JOHN MENADUE. Expanding naval bases in central Sydney does not make sense.

The Navy is proposing a $500 million expansion of its training facility at HMAS Watson which is adjacent to the historic South Head National Park. There are good defence, urban, economic and social reasons why naval facilities at Garden Island , Watsons Bay and elsewhere in Sydney harbour should be progressively re-located, probably to northern Australia.  

I live in Watsons Bay, so I have concerns about the micro/local problems which will arise from the $500 million expansion at HMAS Watson. Informed people will attest that there is already major road congestion on the Watsons Bay/South Head peninsula. This will only worsen. There will also be considerable noise and dust. Furthermore, the expansion is unlikely to bring any significant benefits to the Watsons Bay area. The Navy will not be employing people from Watsons Bay or resourcing much from local businesses. All that sounds a bit ‘nimby-ish’.

But my major concern is why this $500 million expansion has to be located in central Sydney which is already suffering from major population and congestion problems. Navy often refers to the ‘Navy economy’ that contributes to Sydney. But Sydney does not need more economic help. The ‘Navy economy’ would do wonders for northern centres that really do need an injection of wealth. Many Australian communities would welcome the orderly transfer over time of both the Garden Island and Watsons Bay facilities to more appropriate parts of Australia.

The Navy occupies the most valuable sites in Sydney harbour-Garden Island, Neutral Bay, Chowder Bay (refuelling), Middle Harbour and South Head. There is no rationale for this other than history – ‘because we’re here’.

The Navy is ‘digging in’ at both Watsons Bay and Garden Island with huge expenditures, but surely if there is any threat to Australia it will come from the north. Having our prime maritime assets located in Sydney harbour does not make sense. Our two primary vessels, HMAS Canberra and Adelaide, are both moored in Sydney Harbour right now. If they had to respond to an ‘incident’ to our north, they are two to three days steaming away. These two ships spend a lot of time at Garden Island as all ferry passengers know.

Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd, have both contended that over time the Navy should vacate Sydney Harbour. They are right.

The land that would be vacated by orderly departure of the Navy from Garden Island and Watsons Bay could be put to better economic and social use. The Garden Island land would be very useful in support of cruise ships and the tourist traffic they bring to Australia. Vacated Watsons Bay land could be transferred to the adjacent South Head National Park to ensure that the public has improved access to this historic and beautiful park.

The longer the Australian government delays facing up to relocating our Naval facilities out of Sydney harbour, the longer Australia will be locked into unsound defence and other policies.

Our children and grandchildren are likely to pay the price for the foolish further entrenchment of the Navy in Sydney harbour.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works is examining this issue. Submissions on the HMAS Watsons Bay expansion must be lodged by Friday 18 October 2019.   The link to this committee is as follows:


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2 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. Expanding naval bases in central Sydney does not make sense.

  1. Some years ago on a warm afternoon sitting on Murray’s Beach in Jervis Bay where Baxter et al wished to place the CANDU reactor notoriously suitable for sneaking off weapons grade plutonium, I remarked to a navy person that the small naval vessel going back and forth from the naval college for some training purpose seemed only to be making left turns. “But Dennis” was the reply, “they only want to get to Sydney.”

    That was the year I wrote to the defence minister questioning the need each year after the end of the summer school holidays to gather ships for bombardment of the Beecroft Peninsula on the north of Jervis Bay with shells from naval guns. It surely being possible to offer more a smaller and more demanding target towed at sea. I received in reply from a (Labor) underminister a navy drafted argument about it being essential to maintain a capability for shore bombardment. In reply I noted that in the history of the RAN since WW2 shore bombardment had been limited to three occasions: one ship banging away at already flattened North Korea in the Korean War; Australian ships rotated through the US fleet in the gulf of Tonkin in the Vietnam war, and a small ship in a river firing two dozen shells, momentarily aiding landing of UK special forces at Basra in a probably illegal, spuriously justified invasion of Iraq in 2003. Noting also that there seemed a revolution in relevant technology taking place. I received no reply to that.

    Australia is the second largest importer of arms after Saudi Arabia. There is little to suggest that our acquisitions are smarter than theirs, perhaps to the contrary.

    The sense of where to put bases is perhaps best illustrated by the continuing logic that as Australia has water on most sides and bad guys and uncomfortable lodgings are notoriously up north, we sustain maritime surveillance capabilities down near salubrious Adelaide.

    The career structure from naval college to admiral requires a gradation in ship size and capability which surely bears upon force structure as much as does need. To require a flag officer commanding Australian fleet and entourage to live in the north…?

    Big questions, unlikely to be taken on by the Public Works Committee.

  2. Sam Bateman says:

    Good piece but in addition to your arguments, there’s also a problem for naval personnel. It’s virtually impossible these days for them to obtain accommodation that’s not a long commute away from their place of work. The older generations may have been able to afford housing reasonably convenient but the present generation certainly can’t.

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