Labor has accused the Morrison government of “profoundly compromising” national security by bungling the purchase of new submarines.
Opposition defence spokesman Richard Marles argues the fleet is needed more than ever because of the fallout from coronavirus.
“COVID has given rise to greater instability within our region and the world. COVID has created questions to which there are no answers,” Mr Marles told the National Press Club on Tuesday.
“And this has raised our strategic challenge to an entirely different level. And so the need for future submarines which will help meet this challenge has quite simply never been greater.”
Mr Marles also used his address to criticise some recent anti-China rhetoric from inside the coalition.
“Recently there has been much muscular language used by Morrison government MPs about Australia’s relationship with China,” he said.
“It has not helped our relationship with China. It has done nothing to improve Australia’s strategic circumstances.”
The future submarines program – the largest defence acquisition in Australia’s history – has been hit by heavy delays and massive cost blowouts.
Initial promises of local industry content have also been watered down.
The project’s estimated cost has gone from $50 billion to $90 billion and the submarines, which were set to be delivered in the early 2020s, will not be ready until the mid-2030s.
Mr Marles argues the failure to properly manage the future submarines program has left Australia facing a “wicked problem”.
Ending the contract with French shipbuilder Naval Group to pursue an alternative would be very expensive and involve more delays.
“The Morrison government has put Australia’s national security between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
Mr Marles says the government must extend the life of its Collins Class submarines until the new fleet is ready.
He is careful not to criticise the Naval Group, describing the shipbuilder’s track record as superb.
“But I do criticise the way in which the Morrison government has bungled the future submarine program to the enormous detriment of Australia’s national security,” Mr Marles said.
“The Morrison government goes big on rhetoric but is a complete failure on delivery.”