‘We had to bin that deal’: Federal opposition on Attack Class submarine contract

‘We had to bin that deal’: Federal opposition on Attack Class submarine contract

The shadow assistant minister for defence has defended the former Morrison government’s decision to pull the plug on the $90 billion submarine contract with a French shipbuilder, and stressed the need to strengthen AUKUS.

Shadow assistant minister for defence Phillip Thompson

Shadow assistant minister for defence Phillip Thompson joined Momentum Media director Phil Tarrant in a Defence Connect podcast at the recently-held Land Forces 2022 International Land Defence Exposition in Brisbane to discuss the federal opposition’s plans for the defence industry.

During the episode, Mr Thompson addressed the decision by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government to scupper a $90 billion SEA1000 contract with French shipbuilder Naval Group – which was poised to deliver 12 diesel-powered Attack Class submarines to the Royal Australian Navy and replace the ageing Collins Class fleet.

Instead, the former government favoured a nuclear-powered alternative promised under the AUKUS agreement. The decision had received bipartisan support from the then Labor opposition.

“The sub deal, geez didn’t that just go down like a lead balloon,” Mr Thompson told the podcast.

“It needed to happen though. We had to bin that deal. We needed to pull out of that deal. We need to be working with the [United] States and obviously the UK, but more so with the [United] States on this deal.”

The cancellation of the submarine deal had incurred the wrath of French President Emmanuel Macron, who temporarily withdrew French ambassadors from Canberra.

When asked by an Australian journalist if he had felt misled by former prime minister Morrison, President Macron had famously replied, “I don’t think, I know”.

‘President Macron will be fine’

To this, Mr Thompson responded: “Do you care if you’ve got people in Europe and a president that get a bit upset or do you want the best equipment for our defence force and to keep us safe? That’s who I care about.

“I understand there’s diplomacy and we want to be friends with everyone but at the end of the day, I’ve got to look at sailors, aviators, and soldiers in the eye and their families and tell them that we’re getting the best equipment for them.

“We will now hopefully, if [the Labor government] keep on the trajectory that we’ve lined out. And I’m sure that President Macron will be fine.”

In September 2021, the former Morrison government – along with his UK and US counterparts – announced that Australia plans to build a fleet of nuclear submarines in Adelaide with the support of the US and UK as part of a brand-new trilateral agreement (dubbed AUKUS).

The technology sharing and support agreement formed part of a new “trilateral security partnership” between the countries, which are expected to undertake knowledge sharing to enable the Royal Australian Navy to attain a nuclear-powered fleet.

This was the first time such knowledge-sharing has taken place in over six decades.

“AUKUS has strengthened and is strengthening and it needs to keep on that trajectory,” Mr Thompson asserted.

Meanwhile, the Albanese government recently reached a settlement worth €555 million (A$830 million) with Naval Group to compensate for the cancellation of the former Attack Class submarine contract.

Fate of MH-90 an ongoing concern

When asked what the defence policy priorities are for the federal opposition, shadow minister for defence Andrew Hastie and himself, Mr Thompson was quick to respond that the fate of the troubled MH-90 Taipan fleet (operated by both the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy) remains a concern.

The Albanese government is yet to determine the future of the Airbus-built fleet, with the helicopters rumoured to be replaced by an expanded fleet of Sikorsky-built MH-60R Seahawk/Romeo helicopters and the potential acquisition of 40 UH-60M Black Hawks.

However, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles recently said that the Taipan program remains “under review”.

“Well, the review of the Taipans is continuing, no decision has been made in relation to that,” he said.

“But we have made clear that we are reviewing that capability, and we’re looking at other options that could fulfil that capability, particularly Black Hawks, in the future.”

This followed reports that French President Emmanuel Macron plans to lobby the Albanese government to retain the Taipan fleet, which if replaced, would cease operation 10 years ahead of the initial decommissioning timeline.

Minister Marles said the government has been transparent with President Macron and French Minister for Defence Sébastien Lecornu about concerns over the Taipan fleet.

He added that he would raise the issue during President Macron’s scheduled visit to Australia in November.

Mr Thompson noted this hurdle in the podcast “because we have President Macron not liking that very much and coming over to Australia to defend the MH-90”.

He concluded: “I've met with Richard on this and he knows my stance, and he understands it… When you get wounded in combat, or you need to resupply, you don’t want the MH-90 that takes off 50 per cent of the time. You want the Black Hawk.

“We're trying to work with the government to get what the soldiers want, not what some general or president wants. I don't care what they want. I want what keeps our people safe.”

To listen to the full podcast with shadow assistant minister for defence Phillip Thompson, click here:

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