Cairns Marine Precinct

  • Australia’s Naval ship-building programs have recently been substantially boosted from 12 to 26 vessels.
  • The Navy has announced it requires its planned Regional Maintenance Centre North-East in Cairns to begin operating by 2022 – the first of three new RMCs in Australia.
  • The Cairns Marine Precinct (CMP) is a national defence asset that currently employs 4600 people.
  • The State-recognised precinct requires further government funding commitments, aligned with policies which create jobs, build vital infrastructure, diversify the region’s economy, provide positive economic return and facilitate ongoing private investment.
  • A commitment by the State and Federal governments to work together to finalise the Cairns marine precinct business case in 2021 and deliver on its recommendations to fully develop the precinct – including a $150m+ investment to create new direct and indirect Queensland jobs, adopt new technology and build tomorrow’s workforce.

The Cairns Port is a critical enabler of the Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) economy, with the region welcoming the Federal Government’s commitment to base at least four new Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) in Cairns. The sustainment and maintenance of vessels in northern Australia aligns well with existing shipbuilding commitments in southern Australia, and complements Australia’s Step-Up to the Pacific foreign policy initiatives.

As one of three new Regional Maintenance Centres (RMC) for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the others being Darwin and Perth, Cairns provides a national naval sustainment and maintenance hub enabling the Cairns Marine Precinct (CMP) to build on its present commitments of servicing vessels from HMAS Cairns, Darwin, the United States and the Pacific Islands.

The significant Defence and Border Force contracts managed out of the precinct ensures a skilled, year-round permanent marine and engineering workforce of 4600. Cairns is also home to a large and diverse marine sector with 1603 commercial vessels across tourism, fishing and shipping, and an active cruising yacht squadron.

In 2017 the Federal Government committed $24 million to enhance and modernise the three shipyards within the Cairns Marine Precinct. This Stage 1 investment has delivered preliminary improvements to wharves, hardstands, slipways and services and has seen each of the shipyard owners invest considerably more than the original government spend. With the Navy’s tight timeline for RMC North-East in Cairns to be operational, an additional federal investment of $24m is now required for Stage 2 works in the three shipyards to provide necessary capabilities and capacity.

In 2020 the State Government committed $28m (over two years) to provide increased wharf capacity under the auspice of Ports North plus $2m for a detailed business case to inform a step-change within the precinct.

Ultimately, upon completion of the business case, the State Government is projecting a further $150m+ will need to be invested by both levels of government to create the step change in overall capacity.

The investment in the individual shipyards and the overall Cairns Marine Precinct expansion project, coupled with additional capacity and skills, will ensure that Cairns complies with the RAN’s Plan Galileo which requires that Cairns be fully operational as Regional Maintenance Centre North-East by 2022.

The commitment will also give effect to marine precinct master planning objectives while providing post COVID-19 economic stimulus, creating much-needed jobs, diversifying the regional economy and ultimately providing for a more secure Australia in line with Pacific Step-Up and Defence initiatives.

This Cairns Marine Precinct expansion project will deliver capability enhancements as identified in Table 1.


On 1 July 2020 the Morrison Government announced a $270 billion investment over the next 10 years to upgrade the capability and potency of the Australian Defence Force. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update signals a key change in Australia’s defence posture as it
prioritises the Indo-Pacific region.

The strategy will see continued investment in 12 Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels, and extra spending on six new Cape Class patrol boats and up to eight new vessels optimised for mine countermeasures and hydrographic survey, taking Australia’s total shipbuilding
activity from 12 to 26 vessels.

The Cairns Marine Precinct is Australia’s maintenance centre for the RAN’s hydrographic vessels as well as Australian Border
Force Cape Class vessels. It has serviced the Defence, Border Force and marine industries for many years and, as home to Fleet Base
Pacific (HMAS Cairns), is one of the few ports in Australia that can offer the Department of Defence significant expansion opportunities
in berth and land facilities.

Under the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act (2018) the Cairns port is a critical national infrastructure asset. It is the northern-most naval base on the eastern seaboard and plays a key strategic role in Australia’s northern naval capability. In acknowledging this role, in
2017-2018 the Federal Government committed to upgrading the precinct through staged investment. There is unmet and growing demand in naval, commercial and superyacht maintenance opportunities that supports a step change in ship maintenance capacity in
the CMP.

There has been significant investment by State and Federal Governments in facilities in South Australia, Western Australia and the
Northern Territory. The NT Government, for example, has committed $400m towards upgrades for its planned Regional Maintenance

Without a significant step-up in infrastructure and capability at Cairns, the existing CMP based operators may not be able to compete for all future sustainment contracts, and/or maintain or grow their business.

This will result in a potential decline in market share, loss of economic opportunity and overall regional activity levels in allied industries will also sharply decline.



INFRASTRUCTURE: Investment in ‘fit for purpose’ infrastructure is key to unlocking the maritime opportunities for Cairns with
completion of the Cairns Marine Precinct expansion project a critical enabler. As outlined in Table 1, this investment ultimately needs
to cater for larger vessels (up to 175m), have ship-lift capacity of up to 8000 tonnes, provide up to 1km of extra wharf, see multiple large vessels simultaneously in dry dock and allow considerable extra land for maintenance activities. The long term vision will be guided by
a comprehensive business case for the precinct which details demand, economic benefits, risk assessments, operating model, cost benefit, gap analysis of skills and infrastructure and funding.

WORKFORCE: To capture unmet demand and opportunities, the CMP expansion needs to be complemented by a significant step
up in industry workforce skills, training and development, both within the shipyards and also within the sector support industries. The
Queensland Government has a clear mission to grow Queensland’s Defence industry and to increase the number of Queenslanders working in Defence manufacturing from 6,000 to 10,000 over the next decade. To support the Cairns RMC, there is a major role for training to upskill existing workers, contextualise training for the marine sector, and to recruit and grow the workforce through stronger training pathways.

Informed by the precinct’s business case, a range of upskilling initiatives will need to be undertaken. Among those to be considered is
a virtual sustainment college through the Great Barrier Reef International Maritime College. The College will develop and deliver agile micro credentials that meet future Defence sustainment demands.

  • That the Federal Government commits $24 million for stage 2 capacity building within the three existing shipyards, in time for
    the Regional Maintenance Centre North-East starting operation in 2022. That the Queensland Government support and facilitate the Federal expansion of HMAS Cairns, ensuring the Department of Defence delivers on the initial $140 million upgrade of the navy base by 2024.
  • That the QLD Government $2m business case be completed by end of 2021 and the $28 million for early works to deliver in-water maintenance berths for the Cairns marine precinct expansion be finished by the end of 2022.
  • That the Federal and State governments commit to deliver the outcomes of the Cairns marine precinct expansion project business case with investment of $150+ million to further develop the Cairns Marine Precinct to Regional Maintenance Centre requirements.

PROPONENTS: Advance Cairns, Tropical Reef Shipyard, Norship, BSE Maritime Solutions
PRIORITY: Infrastructure