Shipyards in the port city of Cairns in far-north Queensland are set to boom, with hundreds of millions of dollars projected to be spent on naval infrastructure, all with a view to making the town a major Pacific maritime hub.

There has been no let-up in work during COVID-19 pandemic for the more than 4,000 workers, who are employed, directly and indirectly, to service defence and civilian fleets from Australia and across the Pacific region, with the number expected to double this decade.

In pre-COVID times, more than 50,000 cruise ship-based tourists a year arrived in the city, it’s a major home port for the eastern tuna and prawn fishery fleets, and exports a modest 1.5m tonnes of cargo.

The collapse of the tourism industry due to the pandemic has spurred on federal and state governments to act on calls by the local business community to create new, skilled, and well-paid jobs through economic diversification. The maritime industry is central to this and links to and with the Pacific are strong additions to Cairns’ arsenal.

“Cairns is a Pacific capital of Australia … (and) very important to our engagement with the Pacific”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in January 2019 as his government responded to China’s increasing presence in the region.

“We see it as a strategic port, as a port of national significance… its link between here and the Pacific is a key part of why we believe it is so strategic”.

It follows the Pacific “Step Up” announcement at Townsville’s Lavarack barracks declaring “Queensland our gateway to the Pacific”, with the Pacific listed as one of Australia highest priorities in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. 

Recent Australian outcry over a MoU between Papua New Guinea and China to possibly build a $200m fisheries industry base in Daru in the Torres Strait has further fuelled the impetus for a Cairns build-up.

With a long history as a port since the colonial days, and as a key staging post during the Pacific War, the city wants to reclaim its maritime legacy and even see a return to ship building.

The 1870s gold rush saw the port of Cairns established on the land of the Yidinji people, receiving supplies and immigrants from across the world, including large numbers of Chinese and Sikhs, and becoming an export point for gold, silver, timber, sugar and other agricultural products. 

The once mighty Burns Philp shipping line and blackbirders set up office in the early 1890s for trade along the Queensland coast and to the north, including passenger “excursions” to New Guinea.

HMAS Cairns was opened in the 1970s and was considered one of the most strategic forward operational Navy facilities in the southern hemisphere. 

Hundreds of ships were built in Cairns, including 14 Fremantle-class patrol boats and the revolutionary first “big cats” for Great Barrier Reef tourism in the 1980s, and 20 years ago Cairns was for a time rated as Australia’s busiest cruise ship port and Queensland’s busiest commercial port.

With the end of the Fremantle-class building in the mid-1980s and development of new ports further south, the industry declined dramatically.

Cairns has longstanding and strong links to the Pacific and hopes to leverage its strategic position to capitalise on the delivery of security, education, health and infrastructure in the region and even one day host the Pacific Games.

HMAS Cairns is one of only five naval bases in Australia and is in line for a $600m upgrade over the next decade, including a $140m tender currently underway.

In December 2020, Defence announced a further tender to set up in Cairns the first of four Regional Maintenance Centres  to be operational by the end of this year to sustain Navy’s new Cape-class patrol boats.

It forms part of Plan Galileo, a federal government strategy to investment over $170b in naval shipbuilding announced in the 2020 Force Structure Plan, which is hoped will see the doubling of the Australian fleet tonnage.

Local shipyards do the maintenance work for the Navy and Australian Border Force (ABF) patrol boats. Flow on benefits include up skilling and capacity to service the cruise, transport, cargo, tourism, fishing and super-yacht fleets, as the home port for more than 1,600 commercial vessels.

Strategically located, Cairns will act as the service centre for Australia’s new Arafura-class patrol boats when they start entering service this year and for 21 Australian-supplied, Guardian-class Pacific nation patrol boats, and will be a key link in the supply chain for the multi-billion-dollar redevelopment of the join PNG-US-Australia Lombrum navy base on Manus island in Papua New Guinea.

With a large Pacific community, an estimated 10,000 PNG-born residents alone, many of them Australian citizens, and with a large Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander population, it has strong cultural connections to the region.

Local industry lobby group Advance Cairns has long advocated for the Cairns Marine Precinct and the city to be the focus of Australia’s Pacific Engagement Strategy, with the maritime industry growth acting as an economic driver.

Key recommendations include establishing a branch of the “Office of the Pacific” in Cairns, to administer the Pacific Engagement Strategy from northern Australia, and to relocate the Australian Pacific Training Coalition from Brisbane TAFE to Cairns TAFE.

Industry confidence in Cairns received a boost with Perth-based shipbuilder Austal, designer of the Cape and Guardian-class patrol boats, recently acquiring BSE Maritime Solutions yards for $27.5m. Their assets include the largest mobile boat hoist in the world, which was installed last year.

Norships is the biggest employer in the marine precinct. The company expects its workbook to grow rapidly, with up to 40 per cent coming from the Pacific region.

They operate alongside more than 100 maritime related businesses including international operators Thales Australia and the world’s largest ship surveyor Det Norske Veritas.

During Queensland’s recent state election, tens-of-millions were committed to building new wharves and the finalisation of the Ports North masterplan, and follows the dredging to widen the shipping channel to take larger cruise ships.

Queensland’s government is also underwriting a bid by Cairns TAFE to snatch the federal Maritime Training Program tender for 12 Pacific nations from its decades-long base in Launceston, Tasmania, to add to its existing training programs. 

With the Pacific’s patrol boats maintained in Cairns, crews could then also train in tropical conditions, and fly in and out of its international airport. 

Through James Cook University campus, Great Barrier Reef International Marine College, and other institutions, Cairns already has strong cultural, educational, health care and business ties with the Pacific islands region. With new investments in maritime industries, the ties are poised to become stronger and deeper, sustained by an ongoing political focus on regional security.


Stefan Armbruster is an Industry Fellow of the Griffith Asia Institute and a member of the Pacific Hub