**Check against delivery**
GARETH PARKER: There's a range of things that I want to discuss with my next guest, including the Defence Force's proper role in bushfire recovery. Also, it appears that another major Defence procurement program, this time our new submarines, have got serious problems identified by the Australian National Audit Office. We'll come back to that issue too but there has been another rocket attack in Iraq on a base that as far as I can establish does in fact house Coalition troops including Australians. The Defence Minister is Linda Reynolds. Minister, good morning.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Good morning, Gareth, and happy new year to you and your listeners.
GARETH PARKER: And to you. Thanks for giving us your time this morning. I do just want to start with the Iraq rocket attack because it is pretty serious. Yesterday, overnight, there are reports that an Iraqi military base which houses Coalition forces was targeted by a rocket attack. It's the Al Taji military base about 85km north of Baghdad. Can you confirm that Australian troops are at that base?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Yes, I can. We've had 300 plus Australian personnel at Taji for several years working to train the Iraqi security forces in countering terrorism. So, yes, we do have nearly 300 troops in the base but first of all can I say that all Australian personnel have been accounted for and are safe and, in fact, we didn't have any personnel in the vicinity of those attacks.
GARETH PARKER: Do you know if there has been any casualties or damages reported from those missile attacks, from those rocket attacks?
LINDA REYNOLDS: The advice I have at the moment is that there were certainly no Australian or Coalition lives taken and we're not sure yet about any other damage, but can I just reiterate that all Australian personnel have been accounted for and are safe and none were in the vicinity of the rocket attacks.
GARETH PARKER: OK, that is good news. Of course, the continuing presence of Australian troops in Baghdad was discussed at a National Security Committee meeting of Cabinet last week after the drama in Iran; does this rocket attack alter that calculus at all?
LINDA REYNOLDS: As the Minister for Defence, I and the Government, have one overriding priority and that is the safety and security of all of our men and women in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in the broader Middle East. We are always closely monitoring what's happening in a very volatile region of the world, so we are monitoring things very closely, we are making sure that our people are safe and we do, every week, review that at the National Security Committee of Cabinet but can I just say in terms of what is happening there, Australia has been very strong in urging all parties to show restraint and to work to de-escalation of the tensions that currently exist in the Middle East. Again, can reiterate that our priority is always the safety and security of our personnel, and of course our diplomatic staff, and we are coordinating closely with not only the US but also with other Coalition partners. May just make a final point, Gareth.
GARETH PARKER: Sure.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Just to remind Australians why we're there, is we are there in Iraq to counter Daesh and ISIL, which is not only a threat to the people of the Middle East but also they remain a clear danger and threat to Australians, both overseas and here in Australia. So all Australians should be incredibly proud of the work that our men and women have done there for several years. We've trained over 46,000 Iraqi security forces to counter terrorism, which is not only a good thing for their own people but it is also a really great thing for all Australians.
GARETH PARKER: Be that as it may, the fight against ISIS is the purpose for being there; the reports are that this attack was likely carried out by Iranian affiliated Shia militias. Would that be your advice?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, for obvious reasons I'm not going to discuss operational intelligence but can I just assure all Australians today that the safety and security of our people is our number one priority. It is a somewhat volatile and unpredictable region, one that it is important that we have maintained a presence in but we are closely monitoring the situation and making sure that our people are as safe and secure as we can possibly make them.
GARETH PARKER: OK. Can I talk to you about submarines, Minister? The Australian National Audit Office has handed down a scathing report yesterday. The Navy submarine program, it says, is officially running nine months late. Given that these subs aren't even going to be in service for another 15 years, that's a real concern, that they're nine months late, isn't it?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Gareth, I think the facts are always important in discussions like this, particularly about our critical capabilities for the defence of our nation and I would encourage all Australians who are interested in the submarine program to actually Google the ANAO report, it's called 'Future Submarine Program – Transition to Design' and have a look at what the report actually said.
So what it said is that the contract that we have with Naval Group is fit for purpose. It also says that for such a large and complex project, we have appropriate risk management strategies and, as you said, the first submarine is not scheduled for delivery until 2032. The report itself also confirms that there is no change to the delivery timeframe or budget.
In relation to delays, yes, we have had a delay but, Gareth, it is a 5 week delay in this long-term project, in the design phase which will be picked up over the course of the next year. So, it is appropriate that we take the time to get this design right in the early phases so that when we go into production there is less likelihood of cost blowouts and time blowouts.
GARETH PARKER: What about the finding from the Defence Department or finding from the National Audit Office that says the Defence Department is unable to show that the $400 million spent so far in design work has been fully effective?
LINDA REYNOLDS: I welcome that finding and we've got some more work to do to make that clearer but if you go back and have a look at what the report actually says, it is talking about a 5 week delay which for a milestone that has been met now since they started writing that report. But let's have a look at the facts: this is the largest and most complex project in Australia's history. They also found that the project is in its early design phase and it did find that everything we are doing to construct the facilities in South Australia, develop the workforce, everything is happening on time and on budget. Yes, there have been some changes in the design phase but, again, I would argue that is prudent to make sure we get this complex project right up front.
