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Jobs for the girls: no sinking feelings about Sophie Mirabella

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Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Sophie Mirabella is about to join the board of the Australian Submarine Corporation.

Sophie Mirabella is about to join the board of the Australian Submarine Corporation. Photo: John Russell

THE ONLY person who could possibly stand ahead of me in admiration of Sophie Mirabella and all she represents is Sophie Mirabella herself, and maybe her mother.

I have marvelled at her talents through thick and thin, in good times and in bad, and for better and worse. I have tutted as she has been wilfully misunderstood, and winced as I have seen people rush to hate her. I have seen her calm, her charm, her empathy, stoicism and indifference to pain - particularly when being suffered by others. Even in my dreams and the current drought caused by her recent indeposition, I can hear her firm, dulcet, convincing and cogent tones in debate.

Far from being a divisive force, she is one of those great Australians with a capacity to unite people - sadly, all too often, in a very personalised dislike of her. For myself, as soon as I hear her on any issue, I know where I stand.

But strong as is my appreciation of her talents, I must even bow to the wisdom of Tony Abbott and his team in recognising the myriad ways by which her talents could be best used as a director of the Australian Submarine Corporation. Even at a cost of making her ineligible for positions that might have seemed of superior status.

Abbott could have given her a sensitive diplomatic appointment (ambassador to Indonesia would be where I would have started her). Or perhaps made her a vice-admiral, to join that regiment, perhaps division, of Australian Defence Force officers who have stars on their shoulders. This would have made life easier at home, as well as allowing her to be sent to manage our borders, no doubt with far more elan and aggressive spirit than the hapless, taciturn and dull Lieutenant -General Angus Campbell.

I could even now see Brendan Nelson himself constructing the War Memorial exhibit showing her throwing refugee women and babies to the sharks and men to work in the mines from concentration camps at Nauru, to the roar of the crowds from Cronulla.

It's all about sending messages, and Sophie is always on-message.

She could have been made director of entertainments on Manus Island, or sent to revive the Norfolk Island economy - a task even more daunting than kick-starting Tasmania's. Made ambassador for women and kids instead of that wet wussy Natasha Stott Despoja.

The governor-generalship is soon to be vacant and needs a person of Sophie's calibre, or bore, if only to show everyone that a new spirit is abroad, now that that witch Gillard has gone.

There are umpteen judicial seats on which Mirabella could perch her bum, prior to taking up the next vacancy on the High Court. There is even the chairmanship of the Future Fund; Peter Costello is only acting in the position and I'm sure he'd step aside with alacrity if he knew Sophie was free.

All of these are seats, like Indi, which she seems to have misplaced at the last election, she could have filled in a memorable way, leaving lasting impressions.

It is characteristic of her sense of duty, and her natural humility, that she has chosen instead to venture occasionally to Adelaide, sharing her experience of the briny blue and knowledge of boat-building with captains of industry, sailors, submariners and, we especially hope, the highly pampered workforce constructing, or repairing their constructions of, submarines and advanced warfare destroyers.

All will appreciate her guidance, as will, no doubt, some of the weapons being made for our advanced destroyers, which do not seem to go where they are pointed.

As is well known, there are problems inside ASC Pty Ltd, a commercial operation that was nationalised by that wicked socialist John Howard in 2000. It has never, so far as I am aware, won a single contract on merit. It has certainly never done so by offering the lowest price, the quickest delivery or even most efficient sea-going vehicle. It is not famed for the value of its warranties, guarantees, or the quality of its after-sales service, either. It is considered somewhat of a miracle that at any one time only about two of its six submarines are fit to be submerged.

Apart from the maintenance cost, this fundamental lack of reliability might have been reckoned a great saving to the Australian economy, and a preventive of naval embarrassment, given that the navy has been having trouble attracting submariners - particularly ones willing to go underwater in these boats.

The continent has been especially vulnerable as a result: indeed it is understood that we are no longer able to do routine circuits of Tasmania to assure ourselves of its safety.

The image of Sophie in a sailor suit, and the knowledge that she is taking charge, is bound to increase enlistments. I could, in fact, see her, and her finger, on a Kitchener-style ''I want you'' poster.

Morale will also soar with the knowledge that Ms Mirabella is planning, while on the board, to concentrate on improving the corporation's focus on quality control, noise on board the submarine while in service, on customer service, and on industrial relations in the shipyards. It is to be expected - and hoped - that she will go on several familiarising voyages, perhaps whiling away any spare time by entertaining the crew with legal lectures on trusts, wills and succession, or on equitable doctrines and remedies.

It will, I expect, be soon established that all of the problems of ASC have been the fault of past Labor governments. Not only those of Gillard and Kevin Rudd, of course, but before them of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and, especially, of their minister for defence Kim Beazley. And mostly from a misguided sense that manufacturing industry in Australia (or more narrowly South Australia) could be sustained by subsidy against all of the laws of economics and commonsense.

One cannot see her lobbying for any change to her view of the relationship of government to inefficient industry, even if it prevents her from doubling her retirement pension by way of board fees. That is not to suggest that she will want to see the ASC closed, or made to crawl away, wounded and cowed, in the manner of a Holden, a Ford or, soon perhaps, a Toyota. Far from it. Once she has straightened things up, implemented a few changes and bullied or cowed the workforce, her operation will be made to float (or sink, when necessary) on their own merits, without any assistance from taxpayers. And to make a profit doing so. It was that sort of experience of running a business which put her into parliament - and, once she had achieved everything she wanted, propelled her out again.

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