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The Hon Richard Marles MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Defence
21 September 2022
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The Federal Government is promising a bread and butter Budget next month despite a $50 billion boost to the budget bottom line. The Finance Minister and Treasurer say structural deficits will have to be addressed if the government is to meet its spending priorities. Now, one of the most pressing is Defence where Australia faces a looming capability gap as our ageing fleet of Collins‑class submarines are retired and before a new fleet of still hypothetical nuclear submarines is delivered.
Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence and our guest. Deputy Prime Minister, welcome.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, Patricia, how are you?
KARVELAS: Good, I know not as happy as you because your team is in the Grand Final, but we’ll get to that in a moment. A fleet of nuclear submarines could be as much as twice the cost of the scrapped $90 billion French submarine program, and that’s before the interim submarines are factored in. What’s the total cost likely to be?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we don’t have an answer to that question yet, but that will form part of the answers that we give to the Australian people in the first part of next year as a result of the review that we’re doing with the United States and the United Kingdom. What we do know is it’s going to be more expensive, that’s absolutely correct. We are talking about, though, putting in place a program over a significant period of time, so these are not expenses which happen tomorrow. But what we do need is a highly capable long-range submarine. As our world becomes more complex and the strategic circumstances that we face are more difficult, we need to be able to do everything we can to shape them to build our strategic space for trade and diplomacy, and that’s at the heart of our prosperity and making sure that we have a long‑range capable submarine is going to be really important for that.
KARVELAS: Richard Marles, the International Atomic [Energy] Agency is satisfied for now that Australia can operate nuclear submarines without violating any of our commitments under the non-proliferation treaty. What sort of inspection regime would be required in an ongoing sense?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’re pleased with what the IAEA has said, but I’d want to make really clear this is early days and we’ve got a lot more work to do with the IAEA. We are going take the whole challenge of being a responsible nuclear steward very seriously and that’s, to be honest, what’s being required of us from both the United States and the United Kingdom, but it’s also obviously what’s required of us by the IAEA, and I think it’s really part of the social licence within Australia to be able to walk down this path.
What absolutely matters is that if we are handling, receiving nuclear material, which we will be in terms of the reactors which propel the nuclear submarine, that there is complete accountability for every single gram of that material and transparency about it as well so that Australians, but the world, can have a complete sense of confidence about where that material is, and that it’s being used for what its intended purpose is, which is as a propulsion source for the submarines. And we will be putting in place the very highest standards in relation to this, and I actually think that the IAEA feels that there will be quite a lot of utility if we can - in terms of the global regime - if we can be putting in place the very highest standards in the way in which we deal with this with both the United Kingdom and the United States.
KARVELAS: Why is Australia considering dumping the multi‑role Airbus helicopters 10 years before their planned retirement date given the huge costs associated with the submarine program and our overall capability gap?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, there is a process underway with assessing those helicopters, so, I don’t want to prejudge that process –
KARVELAS: But what is your instinct on this one?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think we’ll let the process play out, rather than my instincts give an expression –
KARVELAS: Your instincts on some other things have given us strong impressions on where you’re going, so where are you going because obviously France is rather concerned?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Sure, and there is a review here so we’re not hiding from the fact that the multi‑role helicopter is being reviewed and looked at and we are looking at whether there are other options, particularly Black Hawks, which would represent a way forward. But this process is still underway.
The answer to your question though is that we need to be assessing all of our capabilities from the point of view of what capability they’re providing, the level of that, but also the costs associated with it. We need to be making sure that all the capabilities we have are cost-effective. In other words, we need to be undertaking a value-for-money assessment of everything that we operate, and that’s what is going on in relation to this helicopter and this process, and as I say, it’s not complete yet and a decision has not been made in respect of the way forward, but we’ll consider it.
KARVELAS: But we know that the French President Emmanuel Macron will, according to The Australian newspaper, urge Anthony Albanese during the French President’s upcoming trip to Australia to overturn plans to junk this Airbus multi‑role helicopter. Will that, will his – give me a sense of how that call will be responded to by the Government. Are you sympathetic to what he’s asking?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, I wouldn’t have put it at quite the level that you did just then. There’s a review going on. That’s not plans in the way in which you’ve described, but there is a review and we’re looking at all the options for Australia going forward and clearly our existing capability, the Airbus platform, is one of those. I would absolutely expect the French President to raise this with the Prime Minister and indeed I’ve met with my counterpart, Sébastien Lecornu, the French Defence Minister, and we’ve spoken about this as well. And you would expect France to advocate on behalf of their industry and we do the same in relation to our own.
