Submarines docking in WA still under water

·2-min read

Moving full-cycle docking for Collins class submarines to Western Australia, or not, is just one of the decisions the absent Defence Minister Linda Reynolds must make, Labor says.

"The government can't evade scrutiny on these important and expensive contracts," opposition defence spokesman Brendan O'Connor told AAP.

Future frigates and submarines, cost blowouts, timeline slippage and the mental health and the well-being of veterans are all on the radar according to a letter sent by Senator Kimberley Kitching to acting defence minister Marise Payne to aid accountability.

The opposition will call on Senator Reynolds for an extra day of testimony to a senate estimates hearing when she returns to work in April, if they're not satisfied with this week's answers.

Labor's Penny Wong on Tuesday accused the Morrison government of giving themselves "cover" for the FCD delay, saying defence officials had been briefing the industry that it may only take three to four years lead time.

"Realistically, I would say 2026 is the best option," the CEO of shipbuilder ASC, Stuart Whiley, said.

"It could be earlier but it would increase the risk."

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said a decision "will be made at an appropriate time", after the government delayed a ruling in 2019 and again failed to make a decision by the end of last year.

He rejected criticism that the Collins class was being "cast aside", arguing the submarine was critical as a bridge to the new Attack class being developed with France's Naval Group.

As WA and South Australia vie for defence industry and workforce supremacy, the navy won't see the first of the Attack class submarines until 2035 as costs blow out to $80 billion.

Senator Birmingham said he was not going to "feed speculation" about "cabinet matters" when asked by independent senator Rex Patrick about reports of a "Plan B, son of Collins" with Swedish Saab to patrol the South China Sea.

The WA government argues work on Attack class submarines and Hunter class frigates will be in full production by the mid-2020s at ASC's Osborne shipyard on the Lefevre Peninsula in South Australia, putting pressure on infrastructure and the workforce.

But Australian Naval Infrastructure chief executive Andrew Seaton told the hearing his site in South Australia can accommodate "either decision on full-cycle docking".

Senator Payne announced a "milestone" for the future submarine program and local jobs after negotiations between Defence and Naval Group.

She said Naval Group's commitment to spend at least 60 per cent of the contract value in Australia over the life of the 12 boat fleet program will be formally included in the Strategic Partnering Agreement.