The friggin’ frigates farnarkel

We might not actually get “continuous shipbuilding” but South Australians are assured of continuous absurdities as we continue to chase the naval dream, writes Matthew Abraham.

Feb 23, 2024, updated Feb 23, 2024
Premier Peter Malinauskas at Osborne after the federal government announced SA would build six naval frigates instead of the nine first announced. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Premier Peter Malinauskas at Osborne after the federal government announced SA would build six naval frigates instead of the nine first announced. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The scene: Captain’s quarters, onboard a Royal Australian Navy frigate, somewhere off the coast of Outer Harbor, Gulf St Vincent.

Able Seaman Jenkins knocks timidly on the cabin door.

Captain: Come.

Jenkins enters the cabin, snaps to attention and salutes.

Permission to speak, sir.

As you were sailor. Remind me of your name again. It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Jenkins, sir. Able Seaman Jenkins.

Ah yes, Jenkins. I thought the face was familiar. Stand at ease, sailor. Now, what’s the problem? Is the radar down?

It’s always down, sir. They say it should be back in service in the next month. Or two. We’re just waiting on parts from Hong Kong.

Excellent news. Well, is the crew planning a mutiny (snorts) over the new dietary guidelines in the mess? The order to take fairy bread off the menu came from the highest level.

No sir, nothing that serious.

Well, what is it, Jenkins? Spit it out. I haven’t got all day.

It’s the Navy’s new Surface Fleet Plan (Jenkins makes “air quotes” with his fingers), sir.

You’re talking about the Albanese Government’s sweeping plan to increase our surface fleet from 11 to 20 major combatants, along with six large drone-style “optionally crewed vessels” with a total price tag of $11.1 billion, increasing defence spending from the current 2 per cent of GDP to 2.4 pc eventually? A first-class plan, and I’m not just saying that because I played no small part in knocking it up.

That’s the one, sir.

What about it, Jenkins?

Well, I don’t know how to put this sir, but me and the crew just don’t understand it. It’s confusing. We’re calling it the friggin’ frigates farnakel.

That’s bordering on insubordination! It’s clear as the deep blue sea to me.

If I may explain sir. For starters, South Australia was promised it would build nine Hunter Class frigates at its Osborne shipyards. Now it’s only getting six. But their Premier Peter Malinauskas says this is great news for the state because it’ll mean jobs forever.

He’s the Premier, Jenkins, he’s got to say that. What’s he going to say? We’ve been dudded?

Umm, haven’t they been? Six isn’t really nine, is it?

No, it’s not. Of course they’ve been dudded. But strictly between us, they’re lucky to get six. Trust me, Jenkins, those boats are about as useful as flyscreens on a submarine. If we had our way, we’d scrap the lot.

The original budget for nine ships was $45 billion but we think it’s blown out to almost $65 billion, give or take a few billion, nobody’s quite sure. Now floating just six ships is going to cost $45 billion. And they haven’t popped a single rivet yet. They’re a money pit.

Jenkins whistles: That’s $7.5 billion a ship. Couldn’t the Chinese build them cheaper than that?

Of course they could, Jenkins. They build everything cheaper and faster than we can. But the federal government has promised “continuous naval shipbuilding” for Osborne, so we’ve got to give them something to keep them occupied. Besides, it’d be a bad look to have the enemy, who is also our largest trading partner, building our warships, wouldn’t it?

I guess so, sir. It’s all pretty weird though. I mean, how can they call it “continuous naval shipbuilding” when Australia won’t have built and delivered a single new warship between 2020 and 2032?

That’s easy, Jenkins. It’s a typo. The phrase is meant to be “continuously talking about naval shipbuilding”.

Just a couple more questions, sir. This new plan includes building 11 “tier-2 general purpose warships”, right?

Correct, Jenkins. And what’s wrong with that?

Well, the first three will be built overseas, somewhere, and the remaining eight will be built at Henderson shipyards, south of Fremantle. But wasn’t all our “major combatant” work meant to be given to SA?

(The captain rolls his eyes) Y-e-e-s-s-s, but WA has a boatload of federal seats the ALP needs to hold if it wants to win the next election. It’s how all our defence spending is worked out.

If you’d been paying attention, Premier Malinauskas explained this was always the plan. He said Osborne only got to build a few smaller boats to have … what were his exact words … (shuffles through typed transcripts on his desk) … ah yes, here it is … an “ameliorating impact on the valley of death”.

What does that mean, sir?

Haven’t got a clue, Jenkins. He says stuff like that all the time. We need an Enigma machine to decode the guy. Anything else bothering the crew?

Well, we’re a bit puzzled by these “optionally crewed” boats.

Drones, Jenkins. Big, wet drones. Brilliant concept. Haven’t a clue how they’ll work, even the Yanks can’t figure it out, but you have to admit they sound impressive. Just imagine, a warship that doesn’t need a crew. (The captain looks wistfully out the cabin’s porthole).

Yes, sir, I can see the attraction. But Defence Minister Marles says the optionally crewed boats will have crews. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

He has to say that, Jenkins. We haven’t told him we’re having so much trouble keeping and recruiting sailors that pretty soon our entire fleet will be “optionally crewed”.

Just one last thing that’s troubling us below decks. While we’re waiting for the first of these new ships to be floated, sometime after 2030, the Navy is going to mothball two of our existing frigates, one immediately and one in 2026.

Yes, Jenkins. They’re floating heaps of junk. Totally obsolete. Couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

And one of them is HMAS Anzac?

Yes, Jenkins. And the problem is?

But sir, that’s our ship. The one we’re on now.

Ah. I’ve been meaning to talk to you all about that.

And with two fewer frigates, won’t that make our Navy smaller, not bigger?

A minor detail, Jenkins. We try not to get bogged down in trifling matters like that. The main focus of the Navy’s top brass is protecting jobs. Our jobs, to be precise.

I think I‘m beginning to get a handle on this new Surface Fleet Plan, sir.

Thanks heavens. Now get back to work. You’ve got a friggin’ frigate to sink. This one.

Aye, aye, Sir.

*This conversation is entirely fictional. Names, ranks and location have been changed for national security purposes and to protect the innocent.

And Another Thing

Last week’s column tackled the issue of politicians promising big, then telling voters they should read the fine print.

Premier Peter Malinauskas has now taken this to a whole new level.

On 5IVEaa breakfast on Tuesday, David Penberthy and Will Goodings pressed him on the Commonwealth’s promise that Adelaide would get to build nine Hunter class frigates, not the six announced this week. Let’s tune in.

Malinauskas: Well no, this is an important point…

Penberthy: Because the promise was nine though?

Malinauskas: That’s right, it was a press release committing to nine, but no dollars and your experience would tell you politicians make announcements in the form of press releases but until the rubber hits the road, by contracts being signed, dollars being put in the budget, then it doesn’t become real, it doesn’t start employing people (on) the scale that we expect.

There you have it. Don’t worry about the fine print. A promise in a press release isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

*This conversation is not fictional.

Matthew Abraham is InDaily’s political columnist. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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