Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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3 August 2022

SUBJECTS: Class of 2022; Defence Strategic Review announcement; Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan; Climate change legislation.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me live in the studio is the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles. We'll get to the Defence Review in a moment, but Andrew and I have been talking about Gordon Reid and others like Sally Sitou, new MPs. I guess when you win government, a new generation does come in, but that's got to give you a bit of heart?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Oh it gives us a lot of heart. And Gordon's first speech was phenomenal, as was Sally's, you're right about that, Sam Rae. There's a whole range of new MPs who, already in their first speeches, making their mark. And it does, it gives one a real sense of optimism about the future, the immediate future, but looking over the next couple of decades that we've got a Party which is going to be in really good hands and these are moments of regeneration. I remember this happened when we last won government back in 2007. But one of the real joys, and particularly at this point in my career, of being able to sit and listen to these speeches, is just seeing such a fantastic generation coming through and knowing the future is bright.

GILBERT: We've just seen some of the images of the defence capability come up on the screen. Let's talk about that. Because you believe that this Review is the most significant in a number of decades. To drill it down in very basic terms, for those who might have just tuned in this afternoon, are you looking at expediting capability, so bringing more new off the shelf capability, rather than the very complex and long processes associated with defence acquisitions?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I think it's about having a look at the process of defence acquisitions, that is an important issue to have regard to, but it's really trying to ask the very biggest questions, the foundational questions, about what is the Defence Force for and what does it seek to do for our nation, given the strategic circumstances that we face? And really, that's the starting point. Since 1986, and I've compared this with the review that was done by Paul Dibb, the Dibb Review back then, which is a seminal piece of work which has underpinned strategic thought in this country for the last 35 years. An idea has been that if anybody means to do us harm, we'll be given a 10-year warning. In 2020 with the Defence Strategic Update, for the first time, we've observed that we're within that 10-year window. Now that's a momentous observation to make, and one which we agree with. Well given that, what are we going to do? As a nation, what are we going to do? And it's really answering that question which is the work of the Defence Strategic Review. And so it is looking at our posture, it's looking at the kind of equipment that we bring to bear in our war fighting. It's really, though, asking, I think, the most foundational questions about how does our Defence Force keep us safe in these circumstances?

GILBERT: Well on that timeline you talk about, so within that decade, that 10-year period of concern on the geopolitical strategic front. So then these acquisitions that are 15, 20, 30 years down the track, they're almost redundant in some respects, because the real concern is within the decade. So I guess I'll go back to that point. Are you looking at trying to expedite our capability, things like more missiles and so on?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well I think missiles are important. So I don't want to pre-empt the review, but it's a really good question. And missiles are going to be really important. That's most basic. We need projection and we need lethality and we need to be able to give that to provide a potent Defence Force. And you're right, 20, 30 years from now, but 10 years from now, or within the 10 year window. And so those longer term capabilities are not redundant. We will face challenges over that period of time as well, of course, but the point now is we are within the 10-year window and you're right to say, well, what does that mean in terms of what we're doing to improve the potency of the Australian Defence Force over that period of time. And really, that's what we want the review to look at. Which is why, in turn, we want this to be a high-level review. We want them to do it quickly. We're asking them to report in the first part of next year, but I think this is going to be a critically important review, which not only informs us over the next decade, but I think will actually set strategic thought going for the next decades hence.

GILBERT: Do you have some programs in mind? I know you've spent a lot of time there at Defence Headquarters in Russell already. Have you already got some programs in mind that you think, okay, they could be scrapped and make our posture and our resources more relevant to the threats we face now?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It's more thinking about actually what assets we might need, what other acquisitions that we might need. Inherent in your question is the obvious point that these are questions of priority. And again, that's what we want the review to have a really good look at. But I think there are capabilities that are being developed right now which we need to make sure that we have if we are going to have the kind of potent defence force which can keep us safe in the next decade and beyond.

GILBERT: Has our defence policy been hijacked too often in our political debate by industry concerns, by workforce concerns, by union demands, by political demands, like in Adelaide, for example. I know there's a huge political capital in trying to ensure defence jobs. Has our strategic focus been distracted by all of that?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think what's important is that strategic concerns and clarity of strategic thought, strategic rationale, has to be what guides the decisions that we make. And industry follows. One of the criticisms that we made of the former government in terms of defence industry - and we are a huge supporter of defence industry, we think it's actually really important for the nation - was that they did not underpin it with any strategic rationale. Defence industry is not a proxy for an industry policy more broadly - we have one of them as well. But what you need in this space is to make sure there is a clarity of strategic thought and that guides what we do and industry follows. Now, as it turns out, I think when we're talking about, for example, a future nuclear-powered submarine, we're going to have to develop the capability to build submarines of that kind in Australia. That is clear because we actually need to expand the industrial base across the United States, the United Kingdom and our country, in order to have these in a timely way. So defence industry is really important, but the starting point is strategic thought.

