Radio interview, ABC Adelaide Breakfast

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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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21 February 2024

SUBJECTS: Surface fleet review announcement; Julian Assange.

HOST, SONYA FELDHOFF: Well, yesterday, of course, the much-expected announcement regarding what would happen with the surface fleet program in the Australian Navy. We heard that an $11 billion or thereabouts is going to be spent over the next decade to boost that. And along with that fleet increasing from 11 to 26 includes six – less than the promised nine – but six frigates that will be built here in Adelaide at Osborne. What does that mean for South Australia? Well, Richard Marles is the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Good morning to you.


HOST, JULES SCHILLER: Good, Richard Marles. Let’s begin. I know you’re touring Findon Technical College with the Premier today. So obviously there’s a focus on who- which jobs are going to be created and how many and who is going to, I guess, work on these frigates and submarines in the future, Minister. So for all the parents listening at the moment whose sons or daughters might be good at engineering or electrical engineering- whatever- what do you say to them? How many jobs do you think this will create, and can they be confident that if their children get these skills that they can have a long career in defence in South Australia?

MARLES: Well, I mean, the answer is that there will be literally thousands of jobs that are going to be created over the next few years as we ramp up the production line for the building of nuclear-powered submarines and as we continue and grow the production line in relation to the Hunter class frigates, which is happening as we speak. I think the emphasis of this morning’s event is really going to be that in order to ensure that we have the people that we need to have to work in this industry we’ve got to, as governments, be investing in the training. So, I don’t think there’s going to be any shortage of jobs, but the question here is making sure that we are investing in the training to make sure that we’ve got the people who can do the jobs. So, in answer to the final question: absolutely. I mean, the key point of the decision yesterday is we are forecasting a pipeline of work which goes for decades–

SCHILLER: Yeah, but –

MARLES: So if you’re a parent of somebody coming – doing training now, you can look at working in this industry for the rest of your working life.

SCHILLER: So, I mean, we’ve had lots of chopping and changing of, you know, what we’re building here and there has been uncertainty. So you can say to parents, Richard Marles that, yes, your kid, if they’re an engineer, they’re an electrical engineer, they can have a job for long term right here in South Australia?

MARLES: 100 per cent. And I think that is the way to see the significance of the announcement yesterday from the South Australian point of view. This locks in- because we’ve put the funding in place to lock in a production line which will be in place for decades, and we’re locking in the funding for the training which will allow people to have the skills to work on that production line. And so this is going to be a great career. So these are high-tech jobs. We will need electrical engineers, we’ll need people, you know, from PhDs through to the trade level. It’s going to be a fantastic enterprise. And it’s really- it’s going to be the heart of the Australian defence industry. I think South Australia is that now. But this is really going to be in many ways the heart of Australian industry. Like, the nuclear-powered submarine production line will be the highest tech manufacturing production line that we do in Australia by a long way and one of the most high-tech production lines in the world.

FELDHOFF: So this workforce, and guaranteeing the workforce is the big question, isn’t it? There are jobs there. Getting those positions filled is the big one. So how many do we need? I’ve seen differing reports between 500 and a thousand. How many extra jobs will there be?

MARLES: Well, it’s measured in multiple thousands is what we will need in order to build both the submarines and to not just continue the building of the frigates which are happening now but actually to increase that production line as well. And so we’re talking about a few thousand people who are going to be working in this space on an ongoing basis at the Osborne naval shipyard for decades to come. That does require a huge training effort, which is obviously why we’re focused on that this morning.

FELDHOFF: Is that likely to be South Australians, Australians or migrants who will fulfil those roles?

MARLES: Well, again, a good question. It will be Australians, and I say that in the broadest sense. Australians are made up of South Australians and migrants. But one of the points here is that because we will be in a defence setting there is a security overlay to this. So it will be Australian citizens who need to be working on this production line. And it is also right to say that, you know, this will draw on industrial base from around the country. So, yes, this is going to be creating jobs at Osborne in Port Adelaide, and that is going to be the heart of it and thousands of jobs will be right there. But it’s actually going to create jobs throughout the country as people supply or companies supply parts into this supply chain.

