Interview with Patricia Karvelas, RN Breakfast, ABC

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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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31 August 2022

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Solomon Islands has announced a ban on foreign naval vessels entering its port, raising more concerns around China’s growing influence in the Pacific. The announcement came as Foreign Minister Penny Wong held talks with her counterpart in PNG on a security pact between the two countries.

Defence Minister Richard Marles has been in Europe strengthening ties with Germany, France and the UK, and he joins us now from London. Deputy Prime Minister, welcome.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, Patricia, how are you?

KARVELAS: I’m good. Let’s just firstly go to this breaking news, you’re in Europe where one of the most significant figures of the Cold War, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has died. What do you see as his greatest legacy?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean he’s a hugely significant figure and a hugely historic figure. I think the answer to that question is that he will be forever remembered as one of the key architects of bringing to an end the Cold War. And the Cold War, for those of us who lived through that period, it was a time of enormous anxiety, where there was a sense of existential threat across the world. And his dialogue with Ronald Reagan really brought an end to that. He will be forever remembered as a key architect of that, and the world is a much safer place as a result.

KARVELAS: It’s a reminder of the promise the future seemed to hold for Russia in the early 1990s before it descended into authoritarianism. Is that future out of reach now.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s a long way away. That’s certainly a correct observation to make when you look at what’s happening in Russia today, when you look at the way in which Russia is completely flouting the global rules‑based order, which has been built in the aftermath of the Second World War. I think all of us would hope that there was a future for Russia which had a respect for democracy, a respect for human rights and a respect for the global rules‑based order as part of it. But when you look at Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine, they are at the polar opposite of that right now.

KARVELAS: You’re in Europe at the moment strengthening ties with France, Germany and the UK. How much is the war in Ukraine dominating these talks and what are European Defence officials telling you about the state of play?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is certainly a very defining moment in Europe. I was in Berlin yesterday, which is poignant in the context of Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing, speaking with Berliners who actually work in the Australian Embassy who have lived there all their lives talking to them about the night on which the Wall fell. There was such a hope for Europe at that time and you realise how significant that moment was. Germany has just now as a result of the war in Ukraine taken its defence spending to two per cent of GDP. This is a seismic shift in German politics. It is a seismic shift in German policy, and what it says is that they are very seized as a nation, as I think those across NATO in Europe are, about the need to stand with Ukraine in the face of the Russian aggression, but add their voice and their action to defending the global rules‑based order. And I think the other encouraging aspect of the talks that I’ve had with those in Europe is that, while there is a focus on Ukraine obviously, there is an understanding that the global rules‑base order is something which is under stress around the world, and that there is a larger cause here to be a part of. And I certainly think they see their standing with Ukraine as part of that, as we do. Which is why Australia, as the largest non‑NATO contributor in support of Ukraine, a country a long way from Australia, we see that our support is critical there because the matters of principle which are raised in this are very much in our national interest.

KARVELAS: Richard Marles, Australia is looking at a potential off‑the‑shelf submarine to replace the ageing Collins‑class fleet. Have you been looking at options in Europe?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m in Britain now - actually in Barrow right now, and will be going to the BAE yard tomorrow where they build their submarine fleet. We are working through the process that the country has now been doing since October – September‑October last year – of determining what will be the successor platform for the Collins-class submarine. That’s the process we’re working through with both the United States and the UK.

KARVELAS: What is Britain telling you about how quickly they could have nuclear submarines available for Australia? Is it a faster option than the US‑made Virginia‑class subs?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, firstly, it’s a three‑way process. So, there is one discussion with the three countries. It’s a very cooperative process between the US, the UK and Australia, and both the US and the UK are committed to working with each other to help Australia acquire the capability of a nuclear‑powered submarine. We’ve made it really clear that not only do we need to make the choice as to exactly which platform we run with, but we need to be finding options which are sooner rather than later.

