** E&OE Check against delivery**
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: How compelling is the case made today to bring full cycle docking to Western Australia?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, first of all, what I would say Geoff, is I welcome this plan from the West Australian Government. It is great to see Western Australia now fully engaging in the national debate on our national shipbuilding plan. A couple of points I'd make is that the Government has not yet made a decision on full cycle docking location and we will be doing so at the end of the year. But I have been engaging very constructively with Paul Papalia since I’ve become Minister for Defence, and also with Premier Marshall in South Australia. I had them both recently to Canberra, where they both received a full briefing on the process. The briefing was by myself and also Defence. So, what I'm trying to do is just make it very clear that I think that this is somewhat a bit of a false war – as Steven Marshall himself has described it – between Western Australia and South Australia.
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: When you say a false war, this is my understanding as we read it today, the thinking from here is; give us the submarine maintenance contracts - we’ve got the expertise, we’ve got the facilities to look after them. That enables South Australia to concentrate on the construction of those submarines and frigates, ensuring that those vessels are built on time.
LINDA REYNOLDS: That is the nub of the paper from Western Australia. I got it on Friday and I'll be looking at it very carefully, as will Defence. But Geoff, can I just put a bit of context around this discussion? The Federal Government has committed over $200 billion for the biggest upgrade of all of our defence capabilities since World War II. And we're doing this because our region is now increasingly contested. As you know, we are a three-ocean nation. So, the Southern Ocean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. So, when we have a look at our external environment and how things are changing, we need the best possible equipment and capability that we can afford. So as part of that $200 billion, $90 billion goes into our naval shipbuilding plan, which is the largest re-equipping of the Navy since, as I said, since World War II. So, we're backing Australian industry for the first time ever, certainly since World War II, to have the capability to deliver us these new vessels. So, 57 new Australian-built vessels. And 34 will be built in Western Australia – Austal are already well underway with the first three of the Pacific patrol boats. So, my role as the Minister for Defence is to make sure that we deliver the best capability possible for Australian Navy, in this case.
Now, I call this a false war because it is not a binary, one state wins and one state loses; both states have significant naval shipbuilding capabilities and it is in our national interest to make sure that both grow and that can sustain not only the build but the long-term maintenance and sustainment of the new fleet. So, I am only now looking at this from a capability perspective but I can assure all West Australians and people in Defence industry, and mums and dads looking for jobs for their kids in the future, here in Western Australia, we will have multi-generations of jobs in shipbuilding.
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Minister, there are, as you say, billions of dollars of naval building and maintenance opportunities and for the last few years now, we have seen the states making their claim for a bigger share of it. You might disagree, but there has been some politicking – South Australia has been a major beneficiary in the past and it didn’t do any harm that Christopher Pyne was the Defence Minister. Now you are his replacement, another West Australian Melissa Price is the Defence Industry Minister; what weight will you two have in the argument to bring the submarine maintenance program here?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, I understand the responsibilities I now have as the Minister for Defence, and it is essential for the security and safety of all Australians that we deliver the best capability. And as I've said, we have two highly capable shipyards in South Australia and in Western Australia. So, it is not a case of one benefiting at the expense of the other. Both shipyards will have thousands of multi-generational jobs. Now, in terms of how we make sure that we can deliver this project because we've got new submarines, we've got new frigates, we've got new offshore patrol vessels, we've got a range of other vessels, I now have to make sure, with Melissa Price, that we deliver this naval capability for Australia. So, my only consideration is: what is in our nation's interest? And fortunately for Western Australia and South Australia, they have great capability there, so we will be using and growing both.
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: I was keen to talk to you last week about the British Government asking Australia to perhaps join it and play a role in the Straits of Hormuz. Our listeners may be aware that Iran has captured tankers there in recent times.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Yes.
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: But what is your response likely to be?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well look, what I have said publicly several times now is a couple of things. Firstly, that the Australian Government is deeply, deeply concerned by the heightened tensions in the Middle East, and we have very strongly condemned the recent attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman. We also know that what happens in the Straits of Hormuz and in the region more generally, but particularly in the Straits, it is an issue of national importance for Australia, because between 15 and 20 per cent of our oil transits through the Straits of Hormuz. So, we do have a direct and demonstrable interest in that issue.
Now, we have been approached by both the United States and the United Kingdom on a new multilateral initiative for freedom of movement, to guarantee freedom of movement through the Strait, and to keep those sea lanes open. So what the position of the Government is – and again, I've reinforced this several times publicly – is that like everything in the Middle East, it is complex and there are a range of factors to consider. So what we are doing at the moment is we are consulting further with the United States and the United Kingdom to get some more information about what this mission may look like.
So, we're in the process of doing that at the moment, and then that will inform our decision on what we may or may not do. I had a great conversation with Richard Marles here in Perth on Friday who is the Shadow Minister for Defence, and we discussed and we agreed that what was happening in Iran was of grave concern to us, and the globe more widely - and the world more widely. I also briefed him on the Government's position, and our thinking on those circumstances, and I also just had a chat to him about the sorts of things we may do if we do decide to participate.
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: What would be a consideration? Are the British asking possibly for an Australian warship to patrol and as a result of that, protect those oil tankers as the British are looking at doing?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, that is certainly one option we would be considering. And we have got some very potent air assets as well, and also our people working at the headquarters. So there's a whole range of options available to us, so that's why we're finding some more information out now from both the United States and the United Kingdom to see what their thinking is, to see what construct this might look like. And then we will make a decision about whether we support it or not.
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: On Drive this afternoon, my guest is Australia’s Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. Just one more observation about that Minister. I know that Britain asked France and Germany to similarly be part of this and both those countries said no. Not because it came from Britain, but at this point in time they don’t want to be seen to be tying policy decisions to the United States and the aggressive attitude of Donald Trump. Will that come into the thinking of the Australian Government too?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, look every nation has to take the [inaudible] of their own interests - well, whatever our interests are to keep them at heart, and of course every other nation has slightly different circumstances and different considerations. So, as I've said is the Australian government, we'll make an informed decision in line with our own sovereign interests. And ultimately that's why we're seeking more advice about what other nations are thinking, and how either is part of the United States and the United Kingdom operation, or other nations might also contribute, but in a different way. We all share the goal - we need to have secured freedom of navigation through the Straits of Hormuz, and there are many ways to achieve that. So that's really where we are up to with the discussions at the moment, Geoff.
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Okay. Last question: I wonder if you would reflect – just for a moment – on the comments made by Andrew Hastie last week in which he expressed concern about Chinese expansionism. Comments that have led to some members of your Government describe him as being unhelpful as the Government tries to manage a pretty complex relationship. From a Defence perspective. Was he right to say what he did or was he at the very least entitled to say what he did?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, he was certainly entitled to say it as a backbencher, he was entitled to express his opinions. But look, there's a couple of points I'd make in relation to this Geoff. The first one is that the US-China bilateral relationship is the most globally significant one, and it's in no country’s interests – including our own – to see that bilateral competition becoming adversarial. Australia does enjoy a longstanding relationship with China under a co-operative strategic partnership, and there are a lot of positive opportunities for both Australia and China in our bilateral relationship. Like all relationships however there are differences from time to time, and the real issue I think for this government, for any government, is how you manage those differences when they come up. So, as I said, Andrew Hastie had a right to say that as a backbencher, but those views are not shared by the government. But the second point I would make about that is that it was very disappointing to see how Labor has politicised this foreign policy issue, and that the opposition is now pump priming this because that clearly is not in our national interest, and it's very disappointing.
GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Thank you very much for talking to me today.
LINDA REYNOLDS: You're welcome. Thanks Geoff.