Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National 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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media@defence.gov.au

(02) 6277 7840

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minister.conroy@dfat.gov.au

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24 April 2023

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  Later this morning the Government will release a declassified version of the biggest and most significant Defence review in decades. It's in response to a growing threat within the Indo‑Pacific region and comes off the back of the $368 billion AUKUS announcement last month.

Pat Conroy is the Minister for Defence Industry, International Development and the Pacific. He's my guest this morning. Minister, welcome back to the program.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY, PAT CONROY:  Good morning, PK.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  AUKUS is very much about the strength of a shared alliance, but is this plan about Australia ultimately being able to stand on its own, or are we still going to be reliant on the United States? 

PAT CONROY:  Well, our alliance with the United States is the cornerstone of our security, and if anything we are strengthening that, but the Defence Strategic Review is a recognition that we also face the greatest strategic uncertainty since World War II, and we need to significantly reshape the Australian Defence Force and how we do Defence policy more generally to face that uncertainty.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  What will the recommendations of the review actually enable Australia to do; what will our capability become? 

PAT CONROY:  Well, you can see a greater emphasis on deterrence and a greater effort to contribute to collective security in the region and maintaining the regional balance of power. I think fundamentally our strategic circumstances have changed. The last Government released the 2020 Defence Strategic Update which said the 10‑year warning horizon for major regional conflict has evaporated, but unfortunately they did nothing to respond to the loss of that warning cycle.

So what you can see in the DSR is a reshaped Defence policy, a reshaping of our capabilities, so the equipment to support the ADF, and a real focus on deterrence and keeping any potential adversaries at a distance from Australia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  There's reportedly an extra $1.5 billion in spending over the next four years for a new domestic guided weapons industry including to fast‑track the local production of missiles. But in the short term, those missiles will likely come from the US. How quickly will they arrive? 

PAT CONROY:  Well, we're working very quickly to resolve issues around stocks of guided weapons, missiles, and we're dealing with the fact that the last Government made lots of announcements but didn't actually follow through; they cut $12 billion from the Defence budget, they transferred $2.7 billion to other agencies, and they added $42 billion of commitments through the Integrated Investment Program, so the list of equipment Defence buys without adding any more funding, and top of that list was the guided weapons enterprise, or the plan to buy missiles and explosive ordnance. So we're rapidly accelerating the funding to support that endeavour.

The Albanese Government already made important decisions including accelerating the purchase of high‑mobility artillery rocket systems, the so-called HIMARS system that's been used to devastating effect in Ukraine, and we've also accelerated the contract signature for naval strike missiles to go on to our frigates and destroyers.

So we've already advanced this because long‑range strike is critical to deterrence and supporting peace and stability in the region.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  Will projects also be cut in today's announcement? 

PAT CONROY:  Yes. We've already flagged that we're committed to make ‑‑

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  And how significant will that be?  Will some big projects be slashed, because that's the concern, of course, from some in Army.

PAT CONROY:  Yeah. Well, we're committed to making the hard decisions. As I said, the last Government added $42 billion of programs to the Defence plan without reprioritising anything, without cutting anything, without adding extra dollars.

The Albanese Government is committed to making the hard decisions, and that means making necessary changes to scope, and the example that's out there already is us accepting the recommendation of the Defence Strategic Review to reshape the Australian Army, and that means reducing the number of infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129 ‑ that's a direct recommendation of the DSR ‑ and using the money freed up from that to invest in long‑range strike for the Australian Army. So more HIMARS rocket systems and land‑based maritime strike, and investing in greater mobility, including purchasing landing craft for the Australian Army.

So this is about getting an Australian Army that's shaped for our current strategic circumstances and going from a service whose greatest range for its artillery is 45 kilometres to one that can project power in excess of 500 kilometres. So this is about reshaping the Army to modernise it, to be quite frank.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  There are two versions of the Review, the version going to the public and the classified version with a range of plausible scenarios. How many of those scenarios involve China? 

PAT CONROY:  Well, I'm not going to go into the details of what's in the classified version; by definition it is classified. But we've been very open with people that we face the greatest strategic uncertainty since World War II, and we need to be prepared for what that means for Australia. We're a sober, responsible Government, and we're making hard decisions to put out our defence on a rational sound footing for the next hundred years.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  You've already revealed there's a $42 billion budget black hole that needs to be addressed. How much of that will you be able to recoup from other areas of the Defence budget and how much will have to come from elsewhere? 

PAT CONROY:  Well, you'll see our funding announcements as part of the broader DSR. I'm not in a position to foreshadow that. But we've been very open with people that we've got issues around the fact that the last Government over‑committed programs, so we need to have a hard look at the Integrated Investment Program, and secondly, we need to improve program delivery.

When we came to power there were 28 major projects running cumulatively 97 years late. That's unacceptable. And that's why in October last year the Deputy Prime Minister and I announced six major reforms to Defence procurement. It's not about just getting more money for Defence, it's about spending the money we have more effectively, and getting capability into service as quickly as possible so that our soldiers, sailors and airpersons have all the equipment they need.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  Before the AUKUS agreement there was a big campaign for Government ministers to speak across the region. Have you been doing that in relation to this, particularly, of course, with your position as Minister also for the Pacific; have you been in touch with our close allies in the region? 

PAT CONROY:  Absolutely. We've had an extensive outreach program to brief the Governments of countries, not just in our region but around the world, and we've been very open with people, and the feedback I've received on both this and the AUKUS announcement is that they appreciate the respect and courtesy we've shown them by briefing them ahead of time and giving them a chance to ask any questions and for us to clarify anything out there.

There's a lot of misinformation out there, so it's a really important opportunity for us to brief ‑‑

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  What sorts of things have they been asking, and you've had to sort of calm the air and the waters on? 

PAT CONROY:  Oh, look, I don't go into confidential conversations, but I can say, for example, that people in the Pacific are very much focused on ‑ they understand the need for us to deal with traditional forms of conflict, so kinetic conflict or traditional warfare, but also, but also they want to make sure that Australia's also responding to other security challenges, most notably climate change.

We're a signatory to the 2018 Boe Declaration that has all Pacific countries saying that climate change is one of the most significant security threats to our region. And so when I talk to Pacific leaders, they like reassurance that we're taking climate change seriously, and I'm able to give them that, because obviously we've passed national climate laws, we've passed the Safeguards Mechanism a few weeks back to actually cut emissions; we're delivering 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2050, so climate change is an important issue that the DSR talks about, and Pacific countries like to know, and are reassured when we talk to what we're doing on climate change as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

PAT CONROY:  Have a great morning, PK.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy there. You're listening to RN Breakfast.

ENDS

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