No summit, lower workload for Reynolds

·2-min read

Questions have been raised around the future role of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds as a committee heard her responsibilities for major multi-billion-dollar projects have been diluted.

Amid delays, cost blowouts, and disputes over local industry involvement with French and British-led programs, a new panel will provide checks and balances on the planned Attack-class submarines, the future of legacy Collins-class and the Hunter-class vessels that will replace the ageing Anzac frigates.

Giving testimony from the United States, US Vice Admiral William Hilarides told a Senate hearing on Wednesday the panel would provide "frank and fearless" advice to government before projects become a problem, rather than rely on advice from the Defence department.

The Naval Shipbuilding Expert Advisory Panel, a slimmed down version of a previous board, will report to a sub-committee of senior ministers, raising questions for Labor's Penny Wong who is concerned the changes weren't made public until now.

The head of the old board Don Winter has left the Defence payroll and joined Mr Morrison's inner circle as a senior adviser on reduced duties but will still receive $1.5 million over three years, Labor's Penny Wong said.

"I put to you he's been put into that portfolio because the prime minister no longer has confidence in the defence minister," Senator Wong said.

"I absolutely reject the premise of your questions," acting Defence Minister Marise Payne countered.

Defence department secretary Greg Moriarty said there was now a whole-of-government focus on these programs, prompting the governance change.

Adding to uncertainty about Senator Reynolds future, she has decided not to attend a major international conference next month.

She was expected to travel to India in April to attend the Raisina Dialogue after her scheduled return to duties as defence minister at the beginning of next month.

Senator Reynolds has been on leave since February to receive treatment for a pre-existing heart condition, after facing pressure over her handling of the alleged rape of former staffer Brittany Higgins by a colleague.