News that the government is likely to buy submarines from Japan rather than build them in South Australia has dismayed — but not really surprised — SA manufacturing workers. Reaction has generally been muted, but around 1200 ASC (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation) workers rallied during their lunch break on Tuesday, with the assent and (presumably) support of their employer, whipped into an angry fervour by union officials, including Labor Leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s old mate David Feeney, now a Labor spokesman on defence matters, was at Shorten’s side, and the Opposition Leader deferred to him on any questions of genuine substance or fact. Shorten’s lot was more the platitudes and fire-and-brimstone throwaways, but delivered with neither fire nor brimstone.

He adopted a weird “union-heavy” persona when he stepped onto the makeshift hustings on the back of a ute.

“Under Labor,” he barked in the manner of someone shooting for Winston Churchill but landing on Ted Whitten, “we will build ships and submarines in Australia … because we love this country!”

The workers applauded. They love this country too.

But like the Labor faithful at SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s election launch, they didn’t seem enraptured. Shorten’s address, while robust, was strangely lifeless. He attempted to mount a national security argument for the subs deal on the grounds that “long-term national security relies on having our own ability to build the equipment for our defence forces, so we can protect the best country in the world”. (That’s Australia, in case you were wondering.)

The rhetoric was empty, silly. It tacitly belittled his audience, the ASC workers, assuming them to be simplistic, xenophobic, jingoistic. He assumed ranting about the unquestionable quality of local manufacture and raving about national pride would win him brownie points. Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national secretary Paul Bastian sung from a similar song sheet, literally in fact; he tried to gee the crowd up with some military-style call-and-respond chants, although he quickly lost the rhyme and metre. But his point was succinctly made in the stanza: “They gave our jobs to the Japanese!”

It was never quite clear whether the real outrage was the likely lost contract or the fact it appeared destined for the Land of the Rising Sun.

“There was little confidence to be taken from his ‘unequivocal’ pledge that Labor would build subs in Australia, particularly when he twice refused to explicitly explain whether that included tearing up existing contracts if elected.”

“The last time we had a Japanese sub in Australia it was in Sydney Harbour,” cried a voice from the crowd at one point.

Shorten tried to illustrate Australia’s island vulnerability by recalling the merchant ships that were sunk off the coast in the World War II. I imagined his Basil Fawlty-esque debrief: “Look, we’re talking about Japan, so don’t mention the war; I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it!”

Perhaps we’re just lucky no one pointed out the other frontrunner for our maritime business is Germany.

Shorten had one thing right, when he told the ASC employees: “You are the victims of a lie.” (Even if it is a lie in which Labor has been culpable, by failing in office to safeguard the contract Kevin Rudd pledged five years ago.)

There is no mistaking that the Coalition has walked away from an explicit election commitment. Back in 2010 and as recently as last year, Defence Minister David Johnston expressly reiterated his commitment to a dozen new submarines being built at ASC in Adelaide. Even without a final decision to the contrary having been taken, the federal government is now unwilling to confirm this commitment still stands. So the promise is already broken; it has abandoned the guarantee. If ASC is to win the contract (and the tea leaves suggest it won’t), a case must be made to convince the Commonwealth it is worthy of winning it.

Needless to say, Shorten did not make that case.

The workers he addressed knew it. There was little confidence to be taken from his “unequivocal” pledge that Labor would build subs in Australia, particularly when he twice refused to explicitly explain whether that included tearing up existing contracts if elected.

The first time he enigmatically explained there was “no way any person of conscience can reward Tony Abbott for lying”, before rambling off on a shallow political tangent that concluded with the pearler: “Torpedo Tony has torpedoed the Australian shipbuilding industry, and Labor’s never going to stand for that.”

None the wiser, the reporter asked the same question again, to an even more mysterious response: “If this government is committing us to 50 years and multiple billions of dollars, I don’t think future governments automatically have to be bound to every mistake of the current government.”

Got that?

You could almost see Shorten smirking to his adviser in the back of his chauffeured car as they drove off: “Did you like that line about Torpedo Tony? It just came to me!”

“That was brilliant, Bill; that’s sure to get a run on TV!”

And maybe it did, somewhere.

If the Coalition has truly abandoned its iron-clad guarantee, ASC’s workers and South Australian manufacturing depend on an argument being made that can convince the Commonwealth to invest $30 billion in local shipbuilding. They need to hope Shorten’s isn’t the best one they’ve got.

*This article was originally published at InDaily

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