SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s defence minister on Wednesday apologised after saying he would not trust the government-owned submarine firm “to build a canoe”, comments that fuelled expectations that most work in a A$40 billion ($34 billion) programme will go offshore.
Reuters reported in September that Australia was leaning towards buying as many as 12 off-the-shelf stealth submarines from Japan.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott had previously pledged the submarines would be built in South Australia, where unemployment exceeds the national average, but his government began back-pedalling in July, signalling cost and schedule were paramount.
Responding to questions in the Australian Senate on Tuesday, Defence Minister David Johnston highlighted a A$350 million-plus cost over-run on building three air warfare destroyer ships and a lack of submarine design experience at Australian Submarine Corp (ASC).
“You wonder why I am worried about ASC and what they are delivering to the Australian taxpayer. Do you wonder why I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe?” Johnston told lawmakers.
“Let’s get real here … This is a professional programme that is about national security, and we will take the advice of the service chiefs, not somebody who is looking for a job.”
Johnston on Wednesday told the Senate his comments were a regretable “rhetorical flourish”.
“I was directing my remarks at a legacy of issues and and certainly not the workers in ASC who may have in my regret taken offence at those remarks. I consider them to be world class,” he said, adding no decision had been made on the submarine programme.