SCHILLER: You’re listening to Richard Marles. He’s the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. We’re obviously talking about the big announcement yesterday about our surface fleet – six Hunter frigates for South Australia, a promise of maybe three more ir warfare destroyers and, of course, AUKUS. Defence Minister, why do defence budgets blow out – always blow out? I mean, the Turnbull Government, I think it was $30 billion. It’s gone up to $65 billion now. How confident are you that we can actually budget for these things and a future government won’t go, “This is too expensive. You know, we’re going to renege on these contracts”?

MARLES: It’s a very good question. I mean, at one level you are talking about really complex programs and, you know, it is hard to land those. But I think what we have seen in the past – certainly what we saw under the former government – was a habit, if I could put it that way, of making announcements without putting the proper funding in place. We saw a range of programs which were made over complicated, if I could put it that way, so that we were trying to deliver more than perhaps what was needed, and that didn’t help the situation either. With both of those concerns in mind, the difference that we’re trying to bring to bear here is, firstly, making very clear upfront that the money is there. So, this is – to put that in context, it’s a $54 billion program to pursue our surface fleet over the course of the next decade. The budget right now has $43 billion allocated for our surface fleet. So yesterday we announced an increase of $11 billion, which will be reflected in this year’s budget. That’s announcing the money at the same time as we announced the program. That’s not been done in the past. That’s a really important step we believe to give a sense of confidence. The other point is that we want to walk down a path of what we describe as minimum viable capability – that is, whatever the job is that we are trying to do we want to get a capability which allows us to just do that job and not to kind of go over the top, as it were. And so minimum viable capability is an important philosophy which we’ve not brought to bear before, and we think that also gives us an opportunity to make sure that we get what we need but we get what we need on budget. I mean, it is a challenge. The observation you’ve made is absolutely right. We are very focused, though, on changing the way we do business so that we can actually get for our Navy and our Defence Force what it needs and get that at an appropriate price.

FELDHOFF: Well, on that then, former South Australian Senator Rex Patrick, he basically claims South Australia has been shortchanged on this, and he cites a whole list of defence projects that have been canned in the planning. He also says the designers within the military are no good. Then we’ve got Greg Sheridan who writes in The Australian today that the surface fleet plans are a dismal cross between a damp squib and a routine government defence con job. Has South Australia been shortchanged on this?

MARLES: Well, I mean, I obviously disagree with both of those. I mean, this is the – one of the most significant announcements that has ever been made which underpins in a real way Australian Defence Industry and in this case South Australian Defence Industry. I mean, at its most basic, this is committing to build the six Hunter class frigates here in South Australia at the Osborne naval shipyard. That takes surface ship building through to the early 2040s, and then a commitment to build the successor to the Hobart class, the air warfare destroyers, after that. That’s a multi-decade pipeline of work. Now, that hasn’t been committed to before. That is thousands of jobs at Osborne. The money has been put in place to do that. We haven’t seen that happen before, where a government has actually announced all the funding right there when the announcement has been made. I mean, it really does set this apart from announcements that have been made in the past. This gives South Australia certainty and clarity, and that’s why I think you saw, you know, such euphoria down at Osborne yesterday when this announcement was made, why it’s been welcomed by the companies involved, why it’s been welcomed by the South Australian Premier.

FELDHOFF: It’s 22 minutes past 7 here on ABC Radio Adelaide, and you’re listening to the Defence Minister Richard Marles, who is in Adelaide at the moment following the announcement. Now, Richard Marles, let’s talk about the threats at the moment. We’re talking about the future capability that the Australian Navy and Defence Force will have. But essentially over the next – what – 10 years we’re going to have fewer members of our surface fleet than we’ve had in the past because of the retiring of the Anzac and all of that. If the threat is coming from – let’s talk about it – China, are we vulnerable in the next 10 years?

MARLES: Well, we inherited a declining surface fleet, that’s true. I mean, the decision that we made yesterday in relation to HMAS Anzac, specifically the decision that would have been faced by any government on this day, the reality is that we inherited the oldest surface fleet since the end of the Second World War, and HMAS Anzac was in a terrible – was in terrible shape. It’s exactly for that reason that we’ve accelerated the acquisition of new surface combatants. I mean, when we came to government the plan from the Liberal Party was to see the first new surface combatant come into the Australian Navy in 2034, and that would have been the first of the Hunter class frigates. That date will remain for that ship. But we have now brought forward the acquisition of three general purpose frigates such that by that date we’ll have four new surface combatants in the water, and the first of those will be in service in this decade – in the 2020s. And so we are very much bringing forward acquisition of the surface fleet in order to deal with the challenges that we face.

