Former defence minister David Johnson, who once declared he would not trust government shipyard ASC to “build a canoe”, now believes the Adelaide-based company should play a major role in the construction of Australia’s most high-tech warships.
In 2014, Mr Johnston could not hide his frustration with ASC’s performance, but now the former Liberal senator is backing ASC and its West Australian partner Austal in a bid to win work on Australia’s $35 billion Future Frigate program.
“The shipbuilders, the management of the yard, should be Australian,” Mr Johnston told the ABC.
“We have a world-class shipbuilder in Austal, teaming with ASC who has come out of the doldrums — it had a lot of problems when I was the minister, a lot of problems, and now it’s doing world-class work.
“Why are we not getting them to participate in this? I find it very, very curious.”
Spanish company Navantia, UK firm BAE Systems and Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri have been shortlisted in a fierce competition to design, build and sustain nine new anti-submarine warfare frigates to replace Australia’s existing Anzac frigate fleet.
Defence has warned any change to the current tender could delay the project by at least two years, but Mr Johnston questioned that argument.
“I’m surprised that the wording of the tender virtually excludes Australian actual builders — now, I don’t understand why that is,” he said.
“The skill and ability that I’ve talked of is there, is available for all to see, and can be utilised contractually — so this business of a two-year delay in the tender I find quite curious,” he said.
ASC said it welcomed Mr Johnston’s comments “as recognition of the enormous progress we have made in building Australia’s most complex warships”, adding its “performance has dramatically improved in recent years”.