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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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18 August 2023


ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: All right, Richard Marles, thanks for joining us. You won. Are you happy?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I am happy. But I think what really pleases me is the way in which the debate was carried out. It was a debate, on both sides of the argument, really, Andrew, which did honour and dignity to our party.

CLENNELL: You got heckled.

MARLES: Look, you would expect nothing less –

CLENNELL: At a Labor conference.

MARLES: At a Labor conference from the back rows. But I think when you look at the contributions that were made on both sides of the argument, I hope what this shows to the Australian people is that this is obviously a really big issue, it's a big decision. But what you've got is a party, the party in government, which is thinking deeply about it and making considered arguments, and at the end of the day, making the hard decisions.

CLENNELL: Why did you need nuclear subs in the platform?

MARLES: Well, this is the direction in which we are going, and we felt that this is the debate that we had to have. I mean, there had been a number of branches and the like who had raised the question of the AUKUS deal. It was important to ventilate it. That became clear, really, at one of the National Policy Forums, which is a process that leads up to conference. So, we really did decide that it was important to have this debate at national conference. And I think the importance of that we've now seen. As I say, I'm obviously pleased with the outcome, but I'm really pleased with the way in which it's been presented.

CLENNELL: How hard have you been working with the unions and the rank and file to get this vote up? How many days have you spent on it? Who have you spoken to?

MARLES: Look, it's been an exhaustive process, but it should be because it's a process which really matters. And it's important that what we now have today is not just the government having a position in relation to AUKUS and acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, we've got the Labor Party backing the government and supporting the government in the direction in which it's going. And I think that is a bigger, more enduring statement on behalf of the movement. And so it's actually a really significant moment.

CLENNELL: You won on the voices, there was no vote. Why wasn't – we would have liked to know the numbers. Why wasn't there a vote?

MARLES: Well, I think – there was a vote, the vote was on the voices and it was overwhelming and so that's ultimately why it was carried in that way. It's what I thought would probably happen, because this wasn't close. But having said that, I think those who were making the alternative argument to me wanted to make sure that their voice was heard and that debate was laid out, and I think they did a good job in doing that.

CLENNELL: I thought that was the best speech of Anthony Albanese’s that I’ve. I wonder how – it reminds me of his NSW Labor conference days, he's more comfortable in front of a conference than anything else. What did you think? I mean, it showed me that AUKUS wasn't just about winning votes, which I thought it might have been at the time, frankly, a bit of me tooism, if you like, in a different form to the other form it’s used in. But it showed that he passionately believes in this and the sense that I get is you and officials have convinced him of the need for this.

MARLES: Well, I wouldn't want to overstate my role in this. I mean, but you were right in the sense that Anthony does passionately believe in this, and I think that was very much on display. And I agree with you, I think it was a superb speech that the Prime Minister gave and it was a speech from the heart, both in terms of the need for our country to acquire this capability and the difficult world in which we now live, but also in the sense that this is a very Labor thing to do. Looked at in the context of our history, Labor actually has been the party, much more than the Liberals, it has been Labor who's made the key decisions on defence. And that this was a very Labor act to do and to embrace our role in defence is very important and I know he feels passionately about that, and it came through in the speech that he made.

CLENNELL: Why are some rank and file and unions so implacably opposed to this? What is it that gets their goat? Is it the whole nuclear industry argument? Is it the US Alliance?

MARLES: I think there are people who bring different perspectives to this debate. And as I said in there, I understand that the word ‘nuclear’ evokes a very strong reaction, and you can see that. And I understand the legacy and the history of the anti-nuclear weapons movement, the peace movement, and a desire for people to have a peaceful world. All of that you can completely understand. The point to be made, obviously, is that we're not talking about nuclear weapons here, we're talking about a propulsion system on a submarine, and if we don't have that system, then we won't have that capability going forward and it's a really important capability for the country. And I suppose the thing I would say is that as I have spoken to branch members, unions and the like over the course of the last few months, when you step people through what we are actually doing and why we are doing it, there has been a real willingness to take on board the position that the Government's taken. And I think you see that reflected in the overwhelming nature of the result today.

CLENNELL: How long have you and the PM been planning this debate, planning that he would speak last? How long have you been discussing this, building up to this?

MARLES: Well, in terms of the debate and the fact that there would be a debate, we've known this for months because in the National Policy Forum processes I identified, it was clear that we needed to have this debate. Once we got closer to conference and we started thinking about who would speak, the Prime Minister was very keen that his voice be heard on this. He felt it was a matter of demonstrating that he was putting his words and his mouth where his commitment was, if I can put it that way, and that this was a really important thing for him to do as the leader of our party. So, he was very clear very early on that this was a debate in which he wanted to speak.

CLENNELL: And you weren't scared to mention China, you weren't scared to use language such as we don't have a million troops, you know, that's why we need the subs. Very clear and strong argument you had there, wasn't it?

MARLES: Well, I think it's about making the strategic argument. And to be clear, I have said consistently over many, many years that we value a productive relationship with China, and we want to try and get back to a place of stability in our relationship with China. And I very much do. I had the very first meeting at a ministerial level with one of our Chinese counterparts in coming to government. But actually making sure that we get the hard power equation right, that we are taken seriously in the world, I think actually enhances our ability to have the relationship with China that we would want.

CLENNELL: And eight submarines does that?

MARLES: Eight submarines is going to make a huge difference. I mean, submarines makes a huge difference is the first point to make. But just to maintain the capability, we would have to walk down a nuclear propulsion path. Having walked down that path, in fact, it will be a much more enhanced capability. And we've said this on a number of occasions. We will become just the seventh country in the world to operate a nuclear-powered submarine capability. I mean, we've never operated at that level in terms of military capability in our history.

CLENNELL: So, when do we get our first sub? Is it still 2030 or is it earlier?

MARLES: Yeah, I mean, the optimal pathway that we outlined in March is still there. We are already seeing, as we outlined back in March, an increased tempo of visits of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. We had the USS North Carolina in our waters in the last couple of weeks. We're looking to establish that American and British submarine rotation out of HMAS Stirling later in this decade, and the first Australian flagged vessel will be at the beginning of the 2030s.

CLENNELL: So, the line that really stuck out to me from the PM was we can't imagine a world that – we have to accept the world as it is, not what we want it to be.

MARLES: Yeah, and that's right. I mean it's self-evident and obvious, but it's really important that people do their analysis on that basis and it really matters –

CLENNELL: You can’t wish away the China threat, seems to be how to translate.

MARLES: The decisions that China has made, the decision that Russia made to invade Ukraine, none of these are our decisions. But it is the world in which we live and it is our unavoidable obligation to navigate our way through that world. And that means we need to be making very hard decisions. But actually, I think the decisions are pretty clear. They are hard, but at the end of the day, they're clear. And that's what we've done.

CLENNELL: Deputy Prime Minister, Defence Minister Richard Marles. Thanks so much for your time.

MARLES: Thanks Andrew.



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