Harbourside blues caused by tunnel vision locally

Public discussion about the lack of cruise-ship infrastructure in Sydney Harbour, and renewed calls for greater dual-use of the naval base at Garden Island as a supposed "solution", avoid that this issue is actually another manifestation of the faltering federal-state compact.

In this case, a federal-state compact issue where national requirements clearly over-ride local and state government rent-seeking — especially where respective constitutional responsibilities and the national interest are so conveniently ignored by the rent-seekers.

This is demonstrated by a simple test of apparently fraudulent claims — reverse their line of supposed argument.

Imagine the outrage, for example, if the federal government sought to take over the wharves at Circular Quay, or deep-water shoreline parts of the Sydney Harbour National Park, for a naval base or other purposes.

We know the reaction, because not long ago we saw what happened when the Commonwealth considered selling small parts of the long-term bases the ADF vacated at South Head, North Head, Middle Head and Neutral Bay.

Sydneysiders vociferously demanded all such land become part of the national park, despite the revenue lost to taxpayers nationally. The taxpayer even had to remediate the land without recompense from selling some of it.

Similarly, most calls for cruise-ship access to Garden Island, or “kicking the navy out”, are based on three false assumptions:

  • the owner is “just the Navy” and therefore inconveniencing or moving them somehow doesn’t matter;
  • there is “somewhere else” for the base to go; and
  • the base and the extensive naval dockyard facilities supporting it could simply be replicated elsewhere, and somehow the huge cost to do so should just be accepted and paid for by every taxpayer in the country.


National infrastructure to meet national requirements

The key and unassailable fact is that Garden Island’s beneficial owner is the national taxpayer.

The Navy is only the Commonwealth’s long-term tenant, and it is put there to operate productively in the national interest.

Fleet Base East — as the name denotes — and the supporting dockyard facilities comprises long-established and irreplaceable national infrastructure built up over a century to help defend all Australians for the long term, not just Sydneysiders or the short-term commercial interests of foreign-owned cruise-ship companies.

As a matter of principle, our national defence strategy and the posture of our defence force to execute it, depend on bases that strategically maximise our geographic, industrial support and operational advantages.

And which minimise our permanent strategic disadvantages of small numbers, great distances and limited national capacity to invest fully in the continental-scale defence capabilities needed to secure an island-continent and its surrounding oceans.

Just on ten per cent of the Earth's surface is some form of Australian sovereignty, resource zone, conservation or search and rescue responsibility.

Moreover, even a barely adequate defence posture means key ADF bases are essential national infrastructure; the same as ports, highways and reservoirs.

They are not somehow facilities that can be robbed from the national taxpayer as a “cheap fix” when reality catches up with the failure of successive NSW governments, and industry, to invest in sufficient deep-water wharfage for cruise ships along Port Jackson's 317-kilometre shoreline.

The simple fact is that Fleet Base East at Garden Island is not even a medium-term solution to the cruise ship problem in Sydney Harbour. Nor should it be.

As the Independent Review of the Potential for Enhanced Cruise Ship Access to Garden Island Sydney advised the Government in February 2012 — and the report of the wider Force Posture Review to the Government confirmed in late March that year — there are numerous and compelling strategic, operational, financial, geographic, oceanographic, maritime trade and national equity reasons preventing this already over-crowded base being used to bail out the NSW Government and the cruise ship lobby.


Why Fleet Base East needs to be in Sydney Harbour

As to suggestions that our navy can or should be moved out of Sydney Harbour, a momentary study of a map and nautical charts swiftly reveals why Fleet Base East is so essential strategically, operationally and financially.

Every vaunted alternative location is strategically, practically and/or financially impossible, not just unsuitable.

Such suggestions — including recent ones by cruise ship lobbyists after apparently imbibing too much bubbly — ignore enduring strategic principles derived from the geographic, oceanographic, economic and maritime trade constraints of the Australian east coast.

