SUBJECTS: Australian shipbuilding industry; Nuclear-powered submarines; Collins-class fleet.
DAVID BEVAN: When an opportunity comes up to speak to the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, we're going to grab it. I had that opportunity earlier this morning. He came out to the ABC studios here at Collinswood and I began by asking him this question:
Since the election, how much have you learnt about the challenges involved in acquiring a nuclear‑powered submarine? Because I imagine you're in Opposition, it's a bit like you're in a dark room - you're just trying to work out what's going on. You win office and suddenly the lights are turned on. Were there any surprises?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It's a really good question. That's a pretty good analogy, actually. You, kind of, in Opposition, are feeling your way around the room. You have a sense of what's in there and you know that the lights are off, and you know that if you do get the opportunity of governing, you'll get to turn the lights on and see it and that's what's happened. So, the answer is I've learnt a lot. I would be honest in saying I've still got a lot more to learn. There have been some learnings which I hadn't expected, which I'm really happy to share with you today. It's a huge challenge. It's really one of the biggest undertakings that our nation will ever do, is to acquire a nuclear‑powered submarine. But it's critically important and that last point is something that I could see from Opposition. We do need this capability.
BEVAN: What was the most significant thing you learnt when you turned the lights on?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I think — and it's really the point I've been trying to make over the last couple of days — it is critically important that we develop an industrial capability here in Australia, and that means here at Osborne. The industrial capabilities of both the United States and the United Kingdom when it comes to building subs are at full capacity. So, were we to make a decision, for example, that we wanted to buy these submarines off the shelf, have them built overseas, we would be putting ourselves in a very long queue and it would take a long time to get the capability. So, in many ways, it's actually through the lens of AUKUS, it's our contribution to the three nations that we do develop the industrial capability here in Australia to build submarines — to build the nuclear‑powered submarines. And seeing it through that lens, that it's not just a desirable thing for our industry, although it very much it, but it's actually something that really is, I feel, an obligation on the part of the country in terms of our commitment to AUKUS but is also the pathway to getting the eight submarines the fastest.
BEVAN: So, you're saying there is no shortcut to getting a nuclear‑powered submarine?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm looking at every avenue to get them as soon as possible, so if there are shortcuts out there, which we can do thoroughly, I’ll be looking for them. But really, the point I'm trying to make is that building capability here in Australia, here in Adelaide, is part of getting there as fast as we can. And that's a really important point for Australian industry to understand, but it's an important opportunity for South Australia to understand.
BEVAN: Do we know if we're going to get a British or American nuclear‑powered sub?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: We don't yet. I mean, we know we'll get one of them.
BEVAN: Because it's almost a year since we tore up the French deal.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Not quite a year.
BEVAN: Well, it was around September, wasn't it, last year?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Indeed.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: So, and I think the time frame that the former government set out then is about right in terms of making its decision and, again, this is probably another learning for me. I wondered whether or not from opposition this was an obvious decision. It's not. There is a process to be worked through here in terms of, not just whether it's British or American, but exactly what is the option that we will pursue. That process is very much in full swing. I do think being able to make a decision in the early part of next year is right, and that's the time frame that we are working to. We need to do that quickly and that would be quickly. It's important that we know exactly what the option is that we are pursuing and then, in addition to that, what I've asked, okay, if we make the decision about what we're going with, I want to know every possible way we can bring that forward because time is of the essence. We need this capability as quickly as possible because a capability gap really has been opened up by the former government. And if there is then a capability gap, which we're expecting, how do we fill it?
BEVAN: When will the first nuclear‑powered submarine be ready for active service?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good question, and I don't know the answer. I suppose the way I would answer that is that when we took office, where the former government had left it, is probably the answer to that question was in the mid 2040s. I'm really looking at ways in which we can try and get that earlier because that is a long way off. And to put that date in some kind of context, when Collins were first built, when the former government came to power in 2013, it was expected that Collins would start to come out of service in the middle of this decades, in the next few years, which would have meant that we would have expected to have a successor submarine, likewise, in the middle of this decade. The fact that we are now looking at it in the 2040s is effectively a 20‑year capability gap that we need to find an answer to. Now part of that, I think, is trying to work out can we bring that date forward as far as possible, but we are going to have to look at options about how we get from this day, in 2022, to whenever that first sub gets in the water. And it's simply not an option for the nation to have a decline in submarine capability over that period.
BEVAN: When we do get that boat, will it have been built in Australia? Is there any doubt in your mind about that?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: The first boat?
BEVAN: The first boat.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think the answer to that is that the first boat will have — there'll be parts of it that are constructed in different parts of the world, and we know that now. In fact, if we're being honest, we know that in relation to the last boat in the sense that the nuclear reactor will not be constructed in Australia, so that has always been clear. And even when you talk — well, when we talk about Australian industry content on any vessel, it's never one hundred per cent, so we're talking about a really, really complex machine which is going to have components that come from — I was going to say all over the world, it's not all over the world but from a number of countries. What is really clear, though, is we have to build the capability in Australia. Like, building the industrial capability and really doing it as a quickly as we can is central to us getting these capabilities as fast as possible.
