Radio Interview, RN Breakfast

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

Defence Media

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9 February 2023

SUBJECTS: AUKUS; Australia’s sovereignty; Invasion of Ukraine; Australia-China relationship; Security systems at government sites; Voice to Parliament.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: One of the clearest foreign policy lines from President Biden’s State of the Union Address was that the US would defend itself against China if its sovereignty was threatened. Today, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, will address Parliament highlighting the importance of sovereignty in Australia’s defence agreements. It comes amid reports that Australia and its AUKUS partners – the US and the UK – are considering an entirely new nuclear submarine design that could be shared by all three countries.

Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister, and he joined me in the Parliament House studio a short time ago. Richard Marles, welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: You’re very close to announcing what Australia’s nuclear submarine will look like. Britain’s Defence Secretary says he expects Australia’s fleet will be a tri-nation project. What does that mean?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think when this started there was some speculation that what we would see was some kind of competition between America and the UK for who would provide us with the submarine capability. In fact, that’s not how it’s played out at all, and that’s really what Secretary Wallace is alluding to.

I mean, people will have to wait until the announcement, but when they do see it, what you will really see is a collaboration between America and the United Kingdom in helping provide Australia with this capability. And so in that sense it’s really – it is genuinely a three-way solution to what we – to providing the capability for our country.

KARVELAS: This morning you’ll be making a statement to the Parliament. This issue of sovereignty has been a big one. Paul Keating, Malcolm Turnbull have raised very strong concerns around this. Doesn’t it mean Australia’s national security depends, though - through this agreement - on other nations, that we’re not self‑sufficient?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, firstly, it’s completely reasonable to ask the question about the terms on which we are acquiring a capability such as this. And they’re important questions. And the statement that I’m making today does go to that. I might say, it should be seen in the light of, really, statements that have been made by defence ministers over a long period of time about the terms on which we work with other countries, and particularly as that occurs within Australia.

The important point to make is this: that once an Australian flag is placed on these submarines in the future, they will be completely under Australian control and they will act in Australia’s national interest. And our interest has a large alignment with the United States obviously. We are an ally partner and there are obligations that apply to both countries in respect of that alliance. But our interests are not coincident with the United States. And it’s really important that we retain sovereignty over the – full sovereignty, over the use of all of our assets, including our future nuclear submarines, and we will.

KARVELAS: And how explicit will you make that in the ultimate announcement you’ll make in, I understand, several weeks this announcement will ultimately be made? How ironclad will that be? Because clearly you’ve got very, very senior people who have been in government raising very serious concerns.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s completely clear – it will be completely clear. And the clarity of that is embodied in the statement that I’m making in the Parliament today, which is certainly part of why I’m making it now. I mean, it is a statement which goes beyond submarines, but the timing of doing this today is very much about the fact that we’re on the eve of this announcement.

And this is completely understood by the UK and the US. It’s absolutely as they would imagine it and as they would expect it. But it is very important that the Australian people have a sense of confidence that when we are acquiring a capability such as this we do so with complete sovereignty.

And I might also say, it is very significant technology. It is a massive step change in our capability. It is not unique that we are acquiring technology and capabilities from countries abroad that we wouldn’t be able to develop on our own. I mean, the joint strike fighter is an example of a collaboration across a number of nations that we wouldn’t have been able to do on our own, but we have complete sovereignty over the joint strike fighters that we operate.

KARVELAS: You talked about the capability gap a lot when you first took this portfolio. I’ve since observed some change in your language. Do you feel like that’s not the case now?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, you’re right to observe the change in my language. I think that comes from a sense of confidence about what we – that what we will be announcing with the optimal pathway will deal with the question. So the capability gap, if you like, that we were – and the problem around that that we inherited from the former government was very serious. I mean, we had a lost decade as the former government dillied and dallied over the question of submarines. You know, they were on and off again with the Japanese and then the French.

And we really did lose a decade, and that obviously at a very critical moment in history, has created a significant problem. But I’m confident that what we’re about to announce will address that problem. And so, yeah, there is a sense of confidence about that, and that’s probably reflected in the way I’m speaking.

KARVELAS: Russia is believed to be planning a fresh assault on Ukraine to mark the first anniversary of the invasion. Were you briefed on that in Washington, and how significant is that assault expected to be?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not in a position to go into the details of briefings that I’ve received about that. I think what needs to be said about Ukraine is we have said for a while now, a few months now, that this is developing into a protracted conflict and we need – all of us, all countries – need to be standing with Ukraine but providing the kind of support which will enable Ukraine to remain in the contest so that they can determine this conflict on their own terms. And that’s what we’re seeking to do.

And the most – well, the latest iteration of that is obviously the trainers that we’ve provided and with the Foreign Minister Penny Wong I was able to have the incredible privilege of watching that training actually happen in Britain last week, and it was really one of the most poignant things I’ve experienced to be honest, to see people who, you know, woke up on the 1st of January this year as builders or clerks or drivers – you know, I spoke to these Ukrainian soldiers and that's what they were - who put their hands up with very little military experience, in some cases none, and are now facing, you know, a brutal conflict which looks a lot more like World War I than World War II. And our trainers are doing an incredible job.

