17 November 2022
SUBJECTS: Sean Turnell; Explosion in Poland; War in Ukraine; Australia-China relationship; French submarine program; AUKUS; Address to the Sydney Institute
KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Let’s go live now to Perth. I’m joined by the Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles. Thanks for your time. We’ve had some breaking news emerge this afternoon about Sean Turnell, the Australian economist in Myanmar, apparently has walked free from a Myanmar jail. Can you confirm that news this afternoon?
RICHARD MARLES, ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ve heard these reports as well, and they are welcome news. You would appreciate, Kieran, our actions have always been about the welfare of Professor Turnell and trying to advocate on his behalf. And so given that, I’ll limit my comments at this stage to that. But this is welcome news.
GILBERT: Indeed it is, and so we hope that he now make his way to Bangkok, I believe. Is that your advice?
MARLES: Well, as I say, I’ll limit my comments there. But it is very welcome news. And obviously, you know, we’re very pleased with it. But we’re, you know, mindful of the circumstances and I’ll limit my comments to that for obvious reasons.
GILBERT: Indeed, okay, let’s move on. The G20 is wrapped up. There was a big focus on Ukraine and then that missile strike in Poland. It appears according to NATO and Poland that it was from a Ukrainian missile defence. Is that your advice? What information do you have?
MARLES: Well, Kieran, there is an investigation underway in relation to exactly what’s occurred. I think we should let that investigation play out before I comment. I mean, I’m obviously aware of the public statements that have been made by NATO and others that you’re reporting. I think what it highlights is just that this war continues to be a tragedy and its foundation is an illegal and unlawful act of aggression on the part of Russia and we are going to stand by Ukraine for so long as it takes for Ukraine to be in a position where they can resolve this war on their own terms. And that’s what needs to happen because we can’t allow this flouting of the rules-based order of the UN Charter to be allowed to stand.
GILBERT: Anthony Albanese said he urged Xi Jinping to try and influence Putin to end the war. Does he still have that sort of clout over the Russian leader, who clearly appears desperate after their battlefield losses?
MARLES: Well, I mean, there is obviously a relationship that has been growing between China and Russia. So it’s right that we use an opportunity such as a meeting between the Prime Minister and the President to urge President Xi in that way. I mean, fundamentally, though, we need to see Russia end this aggression. It is unprovoked, it is a large country seeking to impose itself on a smaller neighbour and not by reference to the rule of law, not by reference to any global rules-based order, but simply by reference to power and might.
And it’s because of that, that we’re so engaged and we’ll continue to remain engaged in supporting Ukraine, because as we see it what’s critically important is that Ukraine is supported to be in a position where it can resolve this conflict on its terms.
GILBERT: Just as we seem to have a thaw in our relations with Beijing, we’ve seen a very stark confrontation, sort of a glimpse of what it can be like, I guess, in those leaders meetings between President Xi and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. What did you make of that?
MARLES: Look, I probably won’t add any commentary to that. People can see what is on their screens in respect of that. I think we will focus on our relationship with China and trying to stabilise that and take that to a better place. And in that sense the meeting that happened between Prime Minister Albanese and President Xi was an important step.
And in saying that, you know, there’s still a lot of water to go under the bridge between ourselves and China. There remain a lot of issues which are very complex and difficult in our relationship and we will continue to advocate our national interests even when that differs from Chinese action. But we do want to see the relationship in a better place. We want to stabilise it and the meeting this week I think is a very important step, as we’ve seen the first leaders’ meetings between our two countries in six years.
GILBERT: We saw some comments as well just emerging this afternoon, in fact, from the French leader Emanuel Macron. He says an offer to cooperate with Australia on submarines still stands despite the bitter row of last year. What’s the latest on that? Are you looking at French subs as an interim until we get the AUKUS nuclear subs?
MARLES: Look, we’re focused on the process that we are engaged in with the United Kingdom and the United States in determining what is the optimal pathway forward in respect of the platform that we ultimately adopt in relation to our future nuclear submarine and France is aware of that.
So in terms of submarines, that is our focus – is to work through that AUKUS process. But we want to make sure that we have the best relationship with France that we can have. I mean, France is a really important country for Australia. I’ve long said that I think in a strategic sense we’ve underplayed the significance of our relationship with France. And that’s not a comment made in respect of the last few years; it’s really a comment made over a long period of time. France is a neighbour of ours –
GILBERT: But they’re not in the mix for those – that interim period? Because you have spoken about this sort of gap between the Collins-class and when we get the nuclear subs.
MARLES: We are wanting to look at how we can get our future nuclear submarine capability as soon as possible in order to minimise any potential capability gap. A period of 10 years under the former government where we were in and out of a deal with Japan and then in and out of a deal with France has meant that we’ve lost a decade and it does give rise to the respect of a capability gap.
And so I’ve also said that we, therefore, in the event a capability gap arises, need be looking at what we do in relation to plugging that gap. But right now I’d have to say that we are very focused on the work that we are doing with both the United Kingdom and the United States through this process under the banner of AUKUS around looking at all the issues in respect of how we evolve our submarine capability from where it is today under the Collins-class to our future nuclear submarine capability at a point in time in the future. And we're on track to make all of those announcements in the first part of next year.
GILBERT: I saw – I was at that speech you gave on Monday at the Sydney Institute where you spoke about this phrase “impactful projection”, that’s what Australia needs to build. Impactful projection. Does this I mean – are you talking basically that we need more missiles? Is that what you’re talking about there?
MARLES: I think that’s part of it. But it’s not the totality of it by any means. And I actually think having a long -range submarine capability, a long-range nuclear-powered submarine capability, is also a very good example of what we need. But it is to really say that going forward if we think about the idea that what we need to be is more of a porcupine – I’ve used that phrase as well – an entity which is difficult to deal with from the point of view of any potential adversary, what that does mean is the need to be able to hold any adversary at risk at a greater distance from Australia and to do that through the full spectrum of proportional response. And really what underpins that, therefore, is an idea of impactful projection. And I think that is going to be the cornerstone of the way in which we think about our strategic posture in the light of the strategic circumstances that we now face going forward –
GILBERT: Does that mean we don’t need new tanks? Because there’s been a debate. I just want to clarify. Because a $27 billion investment, it’s called the Land 400 project, I think it’s 450 armoured vehicles or tanks. Are you basically saying we don’t need that sort of capacity? You’re going to shelve that?
MARLES: Look, I don’t want to walk down the specifics of particular platforms. But, really, the speech that I was giving this week was at a point where, you know, I’ve received the interim advice of the Defence Strategic Review. We’re kind at the half-time break of that process, if you like. And we are now, you know, looking at the announcements and the specific decisions that will emanate from that in the first part of next year and to give a sense of the -
GILBERT: So no guarantee that the tanks are going ahead?
MARLES: Well, what the Defence Strategic Review is doing is looking at the integrated investment plan, which is the 10-year schedule of procurement that Australia has to, to see whether it’s fit for purpose in terms of the very different and more precarious strategic circumstances that we face. And the point I’m really making is that in the context of those circumstances I think the philosophy, the ideas, that underpin the kind of decisions that we need to make and the kind of capabilities that we need to have, is one of thinking about what gives us impactful projection.
GILBERT: Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles joining me live from Perth. Thanks, appreciate it.
MARLES: Thanks Kieran.