Interview with David Speers, ABC Insiders

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18 September 2022

SUBJECTS: Assistance to Ukraine; AUKUS anniversary; Passing of Her Majesty The Queen.

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Richard Marles, welcome to the program.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Thanks, David.

SPEERS: So, will Australia be providing more military support to Ukraine?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We see that this is going to be a protracted conflict, that we need to be there for the long haul, but ultimately the objective of Australia, I think NATO and all those countries supporting Ukraine, is to make sure that Ukraine is in a position to ultimately resolve this conflict on its own terms. That has to be what happens here given the unprovoked aggression that we saw from Russia in originally invading Ukraine. And to do that means being there for the long term and that’s how we see it. So, we’re obviously speaking with the Ukrainian Government, with the Ambassador, about how we do that.

SPEERS: So, you have spoken to the ambassador. I think you have spoken to your counterpart –

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Oleksii Reznikov, yes, I have.

SPEERS: So, what did you say about – because this request has been made for a while now – they want an extra 30 Bushmasters, 30 of the Hawkei armoured vehicles, more Howitzers as you heard there. What’s your answer?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, forgive me for not giving the scoop today, but we will be looking at how we can provide that ongoing support. But I think the point here is that that really reflects the benefit of the support that we’ve already provided. The Bushmasters are making a real difference. The Howitzers are making a difference.

SPEERS: Well, they are. We saw that clip earlier where clearly the soldiers are seeing the Bushmasters as very effective on the battlefield. Is it fair to say you’re favourably inclined to provide more of this support?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we will be providing support and we’ll have an ongoing conversation with Ukraine about how best we can do that.

SPEERS: There is some urgency though, isn’t there?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, there is urgency.

SPEERS: As I mentioned, winter’s coming. They need to consolidate the ground that they’ve gained and keep some pressure on. So, what’s the holdup?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: There’s no holdup. We’ve got a program of delivery of that which we’ve already committed and that program is on schedule. We have committed 60 Bushmasters, another 28 armoured vehicles, six lightweight Howitzers, unmanned aerial systems. We are one of the largest non-NATO military supporters of Ukraine.

I was in Europe a couple of weeks ago and the sense of support that Australia is providing is being seen across Europe, very much welcomed by Ukraine. So there’s no holdup. We are looking at ways in which we can continue this, and we are really well aware that, notwithstanding the pretty significant advances that we’ve seen in the last few weeks – and they have been significant – you’ve got both sides settling on either side of the Oskil River. That’s a pretty significant natural barrier. I think we do need to be preparing ourselves for protracted conflict here and on that basis, we get that we’re going to need to provide support for Ukraine over the long term.

SPEERS: When you say “over the long term”, what ultimately does that mean and what does victory look like, do you think, in Ukraine?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, it’s a really good question and it goes back to the point I made earlier. Our objective is to empower Ukraine itself to be able to be at the centre of however this is resolved. This needs to be resolved on their terms. That has to be the outcome given the unprovoked aggression that we saw from Russia at the outset of this. To this point in time, notwithstanding the advances that we’ve seen in the last week, Russia still occupies about a fifth of Ukrainian territory. So, one can understand that if you’re President Zelenskyy there is a long way to go. It is about empowering the Ukrainian Government. And as I spoke to European leaders a couple of weeks ago, that’s very much how they see it as well. They want to make sure that Ukraine is in a position to determine this on their own terms.

SPEERS: They’ve said, and Ukraine’s Defence Minister who you spoke to said, they want to restore the 1991 borders. That means getting Russia out of Crimea. Will we support them until that happens?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s the answer I’ve given. What we will do is support the Ukrainian Government, make sure that we are empowering President Zelensky’s Government to resolve this on their own terms, and that is what must be the case, given that Ukraine was the one who was invaded here. This is an unprovoked act of aggression on the part of Russia. It cannot be allowed to stand, and Ukraine must be put in a position where it can determine this on its own terms.

SPEERS: So, Russia needs to get out of Crimea?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Again, it’s a matter of empowering Ukraine to determine this on its own terms. And so, we are there to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian Government.

SPEERS: A couple of other things on this. Will Australia ban Russian tourists from entering the country?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We have a range of sanctions in place, and the focus of our sanctions is on the Russian Government, those who are perpetrating what has happened in relation to Ukraine. It’s not focused on the Russian people themselves, so this is not something that we’re considering at the moment. But we are very much a part of the global base of sanctions against the Russian regime.

