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Tony Abbott's Landing Helicopter Crock

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Tony Abbott says the Government has taken $21 billion out of Defence spending and shipyards are in trouble, but is he telling the truth? Investigative reporter Vince O' Grady reports.

Tony ''''High Vis'''' Abbott at the Williamstown Dockyards (Image courtesy AAP)
'High Vis' Tony Abbott at the Williamstown Dockyards (Image courtesy AAP)

CUE TONY ABBOTT, with another photo stop in front of a new Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) on 27 March. What was he going to say this time? Whose fault was it? How incompetent were the Government? And how many white chargers did he have in his stable today?

The answer was two shadows and himself. Once again, Abbott had come to cleanse the temple of the incompetence of the Gillard Government. This time it was different though — he had a new line and two whopping big new lies to tell about how bad they were and how good he was.

As always, the devil is in the detail. In true Independent Australia fashion, we asked the questions about his assertions and found them to be blatantly untrue. It was easy to ask the questions, and if IA hadn’t, Abbott would have got away with the two biggest whopping lies that have yet been told in Australian politics this year.

The most frightening thing about this story is that, apparently, the press have stopped asking questions. They just reprint Abbott’s assertions without question.

*****

As I watched the Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, I knew that he was at the Government and the prime minister again. It was 27 March.

This wasn’t so much as a dog whistle, this was more like a boson’s whistle. Behind him was one of two of the Landing Helicopter Docks that are being built for the Australian Navy by BAE Systems Australia.

AbbottsMakover

This was the old bruiser Tony, not that new SNAG Anthony (as produced by 60 Minutes). Not one to beat around the bush when he could verbally beat up the government, he threw the first series of punches [IA emphasis]:

It is terrific to be here at BAE Systems at the Williamstown Dock. It’s a dockyard which has been here for more than 100 years. It is a very important site if our defence forces are to have the equipment that they need to do their job in the years to come. It is great to be here with David Johnston and Stuart Robert, my Defence Shadow Ministers.

It is very important that the Government appropriately support our defence forces and that means appropriately supporting the dockyards and the other defence suppliers who are necessary to ensure that our defence forces get the equipment that they need.

Because of delays and cuts in defence, because of the $21 billion that has been taken out of defence spending over the last few years under this government, dockyards like this are in a degree of difficulty at the moment and certainly I call on the Government to do what is necessary to ensure that dockyards like this have the appropriate work to keep going in the months and years ahead. They are a very important part of Australia’s defences and the one thing that we need to be certain of is that the defence of Australia is in good hands.

There were two statements in this statement that deserved further investigation.

Firstly, I wanted to check to see if in fact the contractor who was operating the Williamstown dockyard was in difficulty.

Tony Abbott was standing in front of a new class of ship known as the LHD project, which is a seaborne Landing Helicopter Dock. Two of these ships are being built for the Royal Australian Navy by BAE Systems Australia as the prime contractor. The major subcontractors are called Navantia, Saab and L-3 Communications. They are being built under contract Joint Project 2048 Phase 4A/4B.

LHD
(Click on image to read the full document.)

Navantia is building the hulls in Spain and then the hulls are being transported to Australia to have the superstructure and other systems fitted. They are the largest ships ever built for the RAN at 28,000 tonnes. The value of the contract is between $2 and $3 Billion and the contract was let in 2006 by the Howard government.

Abbott reminds us of that later in the ship stop that his regret

...is that right now, under the current Government, because of the $21 billion that has been taken out of defence spending over the last few budgets. We now have defence spending as a percentage of GDP at the lowest level since 1938 and set to fall further in the years ahead.

This is the second thing that I wanted to check. If, in fact, the funding of Defence had reduced by $21 billion and whether the Williamstown facility of BAE systems was under difficulty.

I searched the Internet for BAE Systems Australia and went to their media page and found that their senior communications manager was Ms Kaye Noske. Her email address was on the website.

I fired off an email at 6.30am on 28 March and introduced myself from Independent Australia and my interest in Tony Abbott saying that the Williamstown dockyard was in a degree of difficulty at the moment.

I also asked secondary questions about BAE systems role in Australian shipbuilding.

At 11.53am the same day, I received a response from Ms Noske.

