Interview with Andrew Clennell, Sunday Agenda, Sky News

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The Hon Peter Dutton MP

Minister for Defence

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20 September 2021

Subjects: AUKUS; nuclear-powered submarines.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Peter Dutton thanks for your time. What’s your reaction to the French recalling their Ambassadors?

PETER DUTTON: Andrew, great to be with you on the program. Obviously, we’ve made a decision which is in our national interest. There’s a very changing and significantly changing circumstance taking place in the Indo–Pacific and we conducted a review because obviously, over a couple of years now, we’ve been concerned about the contract, and the review very clearly indicated to us that the new nuclear powered submarine was the best option to keep Australia safe, and that’s the decision that we’ve taken. I can understand of course that the French are upset at the cancellation of the contract, but in the end, our job is to act in our national interest and suggestions that the concerns hadn’t been flagged by the Australian Government just defy, frankly, what’s on the public record and certainly what was said publicly over a long time period of time. The Government has had those concerns. We’ve expressed them and we want to work very closely with the French and we’ll continue to do that into the future, but obviously we can understand, as Australia would be, France is upset at the cancellation of a significant contract.

ANDREW CLENNELL: But recalling their Ambassadors seems a pretty full-on move doesn’t it? The accusation from them appears to be, and I know you’ve just addressed it, that there was some form of duplicity on the part of the Prime Minister, that he met Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, went and had dinner Emmanuel Macron, not telling Macron this other plan was being hatched.

PETER DUTTON: Well Andrew all I can say is that we’ve been up-front, open and honest. As I say, the public remarks are there all to see. There are comments at estimates. The French were so concerned that they set out an Admiral to meet with us a couple of weeks ago. The Prime Minister has been up-front and respects very much the relationship with President Macron and similarly, with my counterpart Florence Parly, I’ve had conversations and we’ve been open about our concerns and we’ve been open about the fact that we need to act in our national interest. Given the changing circumstances in the Indo–Pacific, not just now, but over the coming years, we had to make a decision that was in our national interest and that’s exactly what we’ve done.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Could they have provided the nuclear technology or that just wasn’t possible?

PETER DUTTON: It wasn’t possible because we don’t have a nuclear industry in our country and the French model, the Barracuda model, has the need for the reactor to be charged, to be refuelled, every seven to 10 years – something of that order. The technology used by the Brits and by the United States means that the reactor remains intact for the life of the asset. So, for about 35 years it doesn’t need to be refuelled, and, therefore, we don’t need a domestic industry around nuclear. That is a game changer for the Labor Party and we wanted to make sure that this was a bipartisan effort because this project will span for a long period of time, and we wanted to make sure there was support both from the Government and the Opposition. They wouldn’t have supported the purchase of the French Barracuda that required the industry around nuclear to be developed in Australia. So I think we’ve got the right balance here, and clearly the UK model, the US model that we’re looking at is the best in class in terms of the nuclear submarine.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Alright. Well the submarine project, it will be finished sort of by late 2030s by the look of things. Will you consider leasing or buying existing submarines from the US and UK in the meantime?

PETER DUTTON: The short answer is yes. I mean there’s all that discussion to take place in the next 12 to 18 months and already, obviously, I’ve met with a number of my counterparts here from the Secretary down in terms of those that are making decisions and we’ll have further discussions with the Brits as well. That’s as you would expect. The talk that you can just buy a nuclear-powered submarine off the shelf, of course, is not just accurate or correct, and I think most people realise that. The US has also got a very significant program of development underway in their nuclear submarine program, as do the Brits and, frankly, as do the French and others. The Chinese are pumping out submarines and frigates and aircraft carriers etc at a record rate and so the rest of the world now, for a period of time, has really stepped up their production of those assets and that unfortunately, is the dynamic in which we’re operating at the moment.

ANDREW CLENNELL: It’s been made clear to us that it will be significantly more expensive, this submarine project, than the $90 billion French project. How much are we talking about here? Could it
be $200 billion?

PETER DUTTON: Let’s wait and see. We’re in the process of negotiations now that we’ve entered into in terms of price and time etc. I want to condense the time line. I want to reduce the cost as best I can, but it’s not going to be a cheap project, but maintaining peace is not something that comes for free.

ANDREW CLENNELL: What is the importance of some of the other measures that were announced, the Tomahawk missiles, the hypersonic missiles? These are missiles which can travel 2,000 kilometres. What are we getting them for? And how soon can we get them, and what’s the cost?

