Prime Minister Tony Abbott has laughed off suggestions that the Government should have an open tender process for Australia’s new fleet of submarines, saying that could result in “Kim Jong-il class submarines” or “Vladimir Putin submarines”.
Mr Abbott made the claim during Question Time on Wednesday after days of controversy over whether Australian workers will be able build the navy’s multi-billion dollar new submarine fleet.
He was attempting to deflect scrutiny on the exact meaning of the “competitive evaluation process” promised by Mr Abbott in place of a tender process, which many in his own government have struggled to define.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten asked: “If the Prime Minister did not promise (South Australian Liberal) Senator (Sean) Edwards a full and open tender, what precisely did the Prime Minister promise to obtain his vote?”
Mr Abbott responded by accusing the Opposition of wanting to allow “anyone to be able to compete to provide Australia’s next generation submarines”.
“He might want the Russians to compete. The Putin class subs,” said the PM.
He then went even further, saying: “Well, we could have Kim Jong-il class submarines, Vladimir Putin submarines.”
“You cannot trust the Opposition with the defence of this country but you can with this Government.”
Defence journalist Max Blenkin says it is unlikely that either country would make a bid.
“For one thing, tendering for high-tech defence projects is expensive, typically running into the tens of millions. A Russian firm would not embark on such considerable expense knowing it would not have the remotest chance of success,” Mr Blenkin wrote for AAP.
“Australia has never bought Russian defence kit and will not start now, especially for a sub that is not close to meeting our needs.”
Opposition defence spokesman Stephen Conroy has noted an open tender process is not that open, because the government can easily decide who gets to bid.
The purchase of new submarines is an ongoing headache for the Liberal government.
Mr Abbott reportedly made assurances to South Australian members of his party on the eve of Monday’s spill motion to allow Adelaide shipbuilders to be considered to build the subs, which some have suggested was a cynical move to strengthen his majority.
There are unconfirmed reports that the Prime Minister has already inked a secret deal with the Japanese government to design the fleet, which would negate any promises made to Australian shipbuilders.
Mr Abbott denies this.
“We are certainly talking to the Japanese … but we are not just talking to the Japanese. We are also talking to the French and the Germans and the Australian Shipbuilding Company.”
Mr Abbott then blamed Labor for “sitting on their hands” for six years. During the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, the Labor party did not secure a contract to renew the outdated submarine fleet.
Mr Abbott accused Mr Shorten of xenophobia by opposing a likely Japanese bid.
“He says we can’t possibly have Japanese involvement in the submarine contract because of what happened in Sydney Harbour,” he said, referring to the Japanese submarine attacks on Sydney Harbour in 1942 during World War II.
The new submarines project will be Australia’s largest defence procurement, estimated to be worth $20-40 billion.
– with AAP, ABC