As Tony Abbott fought to keep his job in the lead up to Monday’s threatened leadership spill, South Australian senator Sean Edwards was one of the Liberal backbenchers who made his support for the PM contingent on his home state getting to compete for $20-plus billion contract to build new submarines.
Abbott contacted Edwards twice over the weekend before announcing on national TV on Sunday night that the Australian Submarine Corp (ASC) was back in the game after what many saw as a broken election promise to build 12 new subs in South Australia.
It looked like the PM had backed down.
“I’m very pleased with the decision of the prime minister… it now commits the government to a full and open tender,” Edwards said.
But in the last 48 hours, three words, “competitive evaluation process” have begun to create more problems for Abbott’s government, as people tried to discover what it meant for sub building in SA.
This afternoon, Senator Edwards was interviewed by Sky News political editor David Speers about the issue. It did not go well. At best, it suggested that the ASC had been completely shut out of the game and now, at least had the chance to put up its hand for some crumbs.
Edwards compared the chance for Australian companies to be involved in the generation of subs to inviting an uncle to your wedding.
After saying Abbott rang the senator on Sunday and “gave me the assurances I sought”, Speers asked what those were.
Edwards replied that Australian shipbuilding companies and associated businesses “would be able to participate in the process”.
Speers asked whether the PM said “there would be an open and competitive tender?”
“Don’t get caught up in all of this,” Edwards replied, starting to argue that what Defence, the PM and he said was “all the same” before conceding “No, that’s right. In the defence terms it’s not and we’ve got to tighten up on that.”
“A tender is a tender,” Speers said, trying to clarify just what was promised, asking again if it would be an open tender.
“No,” Edwards said quickly, going on to repeat that the PM said Australian companies would be “able to participate”.
“In what?” Speers asks.
This was not going well for Edwards, who tried to shift the discussion to “years of dysfunction from Labor”.
Speers interjected, reminding the senator that he’s the one who told the media Abbott had been “clear and unequivocal” that the process would be a “full competitive tender”.
“Did [the prime minister] say that?” Speers asked.
“They’re my words,” Edwards replied. “Other people use different words. Don’t get hoodwinked with this balloon that’s flying with both the Labor Party…”
Speers interjected “With respect, if anyone’s floated the balloon Senator, it’s you.”
So will it be a tender process or not?
“I don’t care, I don’t care what’s on top of the document, what it says,” Edwards responded.
Did Abbot say tender? Speers pressed.
“You said that’s what the PM said,” Speers parried.
“That’s my best recollection… I believe he did… I was right. That’s the rhetoric that’s used.”
Edwards is taking on water and can’t bail fast enough.
“I would have preferred my language to be tighter,” a rueful Edwards said.
But is this just a semantic fight between a PM and a backbencher or a major misinterpretation that’s raised the hopes of the state the senator represents?
“I interpreted it as a tender process because that’s the only terms that’s being used… so that’s the only gig in town,” Edwards said.
But then it suddenly takes on odd turn, with Edwards confessing that “there is a difference at law, apparently” in the terminology. And that involves outside contractors being involved.
“Best you ask the defence minister,” the Senator suggested.
He reiterated that without his intervention, on Friday, Australian companies were locked out, but now there’s a window open.
Spears asked if they can design and build the subs locally.
“I urge the ASC to prove to the Defence minister that they have the capability to be able to participate in the process. We shouldn’t be flying these balloons,” Edwards responded.
“This is the flag drop. They should talking to international partners that they have deficiencies in…
“This is what they asked for. This is what they pleaded for… All they wanted to do was to be included.”
The Senator looks for a liferaft. The good ship Metaphor sails into view: “You never get a second chance to ask your uncle to your wedding. You’ve gotta go through life having not asked your uncle to come to the wedding.”.
Speers runs with it, asking “If they’ll be able to come to the wedding in the way they want” and submit a design, not just build a foreign one.
“They’ve got an invite,” the Senator says
Speers tries to clarify, why, then, did finance minister Mathias Cormann say nothing had changed in terms of procuring new subs.
“Mathias is technically correct,” Edwards says.
So has anything changed? Speers asks
“Australian shipbuilders can now no longer be told they don’t have the capacity,” Edwards responds.
The interview concluded with Senator Edwards musing that on days like these, his old job as a viticulturalist in the Clare Valley looks pretty good.
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