The state’s role in securing contracts and work associated with the defence industry will continue to grow.
The establishment of a defence industries portfolio by the McGowan government in 2017 no doubt came as a surprise to many Western Australians.
After all, given the federal government has responsibility for the defence of the Commonwealth, what could the portfolio hope to achieve on a state level?
In fact, the portfolio is not only important to WA, attaining consistency in knowledge across the portfolio is of critical importance.
Commonwealth-controlled bodies make decisions on defence matters, as do many prime contractors who engage local business in their supply chains or support networks. Major contracts, minor contracts and subcontract involvements are awarded with no direct influence from state government. This does not, however, preclude the state from playing an important role.
Infrastructure decisions and spending can transform the competitive landscape for WA businesses; creating conditions attractive to major prime contractors can generate employment and training opportunities and improve WA’s overall candidacy for significant programs.
State opposition defence issues spokesman Sean L'Estrange said the portfolio was vital to WA because of key defence industry contracts that supported the economy, and because of the importance of developing local strategic defence capability assets.
Mr L'Estrange notes comments by federal Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price, who said 400 direct and 600 indirect jobs would be created through the construction of the Arafura class offshore patrol vessels, currently under way in Henderson.
WA undoubtedly has expertise in the maritime sector in construction and sustainment, and this can sometimes overshadow other areas of significant expertise in the state.
“In addition to ship building and its IT and weapons systems componentry, WA also has businesses involved in the research and development of unmanned aerial vehicles and communications and digital technologies,” Mr L’Estrange said.
“Plus, WA is home to some of the top advanced manufacturing businesses in the world.”
This identifies another key area where a state-based portfolio focused on defence issues is important.
WA businesses in the field often feel forgotten by their east coast counterparts.
To counter this, WA Defence Issues Minister Paul Papalia, the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation, Defence West and advocacy groups like Henderson Alliance and the Australian Industry & Defence Network of WA (AIDN-WA)* work to draw attention to these world-class capabilities.
This, in turn, highlights one of the key political challenges of the defence issues portfolio: political equity is built on quick wins, on reference points of success, and return on investment.
Business development in defence is a long game, requiring investments, commitments, and consistency of effort, which often clash with the demands of political needs.
Mr Papalia is a passionate supporter of the defence industry. In the event he does not retain the portfolio after this month’s election (assuming the government is returned), there are other candidates in WA Labor with direct defence experience who have worked closely with the agencies supporting the state’s defence agenda.
In opposition, Mr L’Estrange has been a consistent fixture in defence circles for many years and has direct defence experience. Both men have had to juggle the defence issues portfolio among a host of other responsibilities. From a purely defence perspective, it would be beneficial to see the scope of those responsibilities narrowed for those entrusted with defence issues.
It is clear that WA is well placed to carry this portfolio forward with individuals of knowledge and experience.
This will help the WA government navigate the short-term challenges of defence issues, remain focused on the larger objectives, and ultimately collaborate with state’s defence industry to deliver opportunities for the sector.
Given the potential for win-now political pressure, experienced hands guiding the defence issues portfolio in WA is a must.
“WA must continue to leverage its defence capabilities and grow our capacity to make Perth and WA the world leader for this industry on the Indian Ocean rim,” Mr L’Estrange said.
“The strategic opportunities created by the defence sector helps diversify our economy, grow export markets, and grow jobs.”
This is why the defence issues portfolio, and who guides it, matters to WA. While the decisions do not rest solely within the borders of the state, the WA government can play a significant role in framing the context in which those decisions are made.
* The author is chairperson of AIDN-WA