BEVAN: Can you understand why people listening right now — because this project is very important, it's important to the whole nation, but of course it's very important to South Australians because we expect to play a major role in building the things. Can you understand why people listening right now would be thoroughly confused, thoroughly confused because we were promised we were going to have these French‑built subs and they were going to be 80, 90 per cent Australian content and then it went down to 60 per cent and then the whole thing was torn up. We might get a British boat. We might get an American boat. You don't know when we're going to get them. You don't know how much Australian content there's going to be in there, and this is about the defence of the nation, for crying out loud.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, I think people are thoroughly confused and it has been a very confusing nine years. I mean, the former government really were out there trying to get a submarine from Japan, and they walked away from Japan. Then they did a deal with the French and then they ripped up that deal a few years later. So, we have been all over the place as a nation in terms of acquiring the successor to Collins. That is why, effectively, over the period of the last decade a 20-year capability gap has opened. I am very mindful of this. I'm very mindful that the process that we are going through right now about choosing which option we run with, is important. But really when we announce that, we actually need to be providing an announcement to the Australian people - and very much the people of South Australia, an answer which ends that confusion. An answer which says here's the boat we're going to run with, this is the year in which we're going to get this, this is the capability gap that is therefore opened up, and here is how we're going to plug it. I think that's a kind of national capability message. I think there's an additional message for those in South Australia which says and this is South Australia's role in it. Now, South Australia is going to have a massive role in it. I mean, what is really clear is that the heart of the nation's shipbuilding effort, but submarine‑building effort as well, is here in South Australia. This is where the skills are. This is where the infrastructure is. We need to get this capability as soon as possible, so leveraging a strength, which is what Osborne is, is going to be fundamental to that answer.
BEVAN: What's it going to cost?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good question as well. That announcement that we make at the beginning of next year will have to answer that question as well, which is the cost. It is going to be significant. But perhaps it's at this point, which is why do submarines matter? Submarines matter because they, of all the platforms we have, are the one which has the capacity to put the biggest question mark in any adversary's mind. They are pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the best way we can acquire capability which builds Australia's strategic space. What does that mean? That means empowering Australia to act in the world. I don't mean just in a military sense, but in terms of our diplomacy, in terms of our trade. Getting the hard‑power equation right is fundamentally important in terms of building our strategic space so that we can pursue a national interest in the world. And as an island trading nation that really matters.
BEVAN: Are you going to be - because you've got to build these nuclear‑powered submarines, but you've also got to plug the gap, and then we're talk about extending the life of Collins or the son of Collins. Is all of that going to be done down at Osborne? And when you're building facilities for an extension of Collins or a replacement of Collins - son of Collins - and a nuclear‑powered submarine, it's like trying to tap your head and rub your tummy at the same time. I mean are these facilities going to be compatible? Or are you trying to do too much down at the one spot?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Again, a really good question. I think the way to answer that is, in terms of how we plug the gap, my mind is very open to really whatever possibilities are out there based on the amount of time that we need to cover, if that makes sense. And we don't know the answer to that yet because of where the process is up to, but that, in turn, means it's really important as we sit here in July of ’22 that we have an open mind, and mine is open. I think the one thing we do know is that extending the life of Collins will be part of the solution. We also know that Osborne is Collins central, if I can put it that way. And so Osborne is going to have a really important role. Osborne is where we will develop the capability around nuclear-powered submarines. Osborne is Collins central. I mean, there is some shorter-term maintenance which is done in Western Australia, but Osborne is where Collins was built. It's where the full‑cycle docking occurs now. It's where the life‑of‑type extension will happen, and that's an important thing for people to understand as well. And there will definitely be life‑of‑type extensions on the Collins submarines.
BEVAN: And you can do all of that down at Osborne and build a facility that will build you a completely different, in so many ways, nuclear‑powered submarine? You can do all of that down at Osborne?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the answer is yes. There is space there and yesterday, for example, I was looking at actually the space that would be available where you could do exactly those things. But I think it comes back to that first point. We need to be leveraging national strength here if we're going to get this as quickly as possible. And playing to our strengths is playing to Osborne. That's really the point. In terms of Collins and extending the life of Collins and whatever may happen there, that's where the infrastructure is. You've got the sheds, which is where Collins was built, which now does the full‑cycle docking. That’s a whole lot of infrastructure, like massive infrastructure right there now, which is operating –
BEVAN: But you're going to have to build much, much bigger facilities for the nuclear‑powered.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No doubt.
BEVAN: And for the replacement, the stopgap, son of Collins, if you have that. You're going to have to — is there going to be dredging down there to fit these things? Because they're huge, aren't they, they're much bigger than Collins?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: They would be. I think they are steps we need to consider going forward. But you know right now the infrastructure is there for Collins and in terms of getting Collins — well, extending the life of Collins – Osborne is central to that equation.
BEVAN: So, you need people.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yes.
BEVAN: And you don't want to lose the people.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No.
BEVAN: So is basically what you're saying, Richard Marles, to South Australians and the entire nation is just: hold on, be patient, you'll get answers in six months' time. We'll fill in the gaps early next year?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, give me nine months, but in part that is right. But I think we are also saying to South Australians that there is huge opportunity here. Whichever way you cut this, there is massive opportunity for this state. We don't get to the end of this project or to the maturation of this project without leveraging our national strengths and the strength is here. So, whatever is the precise answer, it is a great opportunity for this state and for this city. And might I say, the supply chains which are going to support this will extend right across the country so there'll be opportunities beyond South Australia as well, but this is going to be the centre of it.
BEVAN: Richard Marles, thanks for your time.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thanks for having me.
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