GARETH PARKER: So, what, you think this is on track? You think this audit shows that this is all on track?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, yes. You have a look and, Gareth, I'd ask every listener to actually go, if you're interested, go and have a look at the ANAO report itself. It confirms there has been no change to the delivery timeframe or the budget of this project and since we've been in contract, we have a 5 week delay in two years.
GARETH PARKER: OK.
GARETH PARKER: Are you able to give us an update on a different issue around submarines, that is the life cycle maintenance of the Collins Class submarines, that the submarines that are presently in service and will remain so until these new submarines replace them. That's the issue that the Western Australian State Government's been lobbying hard, to move that life cycle maintenance to here in Western Australia, a decision is due when? Soon?
LINDA REYNOLDS: The decision will be made when the Government is ready to make a decision on this important capability, but it is reasonably imminent.
GARETH PARKER: OK, is it going to be a good decision for Western Australia?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Good try, Gareth, but we will make the right decision in the national interest, to make sure that we can keep this wonderful capability. The Collins Class submarine is now a world-leading capability, it is only halfway through its life, and we just need to make sure, the Government needs to make sure, that we make the right decision for this capability. As I said, it is reasonably imminent.
GARETH PARKER: Alright. We'll wait and see. It's going to be a tough one for you to explain if it doesn't come here, given you're a Western Australian Senator.
LINDA REYNOLDS: I am a Western Australian Senator but I'm also now the Minister for Defence and my overriding responsibility in this position is the national interest, to make sure that we have the best possible capability to deal with a wide range of contingencies including now, as you mentioned in your introduction, bushfires; so I must always make a decision that is in the entire nation's interest.
GARETH PARKER: We'll come to the bushfires in a minute but last question on this. Has Western Australia made compelling national interest arguments?
LINDA REYNOLDS: We've received a lot of compelling arguments from Western Australia and South Australia but, Gareth, this the important thing, it is not a win-or-loss situation between two States.
GARETH PARKER: Not sure the Premiers see it that way.
LINDA REYNOLDS: This Government, unlike the previous Government, the Labor Government, that commissioned not a single vessel in Australia, we are now building up two naval shipbuilding hubs in this nation which is in South Australia and in Western Australia. So in the long-term, both will be viable, large shipbuilding and ship maintenance hubs. So this is not, despite the jockeying between both states, this is something that both states benefit from.
GARETH PARKER: OK. We'll wait and see. Sounds like we won't have to wait too long. The issue of the proper role, the correct role, the balanced role the Federal Government plays in a bushfire disaster is obviously in focus after what's been happening on the east coast. The Prime Minister has been criticised for the Government's response to this. I think that I made some remarks about this before 10 but the front page of the 'Financial Review' today where John Kehoe has basically done the ring-around of the States, to me there's some pretty interesting and revealing comments in there that suggest the States aren't exactly clamouring for the Federal Government to take a more active role when it comes to decisions around sending in the armed forces in response to a bushfire crisis. What have you made of that?
LINDA REYNOLDS: It has been a very interesting process, Gareth. The ADF has actually been involved in these bushfires since September last year and as the bushfires have ramped up in terms of duration and severity, so too has the ADF's contributions. Now, as we all know, ADF members are not trained firefighters but in times of national disasters we have always provided assistance to large-scale natural disasters. I think what's happened here is that, given the severity of the bushfires this season and the impact, there is a lot of desire on behalf of the local communities for the ADF to come in and support in ways that we never have done before.
So today, as I've said publicly many times, I am an incredibly proud Defence Minister. We have done extraordinary work across so many areas, we've now got 6,000 full-time and Reservists across the nation, including some here from Western Australia who are supporting those efforts. But you’re right –
GARETH PARKER: And everyone agrees with that. I think the question is going forward: Who should be responsible for deploying them? Should it continue to be the case that the trigger event is a request from the States or should it be up to a Federal Government to send them in, I guess, first?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, these are discussions that the Prime Minister is having with Premiers, who are still obviously focused on fighting the fires, and when we have a COAG meeting later in the year, all of these things will need to be discussed. But, ultimately, fighting bushfires and emergency management is, quite rightly the role of the State Governments and they have done an amazing job. So there is absolutely no question in my mind or the Prime Minister's mind the states and the emergency services have been amazing but there has to be greater coordination and understanding.
GARETH PARKER: I guess the point I'm reflecting on, Minister, is the Prime Minister's copped a fair old whack from people who said he should have done more but when the States are asked to review whether the current arrangements should change, the early, preliminary indication seems to be no.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, this is the thing, is we need to have these discussions once the disaster is over because emotions are, clearly, this is a very traumatic time for everybody involved; for those on the ground, people who've lost houses, relatives, their businesses. So it is a heightened emotional time. This is an important discussion but I think you're right, this will always remain the responsibility of state governments but, given the amount of support the ADF can provide and now are providing, we do need to discuss how that is triggered. Some people seem to think, Gareth, that the ADF has only come in lately. We have been on the ground since September this year and we have now the largest mobilisation in Australia of the ADF in our history for domestic operations. It has been done, I think, with great credit of the ADF.
GARETH PARKER: Yes, and I think everyone agrees with that. Minister, thank you for your time this morning.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Thank you, Gareth.