In a bid to secure some work on new submarines for his state, NSW trade minister Stuart Ayres sought to meet French shipbuilder DCNS just before it was announced as winner of the $50 billion subs deal.
Only problem is that he’s the partner of Defence Minister Marise Payne, who certainly knew last week that DCNS was favourite.
Mr Ayres denied he had any inside knowledge and in any case the meeting, to have been held when he was in France last week, never went ahead.
Senator Payne insists she played no part in organising the meeting.
It was one of a series of meetings any trade minister from Australia would endeavour to have with participants in the process, she said.
“The meeting didn’t proceed … due to times not merging with the appropriate program that he had,” Senator Payne said.
With as much as $50 billion to be spent on new submarines and perhaps triple that over their life, states have been jockeying vigorously to score some of that work. That will only escalate as the project proceeds.
The new submarines will be assembled in South Australia. Victoria and Western Australia have sought to position themselves to perform some construction work at established facilities.
NSW is seeking to gain its share, possibly at the former Forgacs shipyard at Newcastle, now owned by WA firm Civmec.
Mr Ayres confirmed he sought to arrange a meeting with DCNS.
“I sought a meeting with DCNS whilst on a trade mission to Germany, UK and France last week. Unfortunately because schedules did not align a meeting never took place,” he said in a statement.
Since becoming trade minister, he had been briefed by Japanese government, defence and industry representatives, and also German industry representatives to promote NSW industry opportunities as part of the submarines competitive evaluation process.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended his defence minister.
“I’m not going to entertain this sort of sniping at Marise Payne,” he said.
NSW Premier Mike Baird says he didn’t know about Mr Ayres’ planned meeting beforehand and hadn’t sought assurances from him that he was not privy to information about the tender.
Mr Baird said he understands people’s concerns but stood by his minister, who he says is focused on bringing jobs to the state.
“Both of them (Mr Ayres and Ms Payne) are very professional and if there was any potential conflict of interest they would take the appropriate action,” he said in Sydney on Wednesday.