Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National

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29 June 2022

SUBJECTS: Nuclear-powered submarines; ADF senior leadership appointments; Ukraine.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Key regional ally Malaysia has expressed renewed concerns that Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines could spark a regional arms race at a time of rising tensions with China. The Albanese Government says it will know by next March when the subs will be operational and whether conventionally powered vessels will be needed to fill any capability gap that could open up.

Richard Marles is the Defence Minister and the Acting Prime Minister, and our guest this morning. Richard Marles, welcome.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Patricia. And I can tell you that the argument I had with Warwick was very much off the record.

KARVELAS:

God, now I just want to get to the bottom of that. All right, I’ll park my journalistic interest in that.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Good man, though. Good man.

KARVELAS:

He is a wonderful man. Now, you are sticking with the Morrison Government’s March deadline for nailing down the AUKUS nuclear submarine program. Will all three big decisions be made by then – American or British subs, the time frame and the capability gap?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think by March we’ll have a much better idea and, yes, in my mind it is about trying to deal with all of those questions at the same time. In that there is a sequence, we do need to firstly understand what capability we will be pursuing, what exactly will be the next nuclear-powered – or the next submarine we will have, the nuclear-powered submarine, when we can get it and what capability arises from that and, therefore, what is the solution to that capability gap. All of that ultimately needs to be presented to the Australian people because what we were left with by the former government was a real mess in this area, and the solution to that mess is actually answering each of those questions, and that’s what we seek to do.

KARVELAS:

The Defence Department takes its time. Why do you have any confidence that the subs program will be settled by early next year?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

When we came to government there was a process that was underway around the determination of exactly what is the next – what the future submarine will be – the nuclear-powered submarine. I’m confident that we will have an answer as to the option that we will be pursuing in the time frame which was originally established. I’ve made clear that we don’t need to just do that – although we need to do that – but we need to look at options of bringing all of that forward in the sense of how we can get that submarine in service sooner rather than later and then looking at how we bridge whatever capability gap arises. Now, I am confident that we will be able to come to the Australian people at a time next year which does answer these questions.

KARVELAS:

You’ve taken the rare step of extending the appointments of the Chief of the Defence Force and other senior leaders. Greg Sheridan has written this morning in The Australian that these men are all fine people, but they have overseen “a dismal, wretched, useless, ineffective performance in delivering defence capability”. Given we have a new government, why not hit the reset button with a new team at the top of Defence?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

I think you need to look at the personnel that you have, that you can put on the field, and the way in which we can get the best use from them. But what I would take issue with Greg, is that it’s not them who oversaw the issues and the problems that we now face, it was the former government. I mean, the former government’s handling of national security, specifically Defence procurement and specifically the procurement of our submarines, was one of the worst failures in Defence procurement that we have seen in our history. They went about matters in an entirely political way. They went with an option with Japan, and then abandoned it. They went with an option with France, spent billions of dollars, abandoned it. And in the process of both of those have wasted years that we didn’t have –

KARVELAS:

Okay, but they’ve delivered –

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

And that’s why we now have a capability gap.

KARVELAS:

They’ve signed you on to AUKUS, which you say you want to continue. Is it possible to have a nuclear-powered boat delivered by 2030?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’ll have answers to that. I mean, I think –

KARVELAS:

But you would be getting a lot of briefings by now.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah.

KARVELAS:

Is that actually a possibility?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

I think that is optimistic in the extreme. I think the truth of where the government left us at the time – the former government, I should say – left us at the time of the election is that, really, they were looking at a new nuclear submarine in the 2040s. That’s where they were at. Now, we will be looking at every option available to try and bring that time forward. I think bringing it forward to eight years from now would be extremely optimistic. I don’t want to –

KARVELAS:

So impossible?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t want to prejudge but –

KARVELAS:

But if you’re saying optimistic to the extreme, I mean, my language skills show me that you don’t think there’s any chance of that happening.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

I think I’ll stick with that form of words – I think it’s optimistic in the extreme. Where the former government left us was really a time frame of seeing those boats being in the water in the 2040s. And people need to understand that when the former government came to power in 2013 it was expected that we would have a successor submarine to Collins in the mid-20s, in the next couple of years. Their inaction, their failures, their bungles, effectively opened up a 20-year capability gap.