PETER DUTTON: Well there’s a lot more to the announcement. Obviously, the nuclear submarines announcement was significant and has taken up most of the bandwidth, but sitting under that is very significant enhancement in space, in cyber. The thought that an industry like the power industry or the internet or banking could be closed down is a very real one and, again, we need to make we have the defences in place, but also the offensive capacity as well to be able to strike back so that people have to think twice about attacking us. That requires money again. There’s also an announcement by the US that they will cycle through many more of their assets, including subs, and their aircraft of all types will spend more time in Australia as well. In terms of the guided weapons and the missiles, the hypersonic capacity; we’ve announced $1 billion on the table already and there will be more money required for that program. Again, it provides a deterrence and it also provides us with the ability, given that we’re an island nation, we’ve got chokepoints to the north, approaches through that part of the geography for us that need to be dealt with and so there are a range of capabilities that we could use to strike against an extremist – let’s hope that it never comes to that – but there’s no sense in something happening and then me saying to the Australian people that we don’t have the capability to deal with it. We have to live in the times as they are and not as we want them to be and that’s the approach we’re taking.

ANDREW CLENNELL: From your time in Washington and your discussions with Secretary Austin, how concerned are the Americans about a potential invasion of Taiwan, that China would want to do that?

PETER DUTTON: Well Andrew, I think we only need to look at the words of the Chinese in relation to Taiwan. The Communist Party has been very clear about their intent and, obviously, there’s a significant concern about that intent here in Washington – but not just here in the United States – as you know there’s been a German frigate, the Brits have sent their assets out to the Indo–Pacific, NATO has been concerned – they were shouted down by the CCP – but NATO has expressed concern about what’s happening in the Indo–Pacific. There are many other nations, including small ones, who frankly are intimidated at the moment. The arming of the so-called coast guard that’s operating in the East China Sea bumping up against Japanese assets on the water. This is a time of high tension and we want it to reduce. We want that peace to prevail in our region. It’s served us well since the Second World War and we need to make sure that every effort goes towards maintaining that peace. That’s the priority for the Americans, for the Brits, for the Canadians, for the Europeans and for everybody else.

ANDREW CLENNELL: When you look at political interference, the cyber warfare you speak about, are we in a cold war with China at the moment?

PETER DUTTON: We want good relations with China. They’re an important trading partner and we want them to be a good neighbour, but where Australians have seen over the course of COVID even, the steps that have been taken to stop the import of Australian wines or barley or other commodities – Australian farmers, producers, manufacturers have been quite resilient and found other markets – but Australia is one of a long, long, long list of countries that’s been dealt with by the Chinese Communist Party of China in a particular and aggressive way, and we just don’t want to see that conduct. We want to have a proper dialogue with the CCP, we want to have a respectful relationship, but we aren’t going to compromise on these matters. We’ve introduced, as you know, over the last couple of years bills and acts to deal with foreign interference, which is a very real issue in our country. The attempts to interfere in our democratic process, the theft of intellectual property, as I say, the commercial industrial-scale attacks on cyber now, the theft of people’s health records, the attacks on aged-care facilities and their computer systems during the course of COVID, this is all the conduct we’re talking about, the so-called grey zone conduct, and it’s escalating. We don’t want it. It’s unnecessary for a productive relationship and I hope that the Chinese Communist Party can reflect on that.

ANDREW CLENNELL: What about this Port of Darwin ownership situation? Does that need to change?

PETER DUTTON: I’ve asked Defence to conduct a review of that particular issue. They’re in the process of doing that. They’ll provide advice to me and then I’ll return to the National Security Committee for a discussion on that. There is a security element that we want to look at. We’re doing that and we’ll make an announcement in due course.

ANDREW CLENNELL: And just finally and briefly, when you talk about more American troops being based here, how many and how soon?

PETER DUTTON: We’ll have that discussion with the United States now. We’ve got the agreement to continue on, but I would like to see more troops, more training and not just Americans. We have obviously a great relationship in the Quad, with Japan and India, as well as with the United States. We have a very important relationship with our Five Eyes partners, including New Zealand and Canada. We have collaborations otherwise where – including Talisman Sabre recently, a very significant exercise – people from nations, you know, significant numbers came together. Obviously a maintenance and sustainment piece as well. So there’s an economic dividend or silver lining in some of this; the sustainment of these crews and people who are based here – obviously there’s a lot of money that’s spent by those partners in our country – so there are swings and roundabouts with what’s a very significant investment that we’re making, but a very necessary one to reflect the times. We’ve made a decision here, which is an historic one. It’s in our national interest. It’s designed to keep Australia safe and secure into the future and that’s my job. It’s the Prime Minister’s job and it’s what we’ve delivered on this week.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Minister Dutton, thank you so much for your time.

PETER DUTTON: Thanks, Andrew.


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