KARVELAS: That’s right, but given what happened with the submarines, it is certainly a focal point, isn’t it?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Of course, but what we’ve got to do is be very up‑front, very frank, very clear and transparent with France in the way in which we are going about our processes. One of the tenets of trying to rebuild the relationship with France, which the Prime Minister put in place with President Macron when he visited France earlier in the year, is to have a completely open and completely honest relationship. It was the lack of honesty in the past which has got things off the rails. We need to be completely straight with France about the processes that we’re going through and what’s being considered and that’s what we are doing.
Now, in the context of that, obviously, we would expect France to advocate on behalf of their industry, and fair enough. We’re going through the review process, a decision has not yet been made. But we obviously at the end of the day need to make a decision in Australia’s national interests.
KARVELAS: Would a meeting between the Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, signal a significant reset in diplomatic relations, and what should we read into the state of the relationship if the meeting doesn’t happen?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we’re trying to do is stabilise the relationship with China, and we’ve been trying to do that since the moment that we came to power. I met with my counterpart, Penny has already met with the Chinese Foreign Minister on one occasion. If a meeting does take place, I think we can see it in the context of seeking to have that stabilisation take place. We are wanting to change the tone in the relationship, we feel that there was a belligerence in the way in which the former government spoke about Australia’s place in the world which did not help advance our national interests.
That said, what Australia’s interests were before the election remain what they are after the election and we’re very cognisant of that. And so, we will always be very vigorous in articulating Australia’s national interests, and particularly when that differs from the actions of other countries, including China. And we will be completely up‑front with China in saying that. But we do believe in the power of diplomacy. We believe that you can advance one’s national interests in a better way if we act in a sober and a professional way, and that’s what we’re seeking to do in stabilising the relationship with China, and certainly I found –
KARVELAS: And if the meeting doesn’t happen, is it a sign that it’s not stabilising?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Look, I don’t think we can necessarily read that into it. Let’s see what plays out in New York on the margins of the General Assembly, but all I can really say is what our intent is. Obviously we’re working with China, we don’t control China’s behaviours here, but we know what we want to do and that is we want to advance Australia’s national interests. We want to do it in a sober, professional, diplomatic way, and we do want to stabilise the relationship with China.
KARVELAS: A new survey shows support for the republic slipping in the wake of the Queen’s death. Now, you’re a republican, what do you make of this slipping support for a republic?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Look, at one level, I don’t think it’s surprising that you see the support wax and wane in respect of the republic based on immediate events, but it kind of highlights the fact that, really, I don’t think we should read too much into polls about the republic in the immediate aftermath of such a historic moment as the death of Queen Elizabeth II. And, we’ve spoken about this before, I really feel that all that has taken place in the last couple of weeks since the Queen’s passing is about acknowledging an incredible human being, and I think it’s completely consistent to have a sense of emotion about that, I certainly feel that, irrespective of one’s views about our constitutional arrangements. I think that we’re seeing those two things having an interplay which I ultimately don’t think means that much.
KARVELAS: On an adjacent issue the Victorian Government has made a decision to rename the Maroondah Hospital after Queen Elizabeth II. Indigenous Victorians are not happy. Is it a retrograde step in the sort of truth-telling process to actually remove an Aboriginal name from a hospital like that?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think the Victorian Government obviously needs to give its own response to that. I suppose there are a couple of points to make here. One is I think it is reasonable that we are thinking about how we acknowledge Queen Elizabeth II within our own society because, again, irrespective of what ones views on our constitutional arrangements are, she is a person who has made an enormous contribution to Australia and given incredible service to Australia. And acknowledging her is meaningful to many Australians.
That said, it’s also really important that we have Indigenous recognition, not only obviously within our Constitution and we’re going through a process with respect to that, but I mean within our society. And Indigenous names are really important in relation to that –
KARVELAS: And removing one is pretty contentious, isn’t it?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I understand the contention, and obviously it’s a matter for the Victorian Government to explain that. But I think Indigenous names within our society and within our community are important - are one way of acknowledging our First Nations people, and actually I think are one way of making sure that we are progressing down a path of reconciliation between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous Australians.
KARVELAS: What’s your reaction to these reports this morning that Aboriginal players for Hawthorn were separated from their families and, in at least one case, a player was told his partner should have a termination?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I mean, these are very concerning allegations, so I guess my reaction to that is I found this very difficult reading as it was being described to me. We need to be making sure that every workplace in this country is safe for everyone and that obviously is particularly the case for First Nations people. The AFL is an iconic institution, it needs to be an exemplar, not unlike Parliament House actually. Obviously in a different context we’ve had our own issues in terms of this workplace, but both are workplaces that are exemplars for the community and where the best standards need to apply. Now, I’ve seen the statement that the AFL have made in relation to this. There is obviously a commitment on their part to investigate these allegations, which must happen, and I know they will be committed to making sure that their workplace is an exemplar in our community.
KARVELAS: Let’s hope. Richard Marles, thank you.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Patricia.