Defence Minister gets a paddlin’ after stating the ASC couldn’t “build a canoe”

Senator David Johnston has found himself a ‘paddlin after his remarks about the Australian Submarine Corporation’s (ASC) “inability to build a canoe” left Australia’s Defence Industry outraged.

Removed from the Abbot Government’s cabinet and stripped of his Ministry of the Department of Defence; Johnston has been set adrift in a political canoe from which there is little hope of returning to dry dock.

The problem is, his remarks about ASC were not wrong.

The ASC’s legacy is largely tied to Australia’s current submarine fleet: the Collins Class, which has a woeful reputation. From design and manufacturing issues to technical problems, the ASC’s much publicised troubles with the fleet have left a very public perception of capability incongruence.

While Governments are right to be objectively critical of commercial partners who fail to meet contractual obligations; they can’t also sell the dream of an ‘Australian Defence Industry’ in the same breath. Handing out public admonishment while promoting local capability is simply not credible and creates mixed messaging from a communications and political policy viewpoint.

It can also have significant repercussions for publicly listed companies with share market price drops, falling sales and the devaluation of the organisation.

In the ASC’s case as a wholly Government owned entity, with much speculation about the Government’s intent to offload it’s interest in the corporation – the devaluation of capability by a Minister is essentially brand bashing. Akin to Qantas CEO Alan Joyce’s brand bashing of his airline during the workplace industrial dispute that saw him ground the fleet, Senator Johnston’s remarks have distinct knock on effects in other areas of Federal and State Government.

Jobs for Australians, support for local Defence Industry, investments in skills, science, technology and innovation program communications all amount to nothing when the Government of the day’s messaging headlines news attacking the very sectors it claims to support.

Such mixed messaging doesn’t bode well for a Government already in political strife. While Tony Abbott may have reshuffled the deck, his lack of leadership and unpopularity with Australian voters remains. Spinning a cabinet reshuffle sideways does nothing to rebuild voter confidence, it simply rearranges a series of yes men and women around your table at a time when frank and fearless advice should be free flowing. 

While Senator Johnston’s remarks were poorly delivered, his authenticity in reaching people with his message of no confidence in ASC was on target. Why after the Collins Class debacle would we pay ASC to build another iteration of Australian Submarines? It’s simply not a commercially prudent decision. 

Truths from this Government are hard to come by, and for that Senator Johnston- while adrift a ‘paddlin – will be remembered as the Minister who walked the plank for ‘telling it like it is.’ And that is a message that Australian voters will hear loud and clear.

*** image credit to ABC News.