KARVELAS:

Okay, and what –

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Now that’s a gap that we intend to do our best to close. And if there is a gap which arises, we’ll have a solution to plugging it. But let’s be clear, there is a big mess that’s been left to this government. We will clean it up.

KARVELAS:

So, if you think it’s optimistic to the extreme, it means that you do think we’re going to have a capability gap. Does that see the ageing Collins Class submarines extended? Is that the option you’re looking at? A son of Collins kind of option?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Well, in respect of that, the language I’ve used is that we’re really open minded and all possibilities are on the table. And I really mean that. I think we do need to come to this question with an open mind about how, in the most creative way, we can come up with a solution which does close that capability gap. Right now, the former government’s answer to that question would have been life of type extensions for the Collins Class. We’re not ruling that out by any means. I think life of type extensions will play an important part here. But we are very open minded about whatever options there are in terms of closing the capability gap.

KARVELAS:

Okay. Now, Foreign Minister Penny Wong is in Kuala Lumpur to try and ease regional concerns about the nuclear subs. But Malaysia is not convinced. It says that if China, for example, wanted to help North Korea buy nuclear-propelled submarines, Australia would be in no position to protest because AUKUS has set a precedent. Aren’t we giving less friendly countries the green light to go nuclear?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

No. And we are really clear – and it was a condition that Prime Minister Albanese set when we were in opposition in giving support to AUKUS – that the acquiring of this submarine could not raise any problems in terms of nuclear proliferation. And we're really confident that the way in which we will be pursuing this does not do that. It is a very important principle. We are completely committed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the acquiring of a nuclear-propelled submarine will not do anything to contravene that. So, no precedents are going to be set. It is important that as we modernise our military, as we spend more in defence, that we are transparent about that and that we accompany that with reassuring state craft so that our neighbours do have a sense of confidence about why we are acquiring the capabilities that we are and for what purpose. Now, we are very much in the process of that. We’ve been in power for a month. But I’ve spoken with the Malaysian Defence Minister, Penny is in Malaysia right now. We will continue that process. And I’m pretty confident that as we describe to our neighbours about what AUKUS is and about what it is not – because it is not a security alliance, it is a sharing of technology – I’m confident that we can give that sense of reassurance to our neighbours.

KARVELAS:

You are planning a force posture review in the next two years. Your predecessor Peter Dutton said before the election that Australia must be prepared for war. Is that what the review is about, preparing for war? Especially given the threats posed by Russia and China?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

No, the review is about properly understanding our strategic circumstances, and then in a sensible, sober way having a plan forward which responds to them. And that’s the totality of our strategic circumstances. You are going to see a change of tone in this government compared to the last. The kind of rhetoric that we saw from the former government we don’t think helps Australia in putting itself in the best position to meet the very complex set of strategic circumstances that the nation faces. We’re going to do this in a much more sober way but in a very serious way. And the force posture review is aimed at doing that.

KARVELAS:

Anthony Albanese wants to show solidarity with reopening the Australian Embassy in Kyiv. What’s the security assessment, given the ongoing Russian air strikes?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s a good question. And, I mean, obviously we would like to have a presence on the ground in Ukraine. We’ve had an embassy there until the invasion by Russia. There is, though, a practical process that we’ve got to go through about how we can have that presence in a manner which is safe and secure, and we’re going through that. But I think the broader point here is that we do want to stand with Ukraine. And while Ukraine is a long way from Australia, the reason why this has our attention is because the issues at stake in Ukraine – which are essentially around the importance of the global rules-based order – are principles and issues which apply everywhere. They apply in Eastern Europe, but they apply in the Indo-Pacific as well. And that’s why we believe it’s very important for us to stand with Ukraine.

KARVELAS:

Anthony Albanese’s keen to visit Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine. Would that be wise given the ongoing air strikes?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Well, again, obviously there is a desire to visit Ukraine given what I’ve just said and the importance that we place upon supporting Ukraine. There’s a set of practicalities around that, and they will be assessed.

KARVELAS:

Richard Marles, thanks for joining us.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks, Patricia.

ENDS

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