In the wake of this morning’s historic AUKUS announcement let us not forget the key role of former defense minister Christopher Pyne in the whole French debacle. (Debacle being appropriately a word of French origin.)
Pyne was actually industry minister in April 2016 when his close ally, PM Malcolm Turnbull, awarded the $50 billion contract for 12 new submarines to the French DCNS group.
Even though he was not yet defence minister or even defence industry minister, the attention-loving Pyne was in the media spotlight touting the contract’s benefits for his home state of South Australia.
On the day, Pyne gloated that the announcement would secure the town of Osborne as the centre of naval ship-building into the future.
“This of course means a continuous naval shipbuilding industry for decades into the future which all first-world countries should aspire to,” Pyne crowed.
You could have been forgiven for thinking that securing jobs, including his own in the next election, was the focus of the huge contract, rather than defense or security considerations.
Indeed, the newly former PM Tony Abbott had reportedly favoured the Japanese bid. However, according to the Guardian’s Paul Karp: “South Australian MPs were concerned if Japan was awarded the contract local shipbuilder ASC would miss out on the chance to build the submarines”.
As luck would have it, Pyne did win his seat at the federal election a few months later. Soon after he fortuitously became minister for defence industry, and then in 2018 he was promoted to full defence minister. Unfortunately, he decided to abandon ship at the 2019 election.
In a shock to everyone, including presumably those ministers who had retired prematurely, the Morrison government won reelection, and subsequently frustration with the French submarine boondoggle has escalated in line with its costs — now estimated at around $90 billion.
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One popular politician who is still there relentlessly pursuing the whole French fiasco is Rex Patrick, although being from South Australia he too is often concerned over the whole local job commitment issue.
Indeed, the independent infamously appeared in the Senate chamber last year dressed as a bright red cut-out submarine with the words “save our 700 sub jobs”.
The stunt angered Senate President Scott Ryan who ordered Patrick from the chamber immediately, stating “you’re embarrassing yourself”.
By April this year Senator Patrick was urging Defence to consider dumping the whole French contract, stating it was like a bad marriage and “it’s obvious that divorce should now be discussed, particularly before any children are conceived”.
In the first minutes after AUKUS was announced, Senator Patrick seemed to raise concerns about nuclear submarines. But at least the man is a former Navy submariner, which is more than anybody else involved in this can boast.
Certainly not former Health Department secretary Jane Halton, who only two months ago was appointed to the local board of Naval Group Australia to help the French parent company navigate its fraying relationship with the federal government.
At least she still has her Crown Casino board gig, as that company is not completely sunk yet.