KARVELAS: Overnight Ukraine’s President made the case for more money and equipment from the west. He said supplies were running out and that could stall Ukraine’s efforts. Is Australia considering sending more support to Ukraine?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean, this is going to be an open question going on. I

think the answer to it is we will continue a discussion with Ukraine for as long as it takes to make sure that they can stay in the contest. And the very fact that I’m talking about this as being a protracted conflict and we need to be there, you know, apprehends what you’re saying.

Yeah, we need to balance this, obviously, as all countries do, with our own capability and making sure that we maintain our own ability to operate in our own sphere here in the Indo-Pacific. But we need to be doing what we can to support Ukraine, and we’ll continue to think that through, as we have. And right now, you know, we stand as one of the largest non-NATO contributors to Ukraine.

There is an incredible gratitude that Ukraine has towards what Australia is doing. It is noticed across Europe that, you know, Australia – a long way from Ukraine – is doing so much. So Australians should feel proud of the support that we’re providing, but we’ll continue that dialogue with Ukraine to see how that can continue.

KARVELAS: Defence Minister Richard Marles is my guest. Let’s turn to China now. Earlier this week the US shot down a Chinese spy balloon off its coast. Are you concerned that could raise further tensions between our major security partner and our biggest trading partner?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the balloon was a very curious and significant incident. It was obviously flying through American airspace, and that right there raises questions of the contravention of the rules of the road, if I can put it that way. America was completely within its rights to do what it did, and we totally understand that. I think America actually acted in a pretty measured way here around how they dealt with this. We obviously want dialogue between America and China, but I know America want that as well. But it’s really important that countries respect the global rules-based order. And sending a balloon over the United States in the way that this occurred raises questions about that.

KARVELAS: You’ve just returned from Washington. Does the White House share the view of the Commander of the Air Force that the US and China could be at war over Taiwan as soon as 2025?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I don’t think it helps to speculate in those terms. I mean what we –

KARVELAS: Do you worry about that?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: We take – I mean, I think we live in a world which is fragile and is not as safe and stable as it’s been in the past. And obviously, all of that is worrying, of course. That said, you know, our efforts have at their frontline diplomacy. And what we seek to do is to do our best to create pathways towards peaceful resolution of dispute. And you’ve seen that in the way in which we’ve sought to stabilise our own relationships with China. And, you know, we value a productive relationship with China. That said, we need to be prudent about our own security, and that’s why we’ve taken a range of steps in terms of our own defence, but you can understand that’s what America is doing as well.

KARVELAS: There’s a story in today’s newspaper, The Australian newspaper, about hundreds of surveillance cameras in government buildings here that are made by Chinese state government-owned corporations. The UK and the US are banning or restricting these devices. Are you considering that, too?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Look, I think this is an issue and we – in respect of what’s in the newspapers today, we’re doing an assessment of all the technology for surveillance within the Defence estate. And where those particular cameras are found they’re going to be removed. So, you know, there is an issue here and we’re going to deal with it.

KARVELAS: How significant is the issue?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I don’t think we should overstate it, but I think it is right to be doing the assessment and making sure that we deal with it. And that’s what we’re going to do. I mean, it’s a significant thing that’s been brought to our attention, and we’re going to fix it. It’s obviously been there, I might say, for some time and predates us coming into office. But that said, it’s important that we go through this exercise and make sure that our facilities are completely secure.

KARVELAS: I just want to ask you finally on a domestic issue – the referendum that’s planned. The government’s made a decision to get this pamphlet out for the yes and the no case. What efforts are you going to go to to make sure that that’s absolutely accurate?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, accurate in the sense of what is in the yes and the no case? Is that what –

KARVELAS: Well, there are concerns – Professor Megan Davis, who is in the Referendum Working Group, has raised concerns about the kind of content that’s been allowed to pass before in these kinds of pamphlets. What safeguards are you putting in?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Look, yes and no cases are a well understood feature of referendums past. And right now our minister, the Special Minister of State, is handling the negotiations with a range of parties, including the opposition, to put in place the appropriate safeguards in respect of that.

But I think the point to make here is we want to be constructive and cooperative in the way in which we deal with all parties to make sure that the process that we put in place for this referendum is as fair as possible. Because ultimately we want to have a completely fair expression of the Australian people which we very much hope will be in support of the establishment of recognition of our Indigenous people through the establishment of the Voice.

KARVELAS: Peter Dutton called this a backflip. Are you also considering a backflip on funding a yes and a no case?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean, what we’re trying to be is constructive and –

KARVELAS: Well, he wants money for a yes and a no case. Will you consider it?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: What we’re being is constructive and cooperative in the processes that we’re putting in place. And let’s just focus on that. What we’ll do is talk with everyone about how best to put in place this referendum. And, as I said, our Special Minister of State will look at that and continue the discussions about how the machinery will apply to the referendum. But it’s going to be a referendum which is going to be as fair as it’s possible to have a referendum so that we get the expression we need to support the Voice.

KARVELAS: One last question. Yes and no funding then could potentially be on the table?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, these are all matters that are going to be worked through as we negotiate how this – the referendum takes place.

KARVELAS: Thank you for your time.



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