A WA senator is pushing for a wide-ranging review into Australia’s defence capabilities and what role the North West could play in protecting the country’s strategic interests.
It emerged at a Pilbara-Kimberley Forum Hot Topix session earlier this month that Senator Linda Reynolds is trying to convince parliamentary colleagues an inquiry is needed in light of growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, and protection of Australia’s seaborne trade routes.
She said she hoped an inquiry would reveal what was needed for the next 50 years.
“Have we got the right Royal Australian Air Force and army assets and other surveillance facilities here in the west?” she said.
“My suspicion is we don’t but it’s time we had a fresh look at it and if the inquiry gets up I very much look forward to bringing my Eastern States colleagues to the North West to have a look at the infrastructure we’ve currently got, what we’re looking at developing and how defence and national security considerations can be best addressed in the North West.
“There’s increasing naval activity in the Indian Ocean rim from China, India and regional neighbours so it is becoming an increasing focus for global superpowers.
“The Malacca Strait and through the South China Sea are vitally important sea lanes for us to keep open because the majority of national wealth gets exported through those channels so they are becoming increasingly contested,” she said.
“It is very important we make sure we keep those sea lanes open and they’re secure.”
A report by defence analysts Risk Intelligence Solutions recommended the Federal Government implement an Indian Ocean patrol boat program “to strengthen regional stability” as part of broader foreign aid efforts in the Indian Ocean region.
The report also recommended developing a plan to expand the army in WA, and devising an annual joint Australia/US special forces training exercise in the North West.
Pilbara Regional Council chief executive Tony Friday said now was an opportune time for a bipartisan approach to advocate for WA’s defence requirements and what the North West had to offer.
“The Commonwealth Government has recently put serious thought and money into the strategic position of northern Australia,” he said.
Defence must now also ensure that it reconsiders its force posture, re-examines a changing world, reassesses the capacity of WA to support foreign ally training facilities like those already in the Northern Territory, and revisits the unique needs and geographic offering of the North West.
”The North-West Shelf contains tens of billions of dollars in oil, gas, and export facilities, the damage to which would literally stop the nation.”
WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith earlier this year suggested his Government should adopt a “two armies” policy, noting the number of regular army personnel in WA had dwindled to 800 out of a national force that had grown to 30,000 full-time members, in the past two decades.
Ms Reynolds, a former Army Reserve brigadier, said she hoped an inquiry would also look at potential commercial opportunities for marine maintenance and sustainment.
“If we can do civilian marine work with naval marine work then it becomes a very viable long-term industry that we can build in the North West,” she said.
“Where better to maintain a substantial part of the world’s LNG carrier fleet than in the Pilbara?”
During a question and answer session at the forum, Ms Reynolds said she had written to Defence Minister Marise Payne to make the case for additional patrol vessels for the North West but had not yet received an answer.
Ms Reynolds hopes a joint standing committee inquiry can be held in the second half of this year.