Turnbull faces backlash over boat contract

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is facing a backlash from North Queensland backbenchers over a decision to award a $500 million defence ship-building contract to a West Australian company.

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The federal government has selected WA-based shipbuilder Austal over a Cairns-based consortium for the contract to build patrol boats destined for the Pacific Ocean.

Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch, whose electorate includes Cairns, says he is “gutted” by the decision and has taken aim at the prime minister and defence minister Marise Payne.

He said neither he nor industry minister Josh Frydenberg or northern Australian minister Matthew Canavan had been consulted about the decision, which he only learned of through a phone call from the Cairns consortium.

“It’s clumsy and inappropriate when the local member finds out about such an important decision through a phone call from one of the proponents,” he said.

“The decision might have been made but I want transparency and some facts. I won’t take this lying down.”

He said he had been told the Perth bid was 60 per cent cheaper but said he wasn’t convinced Austal could build the boats that cheaply.

“Even if there was a cost variation, when you look at spreading opportunities around the country and particularly in Northern Australia, you look at other factors as well as price,” he said.

“Now we’ve got a situation where the Pacific Patrol Boats will be built on the Indian Ocean.”

He also questioned Austal’s ability to build steel-hulled vessels and took a shot at its aluminium Customs vessels.

“It’s my understanding that Austal’s focus has always been on aluminium vessels so this will be their first steel-hulled build,” he said.

“It’s fair to say that the Customs boats built by Austal left a lot to be desired, given that we’re now seeing a lot of these aluminium vessels undergoing repairs for cracks.”

North Queensland-based senator Ian MacDonald has also expressed his unhappiness with the decision.

“The construction of the Pacific Patrols Boats would have been a wonderful employment generator and confidence boost for the north,” he said.

“I am very disappointed to hear the decision.”

But he was pleased the government had awarded a $400 million contract for the maintenance of the boats to Cairns.