ABC interview with Jade MacMillan, Washington DC

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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(02) 6277 7840

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15 December 2023

SUBJECTS: Passage of AUKUS legislation, Pacific polices, Integrated air and missile defence.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: Pat Conroy, Minister for Defence Industry.

JADE MACMILLAN: Can I get your reaction, first of all, to the passage of the AUKUS legislation now through both Houses of the Congress.

MINISTER CONROY: Well, it's a momentous day for the alliance with the United States and the AUKUS pact. It's a vote of confidence where the Co‑Equal Branch, the House of Congress and the Senate supporting overwhelmingly the passage of the NDAA, which allows the transfer of the Virginia-class submarines, which is an essential part of uplifting the capability of the Royal Australian Navy as well as the export control exemption, which will really streamline transfer of technology and further industrial development in Australia.

JADE MACMILLAN: When do you expect the President to sign the legislation?

MINISTER CONROY: We're hopeful that that will be soon. Obviously that's up to him, but President Biden has been a driving force behind AUKUS, and we expect this to come very shortly.

JADE MACMILLAN: The first submarine isn't scheduled to be transferred until the early 2030s. This legislation says that before that happens, whoever is in the White House would have to certify that it's still in line with US foreign policy interests and also wouldn't undermine its own under-sea capability. Does that pose a risk that a future President could back out of the deal?

MINISTER CONROY: I don't believe so. Those certification requirements reflect what occurs in other systems, particularly foreign military sales. We're working very closely with the US administration. The beauty of the AUKUS arrangements is it improves the security of both Australia and the United States and the United Kingdom. It's in all our national interests, and I was at meetings in the Pentagon today and yesterday, including with the US Navy, and they are fully on board and 100 per cent committed to AUKUS, because this is about growing the industrial base of all three countries, giving the Royal Australian Navy the most advanced submarines in the world, which is essential to strategic deterrence and maintaining stability in the Indo‑Pacific.

JADE MACMILLAN: Do you have any concern about what it would mean for AUKUS if Donald Trump returns to the White House in this next election?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, what I can say to you is there's strong bipartisan support for AUKUS. I've met with tens of Senators and Congressmen and women, both republican and democrat, and there's near universal support for AUKUS. If you look at the passage of the bills, over 80 per cent of Senators voted for it, and 75 per cent of the House voted for it.

So, there's strong bipartisan commitment, because it's in our national interest, it's in the US national interest as well, and it's about making a safer and more stable Indo‑Pacific.

JADE MACMILLAN: Has the Australian Government started any discussions with Donald Trump’s team as to how he feels on AUKUS ahead of the possibility that he could be in the nomination and in the election?

MINISTER CONROY: We deal with the government of the day, and that's the Biden Administration, and that's what responsible governments do, and they're fully committed and they're delivering on it. We talked to Congress as a co-equal branch, and we're very confident about the bipartisan support. These are all hypotheticals, but I urge people to look at what is the actual proof on the ground. The proof on the ground is a more than 80 per cent vote in the Senate, a more than 75 per cent vote in the House for AUKUS. That's an endorsement by not just the representatives of the people, but the people of the United States.

JADE MACMILLAN: Can you tell us more about the $3 billion US payment that Australia is going to make to help boost production in American shipyards? When will that be made; how will that work?

MINISTER CONROY: The payment profile is now being developed with the US Navy, but this is a critical part of the optimal pathway that was announced in March. We can hardly expect the US to provide Virginia-class submarines to us unless they uplift their industrial base. We're doing this because Peter Dutton left a 10-year gap in our submarine force when he was Defence Minister that we had to very quickly to fill between our Collins-class retiring and the new submarines we're building in Adelaide, so the Virginia-class fill that 10-year gap left by Peter Dutton. And importantly the US is making big contribution inside their industrial base. They're spending an extra billion dollars per year on it, and President Biden is arguing for an extra $3.4 billion as well.

So, our contribution will help lift their industrial base, which will mean more Virginia-class will be produced, more will be available to be transferred to Australia, and at the same time we're investing $30 billion in our own industrial base and creating around 20,000 direct jobs.

JADE MACMILLAN: That $3.4 billion that the President has requested is part of a pretty controversial supplemental. Do you have any concerns about the fate of that request, and how it applies to AUKUS?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, in all my discussions with congressmen and women over this week, there's been universal support for that 3.4 billion. When I asked them what are the controversial parts of the bill, they ran me through these other things, and they ranked the list by level of controversy and what is always down the bottom as being accepted as critical for their national security is that $3.4 billion investment.

JADE MACMILLAN: In terms of the 3 billion that Australia is going to make, what happens to that money in the event a future President did back out or significantly changed the AUKUS partnership?

MINISTER CONROY: I'm very confident that the AUKUS partnership as agreed and negotiated, and as legislated only today, will be followed through. Why, because it's in the national interest of all three countries.

I know people are interested in those hypotheticals, but this is an investment in the future security of Australia and the United States and our alliance, and I'm confident all parties will follow through with that.

JADE MACMILLAN: And what about on the Australian side of this legislation says that Australia also has to have achieved completely submarine force ‑ submarine ‑‑

MINISTER CONROY: Sovereign‑ready maybe?

JADE MACMILLAN: No, sorry, the Submarine Rotational Force‑West able to host potentially four US subs and a UK sub. Are you confident that Australia is doing the work that is required to get to that position of readiness? 

MINISTER CONROY: Oh, absolutely. We're investing $6 billion in Australia right now in building a shipyard in Adelaide, upgrading HMAS Stirling in the West and spending $3 billion on skilling Australians and uplifting our businesses to be part of that supply chain work.

I was in Honolulu at Pearl Harbor in October talking to the US Navy about the support they need from Australian industry to maintain their submarines, and I'm confident that that system's been put in place. We've got Australians training right now in Honolulu at that Naval base on how to maintain US Virginia‑class submarines, so the plan is they're submarines rotate through from 2027, we help maintain them, we'll have crew learning on them as well potentially, so that we demonstrate in the early 2030s that we're sovereign‑ready to accept our Virginia‑class submarines, which will be the most advanced and most capable submarines in the world, which will be a great asset to the Royal Australian Navy.

JADE MACMILLAN: And just finally, AUKUS has obviously been a focus of this trip, but what else have you been in Washington to do?

MINISTER CONROY: I've been engaging on our Pacific policies, I've been briefing Congress and the Biden Administration about our Pacific policies and our step up in the Pacific, and our break‑throughs, whether it's the treaty with Tuvalu, or our Bilateral Security Agreement with Papua New Guinea, or working to get sports diplomacy turbo‑charged so our Pacific engagement's been particularly critical, and I've also been engaging on our international development agenda as well, and pursuing our goal of manufacturing missiles in Australia in 2025. So I've had some great meetings in the Pentagon, and we will be manufacturing missiles in Australia in 25 to give us more sovereignty, to give us more independence, and create more jobs, and that's why the second part of the AUKUS legislation around export exemptions is so powerful.

To give you one example, we've got a project around integrated air and missile Defence, that prior to the passage of that legislation would have required 200 individual export licences to develop. That's all wiped, that's all gone. That will take years off that project, improve delivery of capability and maximise jobs in Australia.

JADE MACMILLAN: Thank you very much.



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