Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News, Sunday Agenda

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14 August 2022

SUBJECTS: Taiwan; Australia-China relations; Australia-US alliance; Defence Strategic Review; Jobs and Skills Summit; Northern Rivers flood review.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: First, though, let’s go live now to Geelong, and joining me is the Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles. Thanks for joining us this morning. Is the world less secure, more unstable in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Well, good to talk to you this morning, Kieran. What we obviously want to see is a return to normal, peaceful behaviour around the Taiwan Strait. I think the world would breathe a sigh of relief if we could get to that moment. And obviously from Australia’s point of view we’ve been calling for a de‑escalation in tensions, which has been underpinned by our position of not wanting to see any unilateral changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. So we’ve got to get back to that normal, peaceful set of behaviours, and I think the world would breathe a sigh of relief if we can get to that place.

GILBERT: Are you concerned that this ongoing Chinese aggression is more likely to push regional neighbours – and I think of Japan in this context – into adopting, taking on, a nuclear capacity?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We are working very closely with Japan. I’ve not heard Japan really articulate a walk down that path. Our engagement with Japan is as close now as it has really ever been, and one of the observations I would make about the set of strategic circumstances that we find right now and the complexity of them, is that while the way forward in so many ways is far from obvious, what’s really clear is we need to be having the closest relationship we possibly can with our friends in the region, such as with Japan. But I don’t hear them talking about walking down that path.

GILBERT: In the past week I interviewed the former ADF General Gus McLachlan. His view is that China overstepped the mark in a sense - in a military sense - by showing too much of their hand, and that will help the US and its allies in planning around Taiwan into the future. Do you have the same view as to those exercises that occurred over the last couple of weeks?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Again, I would not really want to speculate on all of that. Our principle point here is wanting to see a de-escalation of tensions. And it’s not really speculating about what may or may not happen in the future. What we want to see is a return to normal, peaceful behaviour, but, as I've said, what underpins that from Australia's point of view is not wanting to see any unilateral change to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Now that means that we have a One China policy. That’s been the status quo in Australian policy and, indeed, for the United States and other countries, for a very long period of time. And we’re not wanting to see any changes to that. But it is really important that we get back to that normal, peaceful set of behaviours.

GILBERT: When we heard from the Ambassador at the Press Club he was quite conciliatory in his opening remarks, extending an olive branch, almost. And then, when questioned, really delivered the lines that we’ve heard a number of times – many times – from Beijing. In your view, is the reboot between Australia and China still on? Is it still happening?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We talk about a stabilising in the relationship, and in doing that we acknowledge that there are going to be challenges in the relationship with China. And we were saying that before the election and that’s what’s come to pass since the election. And that’s because while there has been a change of government in Australia, our national interest hasn’t changed.

What we have sought to do is really change the tone in the way in which we are engaging with the world, but that includes the way in which we engage with China. We’re not going about things with chest-beating. We are really trying to speak with a considered voice in a manner which is professional, which is sober and which is diplomatic. Now that will take us as far as it takes us, and we’re not really giving a prediction in respect of that. We want to engage professionally and respectfully, but we will absolutely be articulating our national interest, and particularly when that differs from the actions of other countries, and that includes China. And I think what that means is that there are going to be challenges going forward. At the same time, you know, we acknowledge they’re our largest trading partner and we value a productive relationship with China. We do want to see the relationship in a better place. But we’ll continue to articulate our national interest and we will see how far down this road we can walk.

GILBERT: Now, Penny Wong the Foreign Minister is repeatedly talking about Australia’s response in the context of regional concerns, often referring to ASEAN when responding to issues like this. Is this part of the government’s strategy to say we are part of this regional response as opposed to being ahead of it or one out ahead of it? Is that part of the strategy here?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are articulating our national interest. That’s the first point. But we are of the region, and we see the region as completely central to our national interest, but to our economic future and to our security future. And Penny, in the comments that she’s making, is speaking to that. We see ASEAN centrality as fundamentally important for South East Asia, and South East Asia, in turn, as being fundamentally important for our future. In the most basic sense it’s where we live. And so we’re definitely trying to articulate our national interest in that way. But I would also make clear, you know, the starting point is what’s in the interests of Australia and how best to advance that.

GILBERT: In the face of a rising China, obviously our great ally the United States is central to any government’s thinking. But does it worry this Government - the Albanese Government - about the political situation in the United States and possibly a return of Donald Trump, who hasn’t always been the strongest supporter of traditional alliances?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, I don’t think it serves to speculate about the future in terms of those possibilities. What I can talk about is the relationship that we have with the United States right now, which is as good as it has ever been. And we could obviously speak to the history of the relationship, which is that over the course of many administrations in the United States and many governments in Australia the relationship has always endured, has always been centrally important since the end of the Second World War for Australia’s world view and for our national security. And right now, as I say, I think the relationship is in as good a shape as it could possibly be. I think you’re seeing a real rapport being established between Prime Minister Albanese and President Biden. That’s really clear. I was in Washington a few weeks ago and met with my counterpart Lloyd Austin and was received very generously within the Pentagon.

