The Australian government decided to publicly release information about problems with Pacific patrol boats despite a warning from defence officials that this could harm important regional relationships.
In previously secret advice, the Department of Defence also raised fears that potential publicity about the problems “may then be exploited by criminal networks or malign actors”.
Pacific island countries rely on the Guardian-class patrol boats – about 15 of which have been donated by the Australian government so far – to detect illegal fishing, drug smuggling and other criminal activity.
Documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal that three days before the government announced it was working to fix three problems, Defence urged it to take a quiet approach away from the media spotlight.
The deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, went on to declare publicly that the former government “was sending broken boats out to the Pacific”.
The background brief to Marles dated 28 June 2022 said: “Proactive media on the current Guardian class patrol boat exhaust cracking issue is likely to damage relationships with Pacific partners and is not recommended by Defence.”
“Media attention may create unwanted political and media pressure for Pacific partners which may then be exploited by criminal networks or malign actors.”
“Proactive media” means actively releasing the information, rather than waiting until the government receives possible future questions from a media outlet to finally confirm the issues.
The same Defence brief said the Australian manufacturer, Austal, had “responded positively” and was “actively engaged in resolving this particular issue”.
The document said the boats were naval or police vessels primarily used for law enforcement so there was “a level of operational security around their status”. It said the area affected by the exhaust issue was unmanned while the vessels were at sea.
There is no suggestion that Defence wanted to hide the problem from Pacific governments, only that it favoured fixing the issues without media attention.
But the government disagreed with that view and argued for transparency. The government gave authority for Defence to publish a statement on 1 July about the exhaust fault and two other issues that had emerged in the previous 16 months.
While that first statement was apolitical, ministers promptly used the issue to make partisan political points against the previous government.
The minister for defence industry and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said on 01 July that the problems were “the latest example of how the former Liberal government was all announcement and no follow-through”.
Marles went even further in a doorstop interview the same day: “The fact that the former government was sending broken boats out to the Pacific is a disgrace.”
On Sky News on 03 July, Marles defended the manufacturer while taking another swipe at his political opponents: “I think Austal has a very proud record but, again, the former government was sending broken boats out to the Pacific and that’s just unacceptable.”
The opposition’s defence spokesperson, Andrew Hastie, said Marles had “serious questions to answer as to why he went against official advice” and instead struck “a partisan and damaging tone in his comments”.
“This reckless rhetoric undermined the Australian national interest and our relationships with our Pacific partners,” Hastie said.
“We can only assume that he did this for short-term partisan reasons.”
The government was considering how to handle the issue at a time when it was preparing for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting to be held in Fiji just weeks later.
It is understood the government judged that the problems were unlikely to remain a secret for long and it would be better to proactively release the information than to leave it to emerge in a less predictable way.
Marles and Conroy were approached for comment. Responding on behalf of the government, Conroy confirmed on Sunday that the government had “consulted Pacific governments before our public statements and are continuing to work closely with them on remediating the patrol boats”.
Asked why ministers believed it was important to release the information despite the Defence recommendation, Conroy said the Albanese government was “taking a more open and transparent approach to issues with Defence capability projects than the former Liberal government”.
“That’s why we were upfront with the public that the former government left us with 28 major defence projects running cumulatively 97 years late,” Conroy said.
“It’s why we were open with Pacific country partners and with the Australian public about the problems with the Guardian Class patrol boats.”
The newly obtained documents also reveal the head of the Department of Defence, Greg Moriarty, wrote to Austal on 17 June – two weeks before the announcement.
The department secretary raised concerns about “recurrent defects on a number of the 15 vessels delivered to date, the most recent being a significant design fault with the engine exhaust system”.
“This brings significant reputational risk, not only to Austal, but to Australia,” Moriarty said in the letter to the chief executive, Patrick Gregg.
“I cannot overstate the importance of comprehensively addressing this, and other design issues, as a matter of highest priority.”
Moriarty added: “The ongoing issues regarding design and build quality across the Guardian-class patrol boats are of great concern to Defence, most notably the reputational risk it poses as a result of perceptions of Australia providing a poor quality capability and/or service for our Pacific partners.”
Contacted for a response, Austal said it continued to have an “outstanding track record of delivering the Guardian-class program on time and to budget”.
“Seven ships were delivered in 2021, and a further six ships in 2022, a remarkable achievement given the supply chain challenges and the impact of Covid,” a spokesperson for Austal said.
“Defects, while disappointing, are unfortunately a fact of life with vessel construction, particularly with new classes of defence vessels given the complexity of the build.
“When advised of the issues Austal worked very closely with the Department of Defence and its suppliers and quickly identified the root cause and necessary remedial action.” Earlier this month, Marles lauded Austal’s design house as “a national asset”.