SPEERS: And what about reopening the Australian Embassy in Kyiv? About 60 embassies have reopened there, but not the Australian Embassy. Why not?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Again, this is a question that we’ll work through. There’s a whole lot of logistics and support which is required in relation to that given the security situation, but this is something that will be under continued assessment.

SPEERS: So, the reason why we haven’t reopened the Australian Embassy is a security concern?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, obviously security is a critical factor in terms of being able to reopen the embassy there and to make sure that it can function in a proper way.

SPEERS: But 60 other embassies have reopened.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Sure, and – 

SPEERS: Are we being too cautious, I guess, is the question?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: It depends on the size of the embassy when you’re comparing like for like. It was a relatively small embassy to begin with there, which people would understand, and so we just need to assess this on our own terms given the size of the embassy and make sure that we are able to provide security and that it can function in the way that it should.

SPEERS: Vladimir Putin had that meeting with Xi Jinping where he said China has concerns and questions over what’s happening in Ukraine, how did you interpret that?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think it says something about where the whole conflict is at. There is a degree of humiliation for Russia in relation to this. We heard our own Prime Minister talk about the inspirational fight that the Ukrainian people are putting up here and that’s so true. I don’t think any of us – I certainly didn’t imagine when the invasion first occurred that Ukraine would be able to provide the resistance that it has, and it really is extraordinary and none of this has been good for Russia. I don’t take out of it any sense of a division between Russia and China. In fact, I see the meeting that occurred in Uzbekistan as another step in a growing relationship, to be honest, between China and Russia, and that relationship is part of the landscape of complex strategic circumstances that we have to face.

SPEERS: What lesson do you think China should be taking, though, from what is going on in Ukraine?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I hope they and the world sees that there are countries across the world that want to uphold the global rules‑based order, that that critically matters. The international rule of law has underpinned peace and that’s occurred since the end of the Second World War and economic growth around the world. That’s the case in Europe. It’s also the case in the Indo–Pacific and in our region. I think the global support for Ukraine, the global sanctions against Russia, are also something which must be taken from the conflict.

SPEERS: So China should note that – sanctions in particular – that this would happen if they were to move on Taiwan?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think the way in which the world has reacted to Russia and the unanimity of that has been very impressive, but so too has been the incredible resistance of the Ukrainian people who fight for their homeland. That’s what we’re seeing here, and it has been remarkable and more than we expected.

SPEERS: So, China should know that the West will unite in sanctions and military support in the event of something similar in Taiwan?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, China I’m sure is watching this, as we all are. I guess I’m describing to you the lessons that I take from the conflict in Ukraine. From Australia’s own point of view, we’re engaged there because we see the principles at stake here as ones that are really pertinent to Australia’s national interests – that global rules‑based order, and that’s as important in Europe as it is in the Indo–Pacific.

SPEERS: It’s a year since the AUKUS deal was struck. We still have no idea which nuclear submarine Australia will purchase, what they’ll cost, when they’ll be ready for use. You have said during the week the optimal pathway is taking shape. That sounds a little vague. Where is this up to?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s on track is the answer. So, this was an 18‑month process that was announced by the former government. We’ve inherited that process, and expanded it a bit, I might say, but made sure it remains on track. And we’re confident we will be able to make an announcement about which submarine in the first part of next year.

SPEERS: And definitely a nuclear submarine? Is there any chance along the way it’s seen as all too ambitious, too expensive, takes too long, and we ditch that idea?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Look, the most important platform that Australia can have in shaping its strategic circumstances, in building strategic space for diplomacy, for trade, is a long-range capable submarine. And what is absolutely clear is as we move into the 2030s and 2040s that will require that submarine to be nuclear‑powered. The recharging of batteries in a conventional submarine, what is required there, is going to make that capability increasingly redundant as we get into the 2030s and 2040s, as important as the Collins‑class submarines have been for us up until this moment in time.

So, we are committed to acquiring this capability. It’s going to be a really important capability and we are on track to be able to announce the specifics of that in the first part of next year.

SPEERS: When you told an American audience a couple of months ago that this AUKUS deal will see Australia move “beyond interoperability to interchangeability with the United States”, what did you mean?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, so AUKUS is in large part right now focused on helping Australia acquire a nuclear-powered submarine, but it’s not the totality of the arrangement. We are looking at advancing or developing other advanced capabilities in hypersonics, counter-hypersonics, quantum, AI, undersea warfare and the like –

SPEERS: What’s interchangeability though?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Interchangeability is making it so we really are able to seamlessly when we are working together and operating together as one force, but it also means – and we really hope this in respect of AUKUS – that it can provide a platform for building a common defence industrial base across the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia where – there is appropriate regulation in all countries around how defence industry operates, but we really do need to break down some of those barriers if we’re going to advance at the pace that we need to, and we hope that AUKUS can do that.