But what really struck me – and I’ve had this conversation with Penny Wong as well and I think it strikes her also – is the sense of shared mission that we have with the United States at the moment around the complexity of the strategic situation in the world but also the degree to which the global rules-based order, which both countries have been so engaged in building and protecting over the period since the end of the Second World War, the degree to which that global rules-based order right now is under stress and how important it is for us all to be doing everything we can to assert the global rules-based order and to protect it. And that’s really what underpins that shared sense of mission at the moment.

GILBERT: As Defence Minister you recently announced that capacity review. I know you want Angus Houston and Stephen Smith to report back to you by March next year. Is it your intention to release that report as soon as possible, to bring the Australian people with you on that?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Yes, and what underpins your question is really important. I think there is a job right now in explaining to the Australian people the degree of difficulty that we face in the global circumstances right now. You know, what that means for our nation’s security going forward, what that means for our space, our strategic space in the world. And I’m talking then about trade and diplomacy, and all of those things underpin the prosperity of our nation. It’s really important that the Australian people understand all that’s going on and its potential to impact our country. And so we will seek to release the review. And the review is a profoundly important piece of work. It may be as important a review as we’ve seen happen since the end of the Second World War in relation to our country’s defence needs and our future.

You know, when we announced the review I referred to the Dibb Review which occurred back in 1986, and it really has set the strategic underpinning for defence policy for the last 35 years. But I note that Paul Dibb himself came out the week before last when we announced the review and he felt that the review that we’re undertaking now is of an order of magnitude more serious than the one that he engaged in back in 1985-1986. And I think he’s right.

And when you hear someone with the eminence and the experience of Sir Angus Houston talk about the strategic circumstances in the world now being as difficult as any since he’s been alive, that really does speak to the challenge ahead of us as a country and the importance of this review over the coming months.

GILBERT: So obviously a big chunk of this is about frontend loading our military capacity. Today, if push comes to shove, can we still defend ourselves?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Yes, and we do have a highly capable Defence Force. It’s about making sure that as we move forward over the coming decade and the coming decades that that force and its capability grows, evolves and is as potent as possible, but is really postured and structured in a way which is best positioned to keep Australians safe. And you describe it as front loading, that’s an important observation to make, because what underpinned the Dibb review was this idea that if anybody meant to do us harm we’d be given a 10-year warning. And, of course, in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update for the first time we’ve observed that we’re now within that 10-year window. That does give a sense of urgency around the way in which we think about our planning that we’ve not had before.

And we really need to answer the question which has been left hanging by that very important observation – which is, given that, what are we going to do. And that’s obviously the work of the review to come up with answers to that. But it needs to be looking at those answers not just, you know, decades down the track, which is often what occurs with our Defence procurements – and it’s not to ignore that either, that’s going to be important – but what are we going to do right now in the next few years to make sure that we have an evolving capability which can keep Australians safe. And I’m confident that we will be able to defend ourselves and we will be able to keep Australians safe, but we do need to do the work.

GILBERT: A big part of that, like right across the economy at the moment, is the labour market, labour shortages, the jobs summit looming next month. Do you welcome the fact that the Nationals Leader David Littleproud is keen to participate?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I do. And just to go for a moment on defence, because that’s important too, when you look at some of the really big builds that we’re doing at the moment in relation to our frigates, extending the life of our submarines and, indeed, building a capability to build the next generation of submarines in Australia, all of those are going to require a highly skilled workforce, and it’s one of the really biggest questions that planners are thinking about right now.

And, as you say, that reflects the situation right across the economy. I mean, you can’t speak to a business – small or large – without the question being raised or the difficulties being demonstrated as to how they find people with the skills that they need. And I think what we’re seeing with David Littleproud is a sensible approach to this, and he’s wanting to come around the table and have a conversation about how we can address this great national challenge together, which is the point of having a Jobs and Skills Summit.

It’s a pity the Leader of the Opposition hasn’t taken up the invitation. It doesn’t surprise me, but we will be seeking to bring Australians together. Business will be there in force. They know how important this is to make sure that we are answering the question about how we deal with, frankly, what is a skills crisis that faces us right now.

GILBERT: And, finally, Andrew Clennell reporting at the top of the program that the New South Wales Government is going to release this report into the Northern Rivers flood crisis. More than a billion dollars to be committed by the Perrottet Government. He wants the federal government to step up as well. Will you?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ll talk with the New South Wales government when the report is actually handed down and have a close look at what they are suggesting. We’ve been working hand in glove with state governments and particularly the New South Wales government since the election as disasters have unfolded. And Murray Watt who is our minister in this space has been deeply engaged – and deeply engaged, I might say, with the Northern Rivers. He was speaking to the Mayor of Lismore just yesterday and he’s been there on numerous occasions. We will work very closely with the New South Wales government, and we’ll have a look at what the report has to say.

GILBERT: Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles joining me live from Geelong this Sunday morning. Thanks.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Kieran.

ENDS

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