Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

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16 September 2022

TOM CONNELL, HOST: It’s been a year since the AUKUS deal was struck, in part, to deliver Australia’s new nuclear submarines in partnership with the US and UK. Defence Minister and Acting Prime Minister, Richard Marles, insists the program is taking shape with more known next year. Questions linger, though, about the timeframe for their delivery. I spoke to him earlier and began by asking him about that timeframe.

Acting Prime Minister, thanks for your time. So, you’ve said we’re on track for the timing at least of the announcement of these submarines, what about actual delivery? What’s the best‑case scenario for these subs getting into the water, what year?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Well, time is of the essence, so it’s been a big factor in all of our considerations. I think the truth is that what we inherited from the former government was a schedule of, really, not getting the successive submarines until the 2040s. If that were to occur that definitely would open up a capability gap when you consider that the Collins was due to come out of the water in the mid-2020s. We need to make sure that between this moment and whenever the future submarine goes into the water we do have an evolving submarine capability, so trying to get these as soon as possible has been a really key part of it. I’m not in a position to give you a sense of that now, but it has been a major factor in the way in which we have tried to go about working out what is the ultimate solution here.

CONNELL: You’ve indicated as well we could end up with a situation where it’s a new sub that all three AUKUS countries have a role in. If that were to be the case, would it no longer be possible to get an off the shelf – you know, one or two off‑the‑shelf subs - to bridge any capability gap?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are a range of options, and as we are thinking through what is the optimal pathway we’re really considering all of those. But it is important to emphasise that this is very much a three‑way collaborative effort. The United Kingdom and the United States are working together to help Australia acquire the capability of having a nuclear‑powered submarine, and so it’s not a competition between the UK and the US. It’s really important that people understand that, it is something where all countries are working together. And there is a degree of technology already which is shared across the countries, and so we’re just looking at ways in which we can amplify that to provide a pathway forward which gives Australia this capability.

CONNELL: So the options still on the table for you right now, do they include off‑the‑shelf subs if you’re worried about that capability gap, delivering on that timeline, is that still a possibility?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I mean, both the UK and the US have their own production lines for their own submarine capabilities. We’ve obviously been looking at that as the starting point of how we as three countries together work up a solution for Australia. So, we can see the optimal pathway taking shape. It’s not really possible for me to give you more than that. But we do feel that we’re getting there and we’re on track to be able to make this announcement at the beginning of next year.

CONNELL: Right, but would that mean whatever path is taken, though, when you’re looking at these options, either you need to have full confidence that delivery of the new subs means we don’t have a major capability gap, or, within the arrangement, there could be one or two off‑the‑shelf options?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we need to be making sure of is that we have an evolving submarine capability. I have made this clear from the outset that not only do we need to work out what is the future submarine platform that we’re running with, how soon can we get it, and, to the extent that a capability gap is opened up, what are we going to do to plug it. All of those are considerations that we are working through so that we do have a pathway that we’re able to announce at the beginning of next year which sees us get that capability as soon as possible. But between now and then we still are able to have an evolving submarine capability, because we face a pretty difficult set of strategic circumstances and they are difficult right now, and so we need to make sure that this capability for our country is continuing to grow.

CONNELL: We don’t know the cost - you don’t know the cost yet - we don’t know that yet, but it will be a lot. Will you just add whatever is needed to the Defence budget, top it up essentially, or will you need to look at existing programs and making savings?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Look, all of that is stuff we need to work through. You are right that acquiring a nuclear‑powered submarine comes at a cost and we’ve been mindful of that from the get‑go. I mean all of those issues we will work through. Costs is obviously forming part of the considerations that we are making in relation to the optimal pathway that we choose, and costs will be something that we talk about when we make this announcement at the beginning of next year. How we work that into the overall budget is obviously something that we still need to work through.