It is worthwhile printing the response in full.

Hi Vincent

Thanks for your email.

I have attached a fact sheet on the Landing Helicopter Dock project for your background.

In response to your other questions:

BAE Systems Australia operates commercial maritime repair and maintenance services from shipyards in Victoria (Williamstown) and Western Australia (Henderson).

LHD2

For more than 30 years, we have been the leading capability provider to the Royal Australian Navy, through such projects as:

*       Construction of complex hull blocks for the Air Warfare Destroyer project

*       Construction and through life support of the Navy's ANZAC (FFH) and Guided Missile (FFG) class Frigates

*       Integration of the new Anti-Ship Missile Defence system for the ANZAC Class Frigates.

The Williamstown yard is at full capacity as we work to deliver the Navy's two biggest ever ships over the next three years.

*       Our main focus is on successfully completing the complex naval projects we have under contract today (including delivering the Navy's two biggest ever ships ever built over the next three years) and on securing additional naval and commercial work to ensure that we create a viable, profitable long-term future at Williamstown that will allow us to retain and continue to grow the capabilities of our hundreds of highly skilled employees.

*       We have been bidding on a number of opportunities for commercial ship repair, oil and gas fabrication work and naval ship service and support. We are also preparing to bid on the naval shipbuilding projects that the Commonwealth is developing for the Royal Australian Navy in the future.

*       We have invested heavily, with the support of the Victorian Government, in the modernisation of the Williamstown yard, its equipment and the facilities needed for contemporary naval shipbuilding and integration projects.

*       Naval shipbuilding capability over the long-term can only be maintained by working on the kinds of projects that make use of that capability.  Well managed companies consider both the short term and the long term picture in developing plans and options for its facilities.

*       BAE Systems is in discussions with the Federal Government about the need for additional naval work in Williamstown, because we are facing a significant reduction in workload starting in 2013. (AWD Ship 3 blocks under construction now will be completed mid-year.)

*       BAE Systems has also expressed interest in doing more AWD work (to the AWD Alliance).  We believe that it would be in everyone's interest to continue utilising the skilled and experienced workforce in Williamstown on that project.

If you need anything further, please let me know.

Cheers

K

Kaye Noske
Senior Communications Manager
BAE Systems Australia

It looks like BAE have done a pretty good job for Australia for a while now. Just like any business, BAE systems are planning to have ongoing work for their workforce. The nature of ship building and especially procurement for the Royal Australian Navy is not an ‘off the shelf’ proposition.

LHD3

The tone of Tony Abbott’s ship stop tended to suggest that the Labor government were not doing the right thing by the people of Australia by underfunding the forces and hence not providing enough jobs to Australians in defence related projects.

At 12.26pm, the same day, I emailed Ms Noske two further questions.

1. Given the size of the Australian Navy, is it a sustainable proposition to have 1200 workers in the Williamstown dockyard on an ongoing basis working on Australian navy Ships?

2. And in relation to question one why did you as the prime contractor, elect to build the hulls of these ships in Spain rather than in Australia? Capacity of workforce? Skills? Or size of dockyard facilities? Or a mixture of  reasons.

Her reply at 1.09pm was as follows:

Hi Vincent

1/ The size of our workforce at Williamstown relates to the amount of work they have to do. The size of our workforce has no bearing at all on the size of the RAN.

 2/ The LHD is based on the Spanish Juan Carlos 1 design. But the combat and communications systems specified by the Australian Government are very different to those used by the Spanish.

In bidding for this project a number of years ago, we proposed this solution to ensure that we could deliver a product that meet the customer’s very stringent requirements.

I hope this is useful.

Yes Kaye, thank you, it was.

Former PM John Howard and the head of his "Praetorian Guard" Tony Abbott (image courtesy Herald Sun).

The Australian Government that signed the contract was a Coalition Government under John Howard. So it’s a bit rich of Tony Abbott to stand in front of a ship contracted under his former Government and say that because of this Government and it’s reduction of $21Bn that the ship yard "is in a degree of difficulty at the moment".

The part of the ship that is being built in Australia is the superstructure, the hull was constructed in Spain.

It seems to me that Tony Abbott is once again being loose with the truth.