I mean, the former Government left us with, really, a situation of not having a prospective boat in the water until the 2040s. This is a long way into the future and we are trying to examine, with both the United Kingdom and the United States, about whether there is any way in which we can get that date brought forward, and to the extent that there is any capability gap that arises as a result of whenever that date is, ways in which we can fill that capability

KARVELAS: One of Australia’s Collins‑class submarines has reportedly broken down in Hawaii. What can you tell us?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well look, I wouldn’t comment about the specifics of any particular submarine’s operations. I think the point to make here is this in the broad; the Collins‑class is meeting its operational requirements and those operational requirements in terms of the availability of submarines is really as good a level of operational availability as you will see in any submarine fleet in the world. What that means for our country is that we have a very agile and potent capability which is brought to bear by the Collins‑class submarines, and they are doing a fantastic job for our nation.

Now, these are submarines which were imagined to come to the end of their life in the middle of this decade. Extending their life is inevitably going to be part of the process of filling whatever capability gap might arise, and it’s why we are really looking at how we can get the new generation of submarines sooner rather than later. But right now, the Collins are doing a really good job, and they are meeting the operational availability benchmarks.

KARVELAS: Australia is looking to acquire hypersonic missiles that could travel between Melbourne and Sydney in as little as seven minutes. Are you planning to buy an off‑the‑shelf model or develop something here?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, hypersonics and counter‑hypersonics are technologies which are in development right now between Australia, the UK, the US and other countries. There’s not an off‑the‑shelf option to buy. What we want to do under the banner of AUKUS is to bring to bear our best scientists, build an ecosystem if you like, across those three countries, which is joint so that we can move down the capability path as quickly as possible, that we can acquire for all of these countries the most modern defence capabilities possible, and hypersonics and counter‑hypersonics are definitely amongst them, and they are very much a focus of the work that is being undertaken by AUKUS.

KARVELAS: Has Australia been issued with a moratorium on its naval ships entering the Solomon Islands port like the US?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’ve seen the reports coming out of Solomon Islands. Ultimately, it is a matter for Solomon Islands and we respect that and understand that. Again, I think the point to make in relation to Solomons is that we really believe that if Australia puts in the work, and builds our relationship there, and makes clear to Solomon Islands that we are absolutely committed to working with them to improve their development. We will be the natural partner of choice, and the work of the Foreign Minister –  

KARVELAS: I know, but you haven’t answered my question. Has Australia been issued with a moratorium as well?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, as I say, I’ve seen the reports. Ultimately, that is a matter for Solomon Islands.

KARVELAS: But have you sought to get clarification?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we don’t have a vessel which is about to go to Solomon Islands so –

KARVELAS: No, but you would want to know the rules of engagement, right?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we have an ongoing conversation with the Solomon Islands and I’m not about to walk down a path of what may or may not happen there. I’ve seen the reports. Ultimately, those decisions are a matter for the Solomon Islands Government.

KARVELAS: Does it concern you, though?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m confident that if we put in the work as a nation, we will be the partner of choice for Solomon Islands, and we are putting in that work. Penny Wong, as our Foreign Minister, has been to Solomon Islands. There has been – I have had meetings with the Solomon Islands Defence Minister. We are completely committed to building that relationship. It is a critically important relationship for our country, and we are very much a friend of Solomon Islands and we want to work together with them on that country’s development.

KARVELAS: Your colleague Penny Wong has held talks with the PNG Government on a security pact with Australia. What do you want in that pact?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, as I’ve seen the report, this is an idea which has been put forward by PNG. But we’ve been making it really clear that we want to be as close with PNG as we can be. We want to build on the already very close military‑to‑military relationship that we have with Papua New Guinea, which we see as being one of the most important military‑to‑military relationships we have. Indeed, the bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea is one of the most important bilateral relationships that we have, and it comes back to the point that I just made in respect to Solomon Islands. We want to see Australia be the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific. That is not something that we take for granted. We believe that is absolutely there, but is there when Australia puts in the effort and puts in the work. And I think what we’re seeing with the efforts of our Government is that when we do that, the response from the Pacific is very positive.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for your time, Richard Marles.



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