Future of the Defence Sector in the South West: The City of Fremantle

June 12, 2019

The City of Fremantle conjures images for many of the ‘cappuccino strip’, of fishing boats and hot chips, or, for those with longer memories, the heady days of the 1980’s America’s Cup defence.  But one area seems to be underdone in the public consciousness – the City’s connections to the defence sector. Out to remedy this was a collaboration between WA DEFENCE REVIEW and the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce.

On 30 May, the pair cooperated in holding an event at the renowned Chamber boardroom, attracting 80 senior professionals from across the business community, to focus on Fremantle’s past contribution to Australia’s defence, to acknowledge its present strengths and to encourage pursuit of coming opportunities. Indeed, an indicator of the event’s salience led to extensive industry support by way of sponsorship, with the South West Group as the Diamond Sponsor, the City of Fremantle and AMI Group as Platinum Sponsors, and the Golja, Haines & Friend, Sure People Solutions, Regional Development Australia-Perth and Nova Systems as Gold Sponsors. Further, it was replete with eminent keynote speakers representing the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), L3 Oceania, South Metro TAFE and TAMS Group.

Commodore Brett Dowsing, Senior Officer West, RAN reminded all that Fremantle in World War II had the largest submarine base in the southern hemisphere, and its port for many years saw traffic in military vessels.  With the establishment of HMAS Stirling at Garden Island in 1978 there was enormous growth in the Navy’s presence in the West, but this was diverted to the facilities at Naval Base.  Even so, naval visits to Fremantle Port continue to the present day, the latest being this year, when ADF task force Indo-Pacific Endeavour 19 brought one of Australia’s largest RAN vessels, the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) class ship, in Fremantle Harbour, escorted by two frigates.

Australia has a continuous program to upgrade its Navy fleet, and all of the replacement vessels will be appreciably bigger than its predecessors.  Large as the build program will be, the sustainment program will far exceed it, as new technology is continuously developed, and ships are refitted to enable the RAN to maintain its technological advantage. With the pace of technological progress escalating in an upward spiral, traditional methods of supply are increasingly challenged to keep abreast. Hence, new and faster methods will be necessary, and successful bidders for Defence contracts will perforce have to be at the cutting edge.

Eve Clark, Managing Director, L3 Oceania, presides over a company that is indeed at the cutting edge. The Fremantle-based entity, which employs 80 staff locally, works exclusively on innovative and developmental undersea communications equipment.  Examples include acoustic modems, underwater mapping, tracking of submarine sound signatures (and even whales!) and advanced aircraft ‘pingers’, enabling downed aircraft to be located more readily.

Ms Clark is well aware of the need to recruit and retain the cream of WA’s technologists against competition both within and without the State; and says that L3’s Fremantle location is an effective attraction.  The average employee at L3 has given 10 years service.  Originally known as Nautronix, the Company has grown to be part of the international group, L3 Oceania.  Most businesses are content to make it into Defence’s supply chain, but L3 is the prime contractor for 90% of its defence projects.  Its 2018 revenue was $127 million, but another tangible measure of its success is its rapid growth, which is outstripping its present premises.

Also speaking to the skills issue, Darshi Ganeson-Oats, Director Strategic Partnerships, South Metropolitan TAFE, which also happens to be WA’s largest TAFE being headquartered in Fremantle.  She outlined her organisation’s initiatives for preparing people to work in the defence industry; these include: a partnership with Murdoch University in the field of cyber security; ‘welding for shipbuilding’ courses using augmented reality and simulators; test labs for training in high-tech skills; automation training in partnership with Rio Tinto; and collaboration with Curtin University to develop technology for a local battery industry.  As well, an office has been recently established at Naval Base to research the workforce skills needs of the defence sector and enable timely adjustments to the College’s course offerings.

Reminding us that many of the Department of Defence’s needs are met by companies that have a diversified clientele, as opposed to a defence specialisation, was Dyon Pilmoor, Managing Director, TAMS Group – a Fremantle headquartered company with $100 million annual turnover, 500 staff (350 in WA) and six facilities Australia-wide.  The Company provides port services such as tugboats; commercial diving; marine construction such as walls, breakwaters, and mooring facilities; dredging services; and mooring ropes.  It has a fleet of vessels including tugs, barges, dive support vessels, utility vessels and dredges.

TAMS provides logistics support to RAN fleets, mobilising to service them with just two weeks notice of the planned visit.  It also provides launch and lift services to vessels undergoing repair and maintenance at Henderson.  Company employees are integrated in the local community and encouraged to give voluntary service to projects, such as school workshops, the Leeuwin Foundation, and Rottnest tree planting projects.

The evening’s presentations from these four large Fremantle organisations illustrate that the Port City has a significant involvement in the defence sector, contributing to both its employment and its economy. The time is ripe to look to the unfolding opportunities and position for an increased share.  This thrust could well be led by local government, working in cognisance of the WA Government’s Defence Strategy, and building on Fremantle’s particular strengths. For example, one could consider: a start-up precinct to harness innovative ideas of relevance to the industry; niche centres of excellence in R&D (especially in surface and undersea marine technologies); positioning Fremantle as a support precinct to Henderson’s heavy industry; and introducing timely training programs to match defence sector needs foreseen.

As is usual for WA DEFENCE REVIEW events, this one proceeded with a good vibe, people being pleased to be seeing familiar faces, while making their acquaintance with many new ones.  Opportunities for networking over drinks and tasty canapes were provided both at the beginning and end of the evening.  One could say that it’s always a pleasure to visit Fremantle, whether for dining, fishing, yachting, or to learn more about the City’s future in the defence sector.

ENDORSEMENTS

“Partnering with WA DEFENCE REVIEW provided an important vehicle to tell the many success stories of our Fremantle Chamber members and their role in the state’s Defence sector. From L3 Oceania’s extraordinary and specialised communications services to TAMS marine services, and even through to South Metropolitan TAFEs role in training the next generation of defence and ship building trades, there are many Fremantle businesses offering world class specialisation that we can only learn from as we come together and share these stories.”

Danicia Quinlan, CEO, Fremantle Chamber of Commerce

“The event on the future of defence in the City of Fremantle provided a great opportunity to gain an understanding of how existing businesses in our City are benefiting from growth in the defence sector, as well as demonstrating some of the industry leading work being delivered right here in Fremantle. It provided an opportunity to connect with these organisations and learn more about how we can work with them to grow our economy.”

Matt Hammond, Economic Development & Marketing, City of Fremantle

About Terry Booth

Terry BoothTerry Booth served in the WA public service advising on industry development, contracting with Defence and defence suppliers to supply training, and managing the former Defence Industry Skills Unit. He completed the Defence and Industry Study Course (DISC), and until recently was a member of AIDN-WA's executive board for over 20 years. He is currently a life member of AIDN-WA, and a member of the Defence Reserves Support Council.