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Charles Wooley: Only way to keep our economy afloat is to employ locals like Bob Clifford



“BOB Clifford is a hero of mine. I actually sought him out because I wanted to find out how on earth he had learnt to do what he has done.

“Everybody agrees it’s impossible to manufacture sophisticated ships in Australia and sell them all over the world.

“These ships are as complex as a wide-bodied jet and most people say we can’t build sophisticated jet aircraft in Australia.

“How did he do it? I believe he is a genius and one of the most competent Australian inventors/manufacturers of all time.”

These words from Dick Smith are the introduction to Alistair Mant’s 2010 biography of Hobart shipbuilder Robert Clifford.

The title “The Bastard’s a Genius” quotes Clifford’s late father Fred, a Sandy Bay butcher who early and generously recognised in his young son what the whole world would one day come to know.

The proof is now everywhere; the challenging waters of Scandinavia, the English Channel, the Irish Sea, Italy, Japan Canada the Caribbean and the River Platte are just some of the places you will find the familiar hull shape of Clifford’s wave-piercing giant aluminium catamarans.

Travelling in distant places, as a journalist and a Tasmanian, I always reveled in how unlikely it seemed to be able to say: “Hey, that ship was made in Hobart and I know the bloke who built it.”

media_cameraCharles Wooley believes Incat’s Bob Clifford’s greatest work lies ahead. Picture: LUKE BOWDEN

At 77 years of age Bob Clifford’s greatest work still lies ahead.

He must now convince the Tasmanian Government to back itself and our island state and build our own Bass Strait ferry.

Clifford is clearly the man and Tasmania is logically the place.

What the state needs most right now is one big achievable project.

I know you are already too jaded by thought bubbles: the underground bus mall, the Bridgewater crossing and the light rail system. Many of them you will have already forgotten. Remember the 2018 ocean swimming pool plan for the Hobart waterfront?

Typically, they have one day of glorious spin and then never eventuate and even if they might, like the Macquarie Point development, will it happen in our lifetime?

But a Tasmanian built hi-tech aluminium ferry is a project ready to roll, budgeted for and with a shipyard and the technology already in place at Prince of Wales Bay, currently building ships for other nations.

But not for us.

It seems bizarre that given INCAT’s international reputation and clientele that Tasmania would ever have considered spending almost a billion dollars (at today’s prices) on two steel mono-hull ships built 16,500km away in Hamburg Germany.

Certainly, ScoMo thought so.

The Prime Minister has already insisted in these difficult times that the next acquisition should be at least substantially built somewhere in Australia.

Quick off the rank with the backing of the outgoing Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was the Western Australian based international boatbuilder Austal.

It would be appreciated if our 12 Tasmanian senators (can you name six of them?) would follow Cormann’s example and champion their state above their political parties.

Meanwhile Austal has engaged a Hobart public relations company, Font PR, which cunningly placed 400 glossy brochures for the steel mono-hull Austal ships on the dining-tables of the Hobart business community just before Premier Gutwein’s budget breakfast sit-down. It was an unusual way to pitch.

Incat now has capacity to build much larger ferries, such as this Buccoo Reef one, capable of tackling the often challenging Bass Strait waters. Picture: BEN GRAINGER
media_cameraIncat now has capacity to build much larger ferries, such as this Buccoo Reef one, capable of tackling the often challenging Bass Strait waters. Picture: BEN GRAINGER

It was certainly an attention grabber, especially given that Peter Gutwein had earlier told Parliament that steel hulls built overseas would be his “least preferred option, to an option to look at and build catamarans here”.

Was Clifford backfooted by an outsider ‘poaching’ his eggs at the Premier’s breakfast? Probably not. He is known to be cautious with a quid and prefers to do his own PR.

“Why hire dogs when you can do your own barking?”

The Clifford I know is a most effective barker.

He holds at least two trump cards. The first is a proven, highly regarded on-going boat-building business not a 15 minute-drive from the Premier’s office.

The second, in our COVID-ruptured economy, is an appeal to Tasmanian patriotism and practicality. We might still have a cultural cringe in Tasmania but with INCAT we should never labour under a technology cringe.

These ships are the world’s best of their kind, making this one of those rare Yes We Can moments.

It is surely not to be passed up.

There might be an argument between the suitability of a wave-piercing aluminium cat and a traditional steel mono-hull.

But Clifford says the cat will be faster to build and to run, cheaper to man, quicker at sea and considerably more fuel efficient.

The INCAT creator claims size at sea is no longer an issue. The days of the smaller so called ‘spew-cats’ are long gone. Aluminium catamarans today can be as big as any purpose suited conventional craft and upwards of 200m.

DECEMBER 9, 1999: New 900 passenger high speed catamaran "Devil Cat" ferry after its arrival from USA that will operate between Melbourne & Hobart. Pic: Graham Crouch.
media_cameraDECEMBER 9, 1999: New 900 passenger high speed catamaran “Devil Cat” ferry after its arrival from USA that will operate between Melbourne & Hobart. Pic: Graham Crouch.

While the final configuration is up to the government and TT Line, the decision to build in Tasmania should be a no-brainer. It would be the biggest infrastructure project in the state’s history and uncommonly, it is guaranteed deliverable.

It mightn’t cost the billion dollars that would’ve been spent in Germany but (depending on the product ordered) even at half that, most of the money stays in Tasmania where historically it would represent our biggest one-off state investment.

This week we learnt that Tasmania once again has Australia’s highest unemployment rate at 8.2 per cent and rising.

As Tasmanian economist John Lawrence warned in this paper this week: “If inaction continues, we are doomed.”

There is a flotilla of smaller Tasmanian businesses already surfing on the bow wave of every INCAT build, including everything from seat manufacturers, carpet layers, lifeboat and communications manufacturers and electrical and plumbing contractors.

Component providers can be spread statewide sharing the investment.

These are highly paid, specialised, full-time jobs of the type Tasmania so urgently needs.

And of course, high-income earners spend more money and pay more tax.

The Australian Government has come to realise that for both economic and strategic reasons our nation must reclaim real jobs in manufacturing.

Building our own Bass Strait ferry here in Tasmania will represent an injection of patriotic pride and self-confidence and importantly will help ensure our inclusion in the coming new age of Australian manufacturing.

Tasmanians have been building boats for two centuries. It would be faint-hearted today not to grasp this opportunity.

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