GILBERT: Does that mean also boosting our domestic nuclear capacity if we're building them here?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It means making sure that we have a nuclear mindset. It means that there will be a whole lot of regulation that we need to be thinking about in the context of that. And that's a really important question that we will be addressing in the work that we're currently doing around AUKUS and acquiring a nuclear propelled submarine. And that will be part of the announcements we make early next year. It's actually critical in the work that we're doing with the IAEA around non-proliferation. They are going to want to make sure that we have all the nuclear stewardship in place, as will both the United Kingdom and the United States, in handling this technology.

GILBERT: But you could see a scenario where we build most of the boat here and the rest of the nuclear capacity finished in the United States or the UK? Is that something that potentially could happen?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the nuclear reactors will be built overseas. That's clear and that's important. So that what we have in Australia, or what comes to Australia, is a sealed nuclear reactor. That's actually a really important point in terms of being able to put in place appropriate accountability and verification around non-proliferation. But even the handling of a sealed reactor requires a whole lot of thought and a whole lot of rigour in terms of the way in which that's regulated.

GILBERT: Angus Houston said it's the most challenging strategic environment he has seen in his career. A big call for someone who served during the Cold War as well.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, but I think it's right. We hear people of that level of experience and that eminence in this space making those sorts of observations. It's complex. We are seeing the global rules-based order that we've helped be a part of shaping and protecting since the Second World War be placed under as much stress as it has been since the Second World War. Obviously, we're seeing that in Ukraine, but we're seeing it in Indo-Pacific as well - UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, for example. And that's not an esoteric idea, that's where most of our trade goes and so our national interest is completely tied up in that. And as China seeks to shape the world around it in a way that we've not really seen before, that does present challenges to us which are complex, because China, not least because China is our largest trading partner. So navigating our way through all of this is very complex. And getting the hard power equation right is the fundamental first step in terms of building our strategic space so that we can make our way in the world, both in terms of trade and diplomacy.

GILBERT: While you were announcing that Review, we saw pictures coming in from Taiwan of Nancy Pelosi being welcomed there. Kevin Rudd has said that it was a mistake, basically, for her to make that visit, that it's not in the interests of Taiwan because, of course, it's prompted already a reaction from China, which looks like it's not going to last a few days, but over months. What was your view on Pelosi's visit?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, ultimately, this is a matter for both the United States and for Taiwan. I think what's important to say on behalf of the Australian Government is that we do not support any unilateral changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. What that means is that we support the One China policy, which has been supported by every government in this country of both political persuasions since the 1970s. And what you'll get from us is a very calm and measured response to this. We're obviously monitoring the circumstances very closely, but the fundamental principle is we do not support changes to the status quo.

GILBERT: I see some analysts online talking about this is the fourth Taiwan Straits crisis precipitated by the visit by Nancy Pelosi. It was avoidable, wasn't it?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, it's really a matter for Taiwan and for the United States. For our part, we maintain our position, which is unchanged, around no unilateral change to the status quo. We will continue to monitor the circumstances. We will do it in a calm and measured way. That's the way we're going to go about our engagement with the world. And all of that is underpinned by the position that we've had in this country over a long period of time in respect to the One China policy.

GILBERT: But when we talk about this most challenging of strategic environments, as Angus Houston called it, this flashpoint, if we needed any further example of it, it's provided in terms of the events of today and what looks like's going to happen over the next weeks and months by the Chinese military flexing its muscles in the region.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're watching it and we're monitoring it closely, but what I would say is that the Strategic Review that we are undertaking, for me, is born over a set of circumstances which has been clear now for a number of years. And it really was best encapsulated in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. That was the moment where it said, we're within that 10- year window of warning and that requires us to think about what we're going to do. And that's why the Strategic Review is so profoundly important.

GILBERT: I know you've got to go, just one quick one on the climate Bill passing. You are heavily engaged with our Pacific neighbours, does this change the dynamic, do you think, in terms of us building our capital in the region with our Pacific cousins, as we call it?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It definitely does. I mean, they want to know that we are serious about action on climate change in terms of our own domestic policy. That's the starting point. I always felt in the engagement that I did in the Pacific, having a serious policy - domestic policy - in respect of action on reducing emissions, was really the ticket to play in terms of engagement with the Pacific. And I think from there, what we've made clear is that we really want to help the Pacific tell their story to the world as being countries which are on the front line of climate change. And certainly when you're out there, when you're particularly in coral atoll nations like Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, where you’re talking about just a few metres above sea level, it’s the highest point above sea level, this is a visceral issue and felt in a way which is so present and so differently, to be frank, than we feel it here. And so I think this will be warmly welcomed.

GILBERT: Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, thanks.




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