SPEERS: But does interchangeability mean that our defence assets, including submarines, could be interchanged, put at the disposal of American leadership?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: So, on that final point, to be really clear, whenever Australia engages in any exercise or operation, the sovereignty of our equipment and our forces remains with Australia. That is an absolute fundamental principle and none of that changes.

SPEERS: So interchangeable means more of the manufacturing and sustainment, not at the actual deployment end?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, it might mean that we’re using common artillery, that we’re using common ammunition which can be used across different platforms. It gives rise to a much more integrated set of defence forces that can operate in a much more interoperable and much more interchangeable way. And that means that we’re more nimble and more potent as a result.

SPEERS: But we will still design how our assets are operated?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Of course. Totally. And that is a fundamental principle of the way in which we have always engaged and always will in the future.

SPEERS: If we’re going to be so interchangeable and share ammunition and so on with the Americans, there’s not going to be much point getting a British made submarine is there?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Again, there’s a leap in that question.

SPEERS: It’s a pretty obvious question.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, the point I’d really make in terms of what’s happening now with AUKUS is that it is a genuine trilateral collaborative effort. I’ve been struck by that in going to both Britain and the United States in the conversations that I’ve had with my counterparts. This really is the United States and the United Kingdom working together hand in glove with each other and with us to help us acquire this capability.

SPEERS: But again – 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think it’s important not to see the whole process when it comes to submarines as some sort of competition between the United States and the United Kingdom because it genuinely isn’t. I mean, both countries are working very closely with us to help us acquire this capability. To walk down this path is a huge step for our nation.

SPEERS: Yeah, but there’s also billions and billions involved, and the defence industry is competitive. Are you seriously hoping that a new submarine will be developed that can fit the needs of the British Navy, the Americans and us? Is that a bit of a pipedream?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think there is an optimal pathway – to use the language that we are starting to see, which does involve all three countries working really closely together both to make sure that we have an ongoing submarine, that we develop the capability in Australia to build that submarine – not the nuclear reactor obviously, but the rest of the submarine – and that we are able to acquire a nuclear-powered capability sooner rather than later. What we inherited from the – 

SPEERS: Not one that all can use?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Can I just – what we inherited from the former government, really, was not being able to have a submarine in the water until the 2040s. That would open up a capability gap given that Collins is due to come out of service in the 2020s – 

SPEERS: Sure. But the question was – 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We need to be looking at how we can get that sooner.

SPEERS: One submarine, though, for all three countries?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We are working on a process which, as I say, I think we’ll have all three countries working very closely together.

SPEERS: Finally, it is more than a week now since the Queen died. Parliament’s been suspended for the past week. The Prime Minister is, of course, in London, as we saw, for the funeral. We’ll have a public holiday here on Thursday. Tributes will be made in a special sitting of Parliament on Friday. You’re a republican, is all of this a bit over the top?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that question asks a judgement about the reaction of the Australian people to what’s occurred, and I think – 

SPEERS: I’m just asking your reaction.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: No, well, irrespective of one’s views about our constitutional arrangements, I think Australians have been really moved by what’s occurred. There has been an outpouring of emotion – I’ve felt that myself. And partly this is an event that’s never occurred in our lives before. There’s a sense of history in the moment and I think whenever that happens, you know, we all kind of walk down an introspective path about our own life’s journey, but it’s also about the person, it is about her and about a person who has given a life of unparalleled service and wanting to show gratitude to that. And I think Australians do want that and the protocol we’ve put in place the decisions that we’ve made that you have described afford Australians that opportunity.

SPEERS: I don’t doubt part of you has felt that, but I’m asking about the other part, the republican part. A few years ago, here you were donning the barbecue apron and what does it say, Australian Republic Movement; Richard Marles, there you are. Does that part of you, though, wonder whether all of this is necessary?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s a very unappetising sausage that I’m holding there, which I was not responsible for. My position on this is well known and obviously has not changed, but we’re going to have plenty of time to talk about all of that. And I think the other point to make is that the foundational questions in our country matter. The ones that we are focused on in this term of Government as a Government – the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Voice to Parliament, that’s what the Albanese Government will be focusing on in this term and we’ll have plenty of time to do all of that. Right now, though, I think it is fair that we acknowledge the life of a genuinely remarkable human being and a person who has given an enormous amount of service to our nation.

SPEERS: Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles, thank you.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, David.

ENDS

 

 

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