Team WA calls for change! Australia should begin the process of pivoting its defence forces to WA to match changing regional conditions and risks. So says a group of Perth’s best and brightest, which met on 28 February to deliberate on policy and strategy in the defence sector. Billed as the inaugural ‘Strategy, Defence & Industry Dialogue’, the meeting was the first of its type under the auspices of WA DEFENCE REVIEW, being undertaken in partnership with the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce, and involved senior officials and decision makers from across government, industry, defence and academia.
Planners often dismiss calls of this kind from States as an attempt to claim more economic benefit from the Defence budget, but, in fact, the Dialogue made a strong strategic case. The last two Defence White Papers and the 2016 Foreign Affairs White Paper acknowledge the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region, yet we do not see a commensurate change in force posture.
Three of the world’s most populous nations, China, India and Indonesia are in this region and growing rapidly in economic strength, which translates to both geo-political influence and military power. At the same time WA makes an out-sized contribution to the National wealth through its massive, world renowned resources projects, which lie exposed across Australia’s northern recesses. The Defence policy of WA ‘bare bases’ for use in emergencies is not seen as a solution to these permanently changing regional circumstances. An incremental shift westward of elements of the Nation’s armed forces needs to commence soon, as major relocations of capability will take time to achieve.
Participants were of the view that a shift in strategic thinking and planning toward WA is unlikely to occur without significant pressure being brought to bear by WA. To address this, the concept of a Team WA was suggested – a grouping of WA’s able and influential people who combine to advocate for change.
The Dialogue went on to discuss the nascent space industry in WA; and pointed to many potential commercial opportunities arising in this field of endeavour. Participants nominated fields such as space mining, in-space production of bio medicines, and space-related applications in existing industries such as agriculture, off-shore oil and gas, as possibilities for enterprising local firms. The advent of low cost ways of deploying micro satellite systems, it was noted, should spawn innovations yet to be conceived.
The WA workforce was another area of focus. In general, the Dialogue believed the trades workforce to be transferable between defence and resources industries, but, depending on the skill set involved, a period of adjustment and training augmentation could be required. WA should, therefore stay ahead of the game in terms of planning for skills requirements.
It is believed that South Australia, which will be receiving the bulk of naval shipbuilding contracts, will lack the numbers necessary to complete their projects and may well call upon skilled WA workers. In addition, it is possible that shipbuilding projects will be divided into large-blocks (or even super-blocks), which can be sub-contracted interstate. WA needs to follow the progress of these projects and be ready to bid for the work, forming alliances where necessary.
The Dialogue was a promising start to what is hoped will be an ongoing series of meetings bringing together the State’s best and brightest to discuss issues of importance to WA’s future. WA DEFENCE REVIEW said that in future it would be giving thought to holding a meeting in Canberra, or bringing key Canberra based people to meetings in WA.