3 July 2022
SUBJECTS: Prime Minister’s attendance at NATO summit; Nuclear-powered submarines; Australia-China relationship; ADF senior leadership appointments; Brereton Report; NSW floods.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Joining me now is the Acting Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles. Mr Marles, thank you for joining me. Let's start with this visit by the Prime Minister to NATO and the resolve by all leaders to stand up to, not just Russia, but China. How realistic is a scenario where China invades Taiwan, the US, and then Australia gets involved and we end up in some sort of world war?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think rather than walk down the path of hypotheticals, I think what's important is to make clear where our national interest lies right now and, in a sense, make clear why it's so important for Anthony to be attending the NATO meeting in Europe. Because I think what we are seeing, be it in the Indo-Pacific, or be it in Eastern Europe, is the global rules based order being placed under as much pressure now as it has been at any point since the end of the Second World War. And our interest lies in supporting that global rules-based order. So while Ukraine is a long way from Australia, the issues which are at stake there, the principles which are at stake, are critically important for Australia and apply as much in Eastern Europe as they do here in the Indo-Pacific. It's obviously not okay for a large country to walk into a smaller neighbour because they have a grievance or an issue, without reverting to trying to resolve disputes in accordance with international law. And the unprovoked aggression that we've seen from Russia must be contested. It must be contested because we need to have a world which is governed by a set of rules, by global rules-based order. And that's why we've given our support to Ukraine, that's why the Prime Minister has been at NATO. And those principles which apply in Eastern Europe absolutely apply in the Indo-Pacific.
CLENNELL: Yeah, it's interesting you say that. I mean, I feel like there's been summit after summit now, G7s, Quad meetings where it's the same theme - I've even been to a couple of them – it's about Joe Biden and whoever's our Prime Minister at the time – it was Scott Morrison, now Anthony Albanese – saying we're about democracies, not autocracies. So what effect does that have? Is a lot of that about a deterrent to China?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's about acknowledging the fact that the global rules-based order is being placed under strain and that our national interest lies in having that global rules-based order. And this is not an esoteric or a matter of, sort of, high principle. It's very practical. If you look at the South China Sea, China is seeking to shape the world around it in a way that we've not seen before. It's asserting an idea of sovereignty over the South China Sea, which is completely inconsistent with how we understand the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is the global rules-based order. And what the UN Convention on the Law of the sea provides for is freedom of navigation across the high seas around the world, but in respect of that body of water, particularly. Now, most of Australia's trade goes through the South China Sea. So this really matters to us. And, yes, a lot of that trade goes to China itself. But all of our trade to Japan, all of our trade to Korea, two of our top five trading partners, goes through the South China Sea. So having freedom of navigation apply in those waters is profoundly important for the way in which we engage with the world. It's profoundly important for our own national prosperity and that's why we assert the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But in a bigger sense, that's why we assert the global rules-based order, because living in a world which is governed by rules as opposed to power is the basis upon which we've had stability in East Asia, and that has underpinned the economic growth that we've seen in this part of the world and the prosperity that Australia has enjoyed.
CLENNELL: All right. Well, tell us about your meeting with the Chinese Defence Minister, Wei Fenghe, in Singapore then, because it strikes me that's almost as important as most of Anthony Albanese's meetings in the last three trips.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think both of us felt that it was an important meeting. It was a meeting that was obviously undertaken with a great deal of seriousness. Both of us entered the meeting wanting to push the relationship between our two countries into a better place. It was a meeting that was much longer than I expected and, to be honest, much more interactive than I expected. And that's a good thing to be able to say, because we traversed pretty difficult ground. We talked about the incident which occurred to our P-8 aircraft on the 26th of May, we talked about human rights, we talked about strategic contest in the Pacific. In other words, we really dealt with all the issues which are at stake between our two nations. And we did that in a full and frank way. And I know that's the kind of line which is often used to a meeting of this kind, but it genuinely was that. And it really did, as I say, take place in an interactive way over a considerable amount of time. And the important point, then, to make - well the final point I was going to make is that, as difficult as all of that was, the meeting also ended with a desire for both of us to get the relationship to a better place. So I hope that it opens the door to a change of tone in our relationship.
CLENNELL: Well, did you get a sense from him about what China is about going forward and that they might drop their Taiwan ambitions?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: No, I mean, we didn't go to that. I think what we were really doing was starting with baby steps here and trying to get our – the Australian-Chinese bilateral relationship – back to a better place. And that was really our focus. I think China is, as I said, seeking to shape the world around it in a way that we've not seen before. And that does present challenges for us and it's important that we meet those challenges. We can't take any backward steps in relation to this. It's important that in our relationship with China, we have the courage to articulate our national interest when that differs from Chinese action. We've been doing that and we'll continue to do that, and you've seen the Prime Minister do that. But in saying all of that, I think we can have something of a change of tone. We're not going to be about the chest beating that we saw from our former government. We're about engaging with the world in a professional, diplomatic, sober way. And we wanted to present that.