Major naval bases need to be in defensible, deep-water, harbours with immediate access to oceanic deep-water and where interference with maritime trade is minimal in peacetime.

They also need to tap into considerable industrial, engineering and logistic infrastructure commercially.

Within Sydney Harbour, major warships cannot be based west of the Harbour Bridge (even if local residents accepted it) because:

  • the wharves west of the bridge lack all the alongside support services warships need, especially when on short-notice standby;
  • larger warships (especially the new LHDs and air warfare destroyers) need to be able to manouvre and deploy irrespective of tidal conditions under the bridge; and
  • there is no point having any of our country's few major warships bottled up if the bridge was damaged or dropped in a war.

Sydney’s central location strategically and the size, depth, shape and manouvre room of Port Jackson make it ideal strategically and operationally for Australia’s principal east-coast naval base.

Especially when we consider the Navy's primary role is the protection of the seaborne trade that our economy, and indeed our whole way of life, so depends on.

Many seem to forget that 99.7 per cent of Australia's exports (by volume) and 75 per cent (by value) travel in a ship. Or that most of our imports also travel in ships to our major ports and their cities — such as Sydney.

This situation is not going to change geographically, geologically or commercially until at least the next ice age and its aftermath creates another submerged river valley like Port Jackson or Australia no longer needs a Navy.

Neither eventuality seems likely in the medium or even long term.

But, at best, the cruise-ship industry and their myopic or dissembling spruikers continually ignore such facts. Often they just deliberately evade them.

The situation is not going to change much, if at all, economically, financially or industrially either.

There are no other large, naturally deep-water, harbours with immediate access to oceanic deep-water, on the entire east coast of the continent. And certainly none sited so centrally as Port Jackson in strategic and operational terms, including the protection of our seaborne trade.

Nor harbours which can be easily shared with commercial shipping and have nearby, large, deep-water oceanic exercise areas away from commercial shipping lanes

The Great Barrier Reef and the cyclonic climate excludes much of the northern part of the east coast.

Even if there were large, naturally deep-water harbours with immediate access to oceanic deep water, which there are not.

Brisbane is constrained by no large or naturally deep harbour, and by access only through long channels dredged through Moreton Bay and its islands.

The last (and quite small) naval base in Brisbane (HMAS Moreton) was closed in the 1980s, not least because it was so hard to navigate in and out of Moreton Bay (even in peacetime).

A new harbour would have to be built on reclaimed land at the entrance to the Brisbane River (to separate naval and commercial shipping), but the geographic, riverine and oceanographic obstacles would require permanent dredging with high environmental and financial costs. The river and Moreton Bay are also flood prone.

As well as being difficult, time-consuming and expensive to build,  a new naval base in Brisbane large enough to to be useful would still be neither strategically ideal or operationally optimal   

Newcastle and Port Kembla are nowhere near big enough (including manouvre room), not naturally deep-water harbours, are not defensible, have only one entrance and are accessed (again) only by narrow channels.

Jervis Bay is too far south, is mostly too shallow, has insufficient supporting infrastructure, is much less defensible and has significant marine conservation constraints.


Facing facts

But even if there was another suitable harbour geographically or oceanographically, other facts also have to be faced, not avoided.

Garden Island’s huge dry-dock and engineering facilities built up over a century, and Sydney’s supporting industrial infrastructure, could not be replicated elsewhere without the national taxpayer having to fork out around ten billion dollars.

Why should the national taxpayer foot the bill, or cop the many other long-term financial, strategic and operational costs, just because successive NSW governments have so neglected deep-water wharfage and supporting infrastructure in favour of reaping stamp duty from harbourside townhouse development and casinos?

Or because federal and state MPs with Sydney seats are more interested in grandstanding, or buying votes, than in thinking seriously and nationally about Australian geography and our long-term national defence needs. 


* The strategic constraints on ADF basing in particular, and the Force Posture Review in general, were discussed in more detail in the Summer 2011/12 issue of our bulletin Defence Brief.

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