Shipbuilding plan is nation-building: PM

Tim Dornin
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Shipbuilding plan is nation-building: PM

The federal government has hailed its $89 billion naval shipbuilding plan as "unashamedly nationalistic", ensuring the security of Australia's maritime borders and the country's economic future.

The program, based mostly in Adelaide, will produce 12 submarines, nine frigates and 12 offshore patrol vessels for the Australian navy as well as 19 Pacific patrol boats to be given to neighbouring countries.

It includes $1.3 billion to upgrade the Osborne Naval Shipyard in Adelaide and the plant at Henderson in Western Australia and $25 million to establish a naval shipbuilding college, also in Adelaide.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the program is the largest single commonwealth investment in any state and will triple Adelaide's shipbuilding workforce to more than 5000 by 2026.

Another 10,000 jobs will be provided in sustainment activities and the supply chain.

But unions have warned about the potential for job losses before the program kicks in and the South Australian government says there's still a lack of detail on how much money will be spent in Australia.

Mr Turnbull came to Adelaide on Tuesday to reveal the plan which includes a timeline of construction work stretching out to 2055.

"This is a continuous shipbuilding commitment, not just for today or tomorrow but generations to come," he said.

"This is truly nation-building, a great national enterprise and it brings with it that enormous employment boost.

"It is unashamedly nationalistic."

Industry group Australian Made Defence said the plan provided long-term certainty around the government's approach to shipbuilding but identified securing the necessary workforce as a key challenge, with some likely to come from overseas.

"Developing a sufficiently skilled workforce in such a short timeframe represents the greatest risk to our success," spokeswoman Margot Forster said.

"Industry acknowledges that in the short-term, skilled workers from international shipyards may be required to work on these programs."

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne said only a "minuscule" number of workers would come from overseas, to allow for a transfer of technical expertise to the local workforce.

"We can't just learn that from reading a manual. We'll need them here," he said.

Mr Pyne also pointed to the government's plan to establish the shipbuilding college which was expected to graduate 1500 students each year.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union said the federal government must take urgent action to secure the future of the existing shipbuilding workforce in Adelaide.

"On our figures, around 500 existing jobs are at risk before major building operations commence next year," assistant national secretary Glenn Thompson said.

"If we lose this expertise we really will be starting these projects from a long way behind, in terms of using the projects to enhance domestic shipbuilding capability and expertise."

The union called on the government to mandate minimum levels of Australian industry participation in all shipbuilding contracts, a sentiment backed by the South Australian government.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the prime minister had "failed the jobs test" in not ruling out further job losses in SA's shipbuilding industry.

"For the last four years the Liberals have played political games over the submarines and in the meantime, we've seen Osborne and other places go backwards," Mr Shorten said.

"We're seeing shipyards all around Australia under pressure or closing."