On the second part of the question; "because of the $21 billion that has been taken out of defence spending over the last few years", I wrote an email to the Media Unit of the Department of Defence in Canberra:

Can you please confirm whether the figure of $21 billion is correct and give me a breakdown of the Year on year reductions to defence spending that amount to this $21 bn.

That same day, I received a call back from MediaOps at Defence and spoke to a pleasant young lady, who informed me that my questions would be answered by Thursday of next week. She apologised as to the delay but reminded me that it was Easter. The young lady also confirmed that I would have answers to the $21 billion and also a year-by-year breakup of the figures in Defence.

As promised, on Thursday 4 April the following email was received from MediaOps at the Department of Defence.

UNCLASSIFIED

Good afternoon Vincent,

Please find a response to your Defence media enquiry below. Please attribute this to a Defence spokesperson, not a named individual.

Question 1: Can you please confirm whether the figure of $21 Bn is correct

Question 2: Give me a breakdown of the Year on year reductions to defence spending that amount to this $21 bn.

Response to questions 1 and 2:

Since 2009-10, savings measures of around 9 billion have been applied to Defence as follows:

- the 2011-12 Budget included savings measures of $2.766 billion over the period 2011-12 to 2020-21, as published in table 11, page 28 of Defence’s Portfolio Budget Statements 2011-12.

- the 2011-12 Additional Estimates included additional savings measures of $0.670 billion over the period 2011-12 to, 2021-22 as published in table 12, page 21 of the Portfolio Additional Estimates Statements 2011-12.

- the 2012-13 Budget included savings of $5.454 billion to be returned to Government over the period 2012-13 to 2015-16, as published in tables 4 and 5, page 17 of Defence’s Portfolio Budget Statements 2012-13.

Defence’s statutory documents are publicly available at http://www.defence.gov.au/budget/.

In the 2011-12 Portfolio Additional Estimates Statements, Defence’s Budget across the Forward Estimates period was $103.4 billion. In the 2012-13 Budget, the Government has budgeted $103.3 billion for Defence across the four year Forward Estimates period.

This level of funding will maintain Australia’s status in the top 15 nations in terms of world Defence expenditure, along with Canada, either 13th or 14th in that list. As a percentage of GDP, at 1.6 per cent, Australia is comparable to Canada, Italy and Germany.

On a per capita basis, Australia continues to be 2nd on the list of military expenditure within the G7 countries and China, with only the United States spending more per capita. In real dollar terms, we spend far greater than any of our regional neighbours.

As part of the 2012-13 Budget, there was also a significant reprioritisation to ensure that funding is directed to high priority areas. Some of the high priority areas targeted for additional funding includes $700 million for the Collins Class submarine sustainment and $270 million additional funding for Navy fleet sustainment.

The reprioritisation of Defence expenditure has been designed to have minimum impact on the delivery of core Defence capabilities and improve the support to critical areas.

Kindest regards,

Media Operations | Department of Defence

What are voters to conclude from all of this?

(Image courtesy PerthNow.)

Just to reiterate, Tony Abbott made the two propositions, namely:

  1. shipyards like Williamstown are in a degree of difficulty at the moment; and

  2. because of the $21 billion that has been taken out of Defence spending over the last few years.

I asked the people who actually run the ship yard and the people who are responsible for the defence budget spending, the Department of Defence.

You will note the absence of me asking a question of a politician, only the people who know the facts.

It seems to me that the people who know the facts have given completely different answers to Tony Abbott/s assertions above.

To précis BAE systems, they are at full capacity with the two LHD class ships for the next three years and are looking for ongoing commercial and other work from the Australian Government.

AND

Whilst there has been a realignment of defence spending over the years mentioned in the Defence email, it does not amount to $21 billion and does not in any case diminish the CORE defence capability of the country. Further to that, the savings are for the budget years from 2011-12 to 2020-21, which includes years which are in the future.

For the record, the total Appropriations (Bill No 1) for Defence for the 2012-2013 year are $24.198 billion.

So, Tony Abbott’s ship stop and his statements have hit a storm force gale of rebuttal.

One has to wonder about the things that Tony Abbott says.

And this is the man who calls Julia Gillard a liar!



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