CLENNELL: Just on that, we had Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton obviously saying during the campaign, the Australian Government – or the Albanese Government if elected – would be soft on China, and you in particular. Here's an opportunity for you to come back at that now, what do you say to that?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think what we saw from the former government was a government who thought that the way in which Australia should deal with the world was to shout at it and literally do nothing more. When it came to the nuts and bolts of actually building our strategic space, making sure that Australia gets the hard power equation right. The former government was about as bad a government as we've ever had. And that's pure and simple. I mean, you look at the –
CLENNELL: How did you personally take that? Mr Marles, how did you personally take that? Because they were really going for you, weren't they? I mean, Scott Morrison called you the Manchurian Candidate in Parliament.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I mean, again, this is all politics. And I get that I'm involved in politics and I take all that involves. I didn't really see it as much more than that, and I saw these as words coming from a government and a group of people who were pretty shallow in terms of the way in which they went about their business, and were not dealing with the substantive issues that we needed to as a country, like getting the submarine procurement right. I mean, that was as important as any step that could be taken in terms of building strategic space in the context of our relationship with China. They got that completely wrong. And yelling at the world and beating your chest, that actually doesn't advance the national interest in any way at all. I think all I saw in their respect of me was another version of that.
CLENNELL: All right. I've got a few more questions and we're nearly out of time, so if we can be brief here, but I just want to ask you about a few different things. You seem quite insistent we won't see nuclear submarines until the mid-2040s. What about the Peter Dutton, the option he talked about, buying a ship or two from the US. And if we are only getting the nuclear subs in 20 years' time, isn't there a chance our entire strategic situation has changed by then?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I hope we can get them earlier, but the point I'm really making is that is the status quo that the former government has left us. That's the mess that we are now in. And I think where the former government left us is one where we are looking at a capability gap. They flirted with doing a submarine with Japan and walked away. They signed an agreement with France and ripped it up. All of that cost billions of dollars, but more significantly, it wasted years that the country didn't have –
CLENNELL: So - sorry, Mr Marles - there's a chance, from what you're saying, we can get them earlier?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll be doing everything we can to try and get an earlier result. And the point I've made is that whenever we can get those submarines, in whatever year that is, whatever potential capability gap that opens up, we will seek to have a solution for that. And I'm keen that we deal with all of that at once because that's really the way in which we solve the mess that the country has been left in by virtue of the former government. But let's be clear, when they left office just over a month and a half ago, they did so with no other plans than to have the next generation of nuclear-powered submarines arriving in the 2040s.
CLENNELL: Okay, okay. But just on that – sure, that was the politician's fault. You've just extended the term of General Campbell. He would have been involved in some of those decisions. So why did you do that?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it's really important that we have our senior leadership, who are really the finest that the Australian Defence Force have to offer, to support the government, particularly over the next couple of years when we are working through the issues in relation to major procurements – particularly submarines, as I've described – as we work through the Force Posture Review, which we want to do over a similar time frame as we deal with what we've described often as the most complex set of strategic circumstances that we face since the end of the Second World War. But let me be clear. It wasn't the ADF's fault that the former government started walking down the path of doing an agreement with Japan and then walked back. It wasn't the ADF's fault that the former government entered into an arrangement with France and then ripped it up. I mean, they are the decisions which have given rise to the capability gap. What we saw with the former government was a government which allowed our nation and our national security to drift. And that was not the fault of the ADF. Governments are there to govern, or not. They didn't. We intend to.
CLENNELL: Well, you said that this week. So the Service Chiefs changed, though. Lieutenant General Burr moving on, was that partly a result of the SAS scandal?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: No, Lieutenant General Burr came to the end of what would be the expected term for a Chief of Army and he was ready to move. And that would be the same assessment in respect to the other Service Chiefs.
CLENNELL: Okay, well, just on that Brereton Report, when do you think we can see charges? Because this is starting to drag on now, this episode.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is very important that we follow through in relation to the Brereton Report and all that comes from it. Obviously, it is dealing with a shameful episode in Australia's military history and it matters in terms of who we are as a nation, who we are as a people, that our country deals with this itself, which is what Brereton is doing, and that's the silver lining in all of this, that it is actually the nation which is dealing with its own problems –
CLENNELL: So we can see charges soon?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: – we must follow through on that.
CLENNELL: We can see charges soon? Just briefly.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: What I'd commit to is that we will follow this through to its completion in the timeliness that has been set out. But there is going to be no stepping back in relation to this because it is a fundamentally important process for who we are as a people.
CLENNELL: All right, all right. Well, I'll ask you about the floods to finish off in a second, but just firstly, the Guardian-class patrol boats, you’ve suggested, we gave some duds to the Pacific, but hasn't this company who made them got a pretty good record? They just got a big contract with the US Coast Guard.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think Austal has a very proud record. But again, the former government was sending broken boats out to the Pacific and that’s just unacceptable.
CLENNELL: Weren't they pretty minor, sort of, faults that were identified?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it's given rise to some significant issues and we intend to work through with them and to resolve them. But again, this is another failing of the former government.
CLENNELL: Sure. Mr Marles, just finally, we're seeing concerns again about flooding in New South Wales, reported on earlier. Are you confident you have enough resources in place to assist with this? How ugly is it going to get out there?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not absolutely sure in answer to the last question, but I know that we will be prepared. And I spoke to Murray Watt on Friday night to make sure that Defence assets would be available in the event that they were needed. Our mindset here is to be on the front foot. We're not going to be caught unawares again, like the former government. This is an issue which needs to be dealt with in the here and now, in the moment. And if those Defence assets are required, they are ready and available.
CLENNELL: Mr Marles, thank you so much for your time.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Andrew.