CONNELL: Going back to general threat levels you just spoke about there, Labor criticised Peter Dutton for scaremongering over the chance of conflict with China. This was pre‑election when he was Defence Minister. Now you’re Minister, how accurate do you think his warnings were?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think we live in a very precarious time, and I think the strategic circumstances that we face, as we’ve said a lot, are as complex as any that we’ve faced since the end of the Second World War. The issues haven’t changed since the election and our national interest hasn’t changed. We do try and seek to change the tone and the way in which we describe these things, so I don’t think it serves to speculate about conflict in that way. But we need to be making sure that we are prepared for a future which is precarious and it’s very important that we are doing that. Which is why this process that we are undertaking now, along with the Defence Strategic Review, is so important. I mean, these two bodies of work really are going to set the country up for defence policy over, I think, the coming decades but will ensure that we are in a position to meet the difficult strategic landscape that we face.

CONNELL: So, you disagree with his tone, but perhaps not his threat assessment?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, as I say, I think we are living in a precarious time and we can see that. We’re living a period where the global rules-based order in different parts of the world is being put under enormous pressure, and that’s what need to be doing, is asserting that global rules-based order because it’s been the underpinning of our prosperity and our stability and peace. And to do that is as hard now as I think at any point since the end of the Second World War. So we’re under no illusions as to the kind of difficulties that we face, which is why we’re undertaking this work.

CONNELL: He’s very pointed, though, about his threat and talking up the prospect of a conflict. Is that – again, I understand what you are saying about tone, but were his warnings accurate from where you sit now?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not about to talk up prospects of conflict. What I am about is making sure that in terms of the actions that Australia takes we are ready for whatever future is presented to us, and I do acknowledge that there is a very precarious time that I think we are going to be living through that our strategic circumstances are very complex, and it requires some really serious work to be undertaken, which is what we’re doing. For us it’s less about the talking and less about talking up those prospects in the way that we saw the former Government do, and it’s much more about the action and making sure that we put ourselves in a position to meet the future. And, of course, that was the great failing of the former government. We really had a wasted decade in relation to preparation in respect of the submarine capability which succeeds the Collins‑class. We are very focused on the doing here, knowing how significant the period is that we’re about to live through.

CONNELL: OK. You’ve spoken as well broadly about being a porcupine – that Australia needs to be that in a deterrent sense. Could you ever see us needing nuclear weapons to be an effective porcupine, that we wouldn’t be able to have proper deterrence without getting nuclear weapons?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: No, I can’t see that world. People raise that question, but the fact is that a world in which we see a proliferation of nuclear weapons is a world which is much less safe for Australia and which would mean that – which would not serve our national interests, and so it makes no sense to walk down that path ourselves because all we would be doing is inviting an even more precarious world which, ultimately, we would have to exist within. So, that’s not going to happen. But it is really important that we are thinking about what platforms we do have and what equipment we do have to maximise our strategic space to make sure that we can be that porcupine, and there is none more important than a capable long-range submarine.

CONNELL: Just on another matter. The PM looks likely to skip COP27. Anthony Albanese was very critical of Scott Morrison when he was even considering skipping the last UN Climate Conference. This seems quite hypocritical.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Prime Minister’s travel schedule will be worked out in due course. But COP27 is a really important moment for the world. It’s an important moment for Australia and we’ve taken, obviously, very significant steps in terms of our action on reducing our emissions. The climate change Bill has gone through the Parliament. We’ve legislated our target of a reduction of 43 per cent in emissions by 2030 which –

CONNELL: So, will he go, then, if it’s so important?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: – is a significant difference. Well, as I say, the Prime Minister’s travel schedule will be worked out in due course, but this is a very important meeting and this issue is one which has been completely defining of the Government so far and we’re determined to put Australia on a very different path.

CONNELL: Ending on a much weightier matter, I understand you were quite confident your Cats would knock off my Lions tonight earlier in the week. Is it still full confidence, just a training run ahead of the Grand Final?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: No, Tom, we’re keeping a lid on it here. All I would say is that a beautiful morning has broken in Geelong and we take that as an omen about how this day is going to end. And we are quietly confident but we’re not taking anything for granted and, well, I wish you all the tears that can flow for you tonight.

CONNELL: Same back at you. Acting Prime Minister, Richard Marles, thanks for your time.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Tom.

ENDS

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