SCHILLER: Just to follow up on Sonya’s question, Defence Minister, I think it’s a really good one because, you know, 2.4 per cent of GDP, as you say, is now being to be spent on defence. I think that puts us – and you might correct me here – like in the top 20 countries spending on defence. We’re increasing it every year. That seems to suggest – and you don’t have to be a PhD to realise that – that there is concern about the international situation, that China is flirting with the Solomon Islands, the US has not funded its agreement with, you know, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands yet, there’s the uncertainty around Trump. I mean, as the Defence Minister how worried are you about protecting this country over the next 30 to 40 years?

MARLES: I am – I definitely have concern, and that’s why we describe the – what we face as being the most challenging strategic circumstances and complex strategic circumstances since the end of the Second World War. And, Jules, I think you’re right – that is why we are seeing a planned increase in the defence spend and why we’ve committed, you know, tens of billions of dollars additional spending on defence over the course of the decade –

SCHILLER: Where does that put us internationally just in terms of defence spending per GDP?

MARLES: Well, it – I mean, sometimes we think about there being an international benchmark of 2 per cent of GDP. Most countries are well below 2 per cent. We will be taking defence spending to 2.4 per cent. So we will be right up there. But we need to be because – I mean, I think the way to describe this – and it is difficult, I understand for people to kind of conceptualise it – what – we are seeing great power competition in the world and we’re seeing great power competition in our region. And the outcome of that, you know, there are uncertainties around that. Now, rational people plan for the worst and they hope for the best. If we think about the uncertainties that gives rise to, we need to be making sure that we are a much more capable country going forward than what we have been in the past. And it’s not that anyone is imagining there is a desire for a country to invade Australia; that is not the threat. And the reason why that’s not the threat is because as an island-trading nation with a huge economic and growing economic connection to the world, most of which manifests through sea trade, so our sea lines of communication, you can do a whole lot of damage to Australia without ever having to set foot on our shores. What we, therefore need is to make sure that we are highly capable, particularly in the maritime domain, so we need a highly capable Navy. That makes sense given when you think what we are – an island-trading nation – which is able to deter any adversary who is seeking to coerce us. And really it’s that idea which is the threat that we are trying to meet. Now, that – it is a growing threat. We would all, you know, prefer that we have a much bigger Defence Force in place today, but we are working on building the most capable Navy and Defence Force that we’ve had since the end of the Second World War – in many ways that we’ve ever had – and having that over the next decade.

SCHILLER: Minister, we’ve only got a few minutes left – just a couple of questions from listeners. They’re saying, you know, you’re talking certainty, but there was certainty around the stage three tax cuts that obviously didn’t exist when Albanese, the Prime Minister, changed that. So you can say that this is different to the stage three tax cut promise?

MARLES: Well, the point I’d reiterate is that what we did yesterday in making this announcement which sets this apart from defence announcements that you’ve seen in the past is we put the money up. Like, $54 billion program, the $54 billion is there. I mean, the former government announced a $35 billion Guided Weapons Program – they put the $1 billion up. Just one. A whole lot of questions about what – well, how are you going to pay for that. The question as to how we will pay for this was answered yesterday. And that comes from an increase in defence spending which we announced yesterday will be in the budget in May. So that is as certain as a government can make it.

FELDHOFF: And, you know, you’re also the Deputy Prime Minister, and before we let you go, on a different topic, we know that Julian Assange’s appeal is before the High Court today against his extradition to the US. Does the Australian Government have a role at this stage, and will they be doing anything in relation to that?

MARLES: Well, we have been playing a role, not just today but since we’ve come to government. I mean, whatever one thinks of what Julian Assange has done in the past, this needs to be drawn to a conclusion. Obviously the British judicial system is independent and will run its course. But it is appropriate for Australia to say in respect of one of its citizens, that we expect that this is resolved and that we expect finality – you can’t just have a situation where someone is indefinitely incarcerated. And so we have been engaging in that advocacy since the moment we came to power.

FELDHOFF: Richard Marles, thank you for your time. Richard Marles, the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and he will be touring Findon Technical College with our Premier Peter Malinauskas later today.


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