View from The Hill

Day 23: Rudd woos Queensland and cops it from NSW

A chance encounter with NSW premier Barry O'Farrell didn’t play well for Kevin Rudd. AAP/Lukas Coch

This election might be all about Queensland, but Kevin Rudd’s naval courting of the north smelt of electoral desperation and is backfiring on him.

The PM today held out the prospect of moving some of the fleet to Brisbane as part of relocating vessels from Garden Island to the north and west of the country.

Rudd’s plan to possibly scale back or replace the Garden Island base was blatantly more politically than policy driven. He unveiled it at the Lowy Institute in Sydney then rushed to the Port of Brisbane to spruik it.

It was the second Rudd “big idea” in two days. First the train. Now the ships. His proposal earlier in the campaign to slash company tax for the Northern Territory makes a trifecta.

In each case nothing much would be done any time soon. The NT tax break is stamped 2018. Don’t wait on a station for the very fast train or, if you’re a middle-aged sailor, to be relocated from Garden Island.

We’re talking about a taskforce (with military top brass and the Defence department head) that would advise on “the timing, proportion and implementation of moving some or all of Fleet Base East to Queensland and Perth and developing, upgrading or expanding Darwin and Broome.”

It wouldn’t even report for two years, and the government “would expect the relocation of Fleet elements north and west to be completed by 2030.”

Rudd argued that strategically, it would be desirable to relocate vessels closer to the action (including for natural disaster work in the Pacific) and economically it would be win, win. Garden Island would be opened up “for the possibility of exciting new uses” - more green spaces, heritage protection, more berths for cruise ships. Meanwhile Brisbane and other ports would get jobs from the naval developments. (Remember Rudd has said he will campaign on jobs every day of this last fortnight.)

But the naval initiative is under assault on various fronts.

Potential losers – at the NSW end - are always noisier than those who might gain. But also, Rudd is defying some expert opinion, and the economics of tough times, and that leaves his political motives more exposed.

He said the proposal would be paid for without drawing on the defence budget – a proposition only possible when you are talking about so many years further on that the detail doesn’t matter.

Rudd has bought an unhelpful row with NSW premier Barry O'Farrell. “A phone call would have been helpful”, an angry O'Farrell snapped at the PM when they ran into each other during the news conference round.

When he got to Brisbane Rudd then unloaded on O'Farrell, calling him a “grumpy premier”, and accusing him of “huffing and puffing and storming down the boardwalk … He should spend more time in his office and out in the suburbs of western Sydney” starting real construction work.

Rudd himself seems to be giving Sydney a lower political priority than “Brissie” because his proposal allows O'Farrell to make the obvious “jobs” argument, claiming 4000 families would be hit.

Rudd’s unleashing on O'Farrell, even after provocation, isn’t smart tactics. O'Farrell will naturally put his state first (and that’s even apart from the politics). He did this when he was the first premier to sign up to Gonski (to Tony Abbott’s annoyance).

Rudd has based his case on the 2012 Defence Force Posture Review which said: “Defence should commence planning now on long term options for establishing a supplementary east coast fleet base at Brisbane for the future submarine and large amphibious ships.”

It also recommended that: “Defence should develop options to allow large amphibious ships to embark army units based in Brisbane and (as a lesser priority) in Adelaide, in addition to Townsville and Darwin.”

But the PM has chosen to repudiate this year’s Defence White Paper, released only in May, which gave reasons for the government deciding not to proceed with the Brisbane proposal.

“The significant preliminary cost estimate (in the order of $6 billion), challenges associated with land acquisition, environmental considerations, the need for extensive dredging and the wider dispersion to a third fleet base of Royal Australian Navy personnel and training, all suggest that establishing a fleet base in Brisbane would be challenging and require significant continued investment for it to remain sustainable.”

That seems a fairly comprehensive and reasonable case against the “Brissie” move.

The Rudd initiative has won support from former Defence secretary Allan Hawke, who said it would be good for recruiting and retention. But Neil James from the Australia Defence Association attacked it, saying it was just political.

Andrew Davies, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a former defence official and an expert on ADF capability, says there is no compelling strategic reason for relocating the bulk of the fleet away from Garden Island and big cost arguments against, although there is a case for using Brisbane for the “overflow” of the big amphibious vessels.

Rudd declared that “this is a good day in terms of making the big calls on the future of our defence infrastructure bases.” As for his political call … perhaps not so much.