain on your relationship.

“If I lose my job, I’m gone,” he adds. “I’ll go back to plumbing. Right now? There’s no shipbuilding work. You’ve been made redundant, you can’t sit on your arse and wait … And this is where the problem will be once the work starts up. Good luck trying to find 1500 to 5000 skilled shipbuilders, because a lot of the trained shipbuilders won’t come back.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Future unknown". Subscribe here.

Royce Kurmelovs
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.