Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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17 March 2023

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  Breaking news that has just come in the past few minutes -the US State department approving the possible sale of Tomahawk cruise missiles to Australia. It is all part of that AUKUS subs pact. To find out more, let's bring in the Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy. What can you tell us about the Tomahawk missile deal?

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY, PAT CONROY:  Morning. That deal relates to Tomahawk cruise missiles that are potentially in use for the Australian Defence Force, earlier than the submarines. This is part of this Government's agenda to give the ADF the best possible capability, to give it greater ability to provide long range strike and keep any potential adversary at bay - that is a critical deterrence factor.

This is how we promote peace and stability by putting question marks in any potential adversary's mind. That is why the Tomahawks are important and the nuclear powered submarines are vital.

ROWLAND:  The Tomahawks can be fired by the Virginia class subs as well can't they?

CONROY:  They can. I was on an earlier class of a US nuclear powered submarine yesterday in Perth. They have the ability to fire them. The Virginia class most certainly have that ability.

ROWLAND:  These have been purchased not necessarily for the subs, but do you see Australia buying more of the missiles, once you buy the three Virginia class subs next decade?

CONROY:  The Virginia class come equipped to fire heavyweight torpedos and Tomahawk cruise missiles. We want the best possible capability for the Australian Defence Force which includes the ability to strike opponents as far away as possible from the Australian mainland. Cruise missiles are a critical part of that, as are the submarines that launch them.

ROWLAND:  Let's talk about the AUKUS deal. Opposition is mounting within Labor circles and powerful unions have come out against it, and Peter Garrett has issued a strongly worded Tweet against the AUKUS deal. He says it compromises sovereignty, it costs a lot and in his words "it stinks". What do you say to Peter Garrett?

CONROY:  My response is people are obviously entitled to their views. I would make the point that the AUKUS agreement and our plan to buy and build nuclear powered submarines increases our sovereignty. It increases the ability of the

Australian Defence Force to protect the nation by providing the ability to project our power further away from the mainland. The nuclear powered submarines are the apex predator of the naval world and they make our country safer, by putting more question marks into the minds of any potential adversary.

That is the view of the Australian Government. We are part of a conversation with the Australian people about why we are doing this and how we are doing this and we're being up-front with the Australian people. I have been travelling around the country, I was in Perth yesterday and Adelaide the day before with the Deputy Prime Minister, and as part of that process we have been holding industry round tables where there has been significant union representation from the electrical trades, to the manufacturing workers, to the professionals, and they have all been united in wanting to know how they can help deliver this essential national capability. A capability that makes our country safer, a capability that will create 20,000 high paid, high skilled jobs that will help modernise Australian industry.

ROWLAND:  It is not just Peter Garrett and Paul Keating, the Maritime Workers Union of Australia says the nuclear powered subs are a risk to their workers. The MUA workers will have to get any port ready to house the subs. The Electrical Trades Union has raised health and safety concerns. Are you concerned about voices in opposition mounting within Labor circles?

CONROY:  Absolutely not. People are entitled to their views. We had very senior representatives from the Electrical Trades Union at our industry round tables. They were very supportive. They see the opportunities for their members to get high paid, high skilled jobs. An apprentice starting work today on this project could work their entire life on this project, contributing to our defence and raising a family with the high wages that will come from this.

I make the point that the United States and United Kingdom have been operating nuclear powered submarines for well over 60 years, particularly in the case of the US and there hasn't been a single incident related to the reactors. People need to place everything in context. There will always be a diversity of voices in this debate but the Labor Government is united in delivering this important capability that is essential to promoting a safer and stable – a more stable world.

ROWLAND:  Picking up on one of Paul Keating's comments, you say the Labor Government is united, are Labor Party members fully behind this, in your view?

CONROY:  People will have different opinions, I agree that is a statement of the bleeding obvious. We took to the last election a commitment to the AUKUS pact. We were clear with the Australian people on that. I have been at round tables where there has been significant union representation and they are enthusiastic about supporting our national defence and driving a skills and employment bonanza that will be associated with this. There will be debate about this, I understand that. The Labor Government is committed to delivering this and we will deliver this because it is in our national interest.

ROWLAND:  Do you agree with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that Paul Keating's spray this week diminishes him?

CONROY:  I think that is a fair and accurate statement. The personal attacks he levelled against Prime Minister Albanese, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Wong were most unfair and inaccurate. Also being the Minister for the Pacific, I can talk at length about the hugely positive impact Penny Wong has made to our relationships with our neighbours in the Pacific region. It is unfortunate, and I want to pay tribute to the Hawk/Keating Governments, they were some of the best governments this country has ever seen, but that Government ended in 1996 and the Albanese Labor Government is dealing with the strategic circumstances we face in 2023. We will act in the national interests to advance our safety and our stability.

ROWLAND:  As some of your colleagues have said that what Paul Keating says breaks his ties to the Labor Party, in a sense that there is no coming back for him now?

CONROY:  I am not going to criticise Paul Keating. His contribution to the Labor Party is worthy of respect. His Government ended 27 years ago, he is not privy to the classified briefings that I and the Prime Minister, and the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Foreign Minister receive, and his Government made a great contribution but we're dealing with the here and now. We are dealing with the fact that we face the greatest strategic uncertainty since 1945, and a responsible government such as ours is investing in the best possible capability for the Australian Defence Force. These nuclear powered submarines is the greatest capacity uplift for the Australian Defence Force in the history of Australia. They are critical to defending Australia, and at the same time, they will help modernise Australian industry and produce 20,000 jobs. That is my role, that is the role of this Government, to protect the people of this country. That is what we will do.

ROWLAND:  Minister, appreciate your time this morning, thank you.

CONROY:  Thank you, Michael.


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