Press Conference, Parliament House

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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 March 2024

SUBJECTS: Australia – United Kingdom Defence Ministers Meeting 

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Welcome all and thanks for being here. Secretary Shapps and I have just signed a defence and security cooperation agreement. This is a status of forces agreement, which contains within it a commitment to consult between our two countries when there is a contingency which involves our sovereignty and our security. Grant and I were talking about this and we were surprised that such a treaty level agreement had not existed between our two countries before, and in a sense, it says a bit about our history. 

The United Kingdom is of course our oldest relationship, and maybe those who have gone before us have just thought this is to be assumed, but Grant and I observed that it falls to us as the honour of being able to sign this agreement between our two countries. 

But what it does reflect is this whilst the UK is our oldest relationship, where the people to people links have always been incredibly strong, where there is a deep affection and where our reflexes and instincts are very similar, what we are experiencing right now is a strategic dimension to the contemporary relationship, which in many respects is unprecedented but certainly has not been in place for decades.

It means that the agreement that we have signed today is very practical, but it is also very timely and it does reflect a relationship, which has become much more strategic, a relationship which has a much bigger national security dimension. To that end, the UK has a much greater presence in the Indo Pacific than we have seen in a very long time. Offshore patrol vessels and its littoral response group are operating within our region. Next year, we will see a carrier strike group come through the region as well.

And so today in our bilateral meeting, we took the opportunity to talk about ways in which Australia can engage in those efforts, but also how those efforts can also engage in the increased tempo of exercises and activities which we are involved in in the Indo Pacific, so that together we can assert the global rules based order, freedom of navigation, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea within the Indo Pacific.

We are enormously grateful to the increased presence that we are now seeing from the UK here, and that frames the significance of why we need to be having a status of forces agreement right now. We also spoke today about AUKUS, which is perhaps at the heart of the contemporary strategic relationship between our two countries.

We spoke about how Pillar One, Australia acquiring a nuclear powered submarine capability from the United States and the United Kingdom is progressing at pace both in terms of the industrial dimension of that at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in Adelaide, but also in an operational sense, in the establishment of more frequent visits of nuclear powered submarines to HMAS Sterling in Western Australia, and in the coming years, the establishment of the submarine rotation Force west.

And we are really pleased at the progress of that as we are the progress of Pillar Two. Last year, Grant and I, along with Secretary Austin, were in California, where we talked about how we can breathe life into Pillar Two of AUKUS. That is progressing well, and we look forward to having a trilateral Defence Minister's meeting with Secretary Austin shortly.

Finally, I just want to mention Ukraine. Ukraine is the most acute example in the world today of the pressure that the global rules based system is under. This is a critical moment in the conflict in Ukraine, and we very much acknowledge the leadership of the United Kingdom in supporting Ukraine in their fight against the appalling invasion by Russia. It is critically important that the world stays the course right now to ensure that Ukraine is able to resolve this conflict on its terms, and the UK is right at the forefront of that. 

Recently, we've announced a contribution to the UK fund, which is supporting Ukraine. We're very proud to do that today. We also announce that Australia will participate in the drone coalition, which is being led by both the United Kingdom and Latvia. This is a really important opportunity for us to continue making our contribution to the effort to have Ukraine stay the course and be able to resolve this conflict on its terms. We will have more to say about that in the coming weeks and months. But Grant, it is an enormous pleasure to have you here. It's Grant's first visit to Australia. I've assured him that the weather he is experiencing in Canberra today is the way it is every single day in this city. We are very much looking forward to the rest of the two-day itinerary. And, of course, tomorrow we go into the 2+2, the AUKMIN, with Secretary Cameron and Minister Wong. 

GRANT SHAPPS, UK SECRETARY OF STATE: I'll hand it to you, Richard. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for your warm welcome as well as the warm weather. Warm, by my comparison, weather. It's a real pleasure to be here, and it's been far too long before I got here. But I just wanted to say, reflect on your words.

It is extraordinary, actually, that the United Kingdom and Australia didn't already have a defence cooperation treaty in place. That is actually not quite as much an omission as it first sounds. It's just that there is already an assumed cooperation treaty in place, even without it being formally passed. But I'm pleased that we've actually righted that small oversight today with the treaty we signed half an hour ago, which will bring us even closer together. 

And you're right about everything that you've just said. In fact, we met for, I guess, an hour and a half earlier. As I came out the room, I turned to my team and my first comment was, we could not possibly be closer, despite it being almost impossible to be geographically further apart. And by that I mean that our view and world outlook is very, very similar. Our understanding of the world order almost identical, and the need to act together never more pressing than it is today.

We are living, as I said, in a speech at Lancaster House in London with your Chief of Defence staff present back in January, in a world which has moved from a post-war world that we've always considered we've lived in, to a pre-war world where not because we're about to go to war tomorrow, I hope, but because we need to be more prepared than ever before, our stance needs to change.

And there's evidence of that everywhere you look. You have mentioned what's happening in Ukraine. And even though it's happening on a different continent a long way from here, the read across is so blatantly obvious that to ignore it would be to do a disservice to everyone, no matter where they live.

And particularly for those of you who happen to live in the Indo Pacific region, where the whole world, and particularly any dictator, anyone who doesn't have to answer to voters, is looking at what happens in Ukraine and deciding whether all you need to do is outweigh the west and the civilised world in order to keep what you've gained through ill-gotten means.

And so I think the biggest threat that the world faces today is a sense of attention deficit from countries that believe in freedom and democracy and are prepared, therefore, we must be prepared, therefore, to make sure that that does not happen. And the battle in Ukraine, where I was the week before last speaking to Zelensky, is at the forefront. If it were the case that an autocrat could walk in, take over land and then end up keeping that, just because although we said it couldn't happen, we lost focus and attention, and then that would read across to other parts of the world, and in particular the Indo Pacific.

And so I am hugely grateful for the leadership you've shown with the international Fund for Ukraine and helping to fund the international Fund for Ukraine. That is a financial mechanism, which means that we're helping to get Ukraine what they need today to fight that battle. I just want to publicly thank you, Richard, for what you've done there. I'm also very, very excited that you'll be joining the drone coalition. Drones are a new factor in that war that two years ago played a very small part and now are playing an increasingly significant, increasingly sophisticated part.

Countries who invest in the drone coalition are not just doing it for Ukraine, of course, that's the primary purpose, but also because it stands as a potential to bring huge technological improvements and advances in drone technology to our home markets as well, for defence and for civilian purposes.

Your foresighted investment in the drone coalition will not just help Ukraine, it will help Australia as well. And we look forward, actually, to working with you on that technology, sharing the technologies between us and making us all stronger as a result. But it is, of course, to this region that this visit is most intended.

I'm here as the Defence Secretary from the UK, but I'm also here with the British Foreign Secretary, David Cameron as well, who we're seeing later and into tomorrow. We're doing this 2+2 AUKMIN process because we strongly and powerfully believe in our cooperation between our nations and we want to deepen it. And you mentioned in defence, we have the littoral group that is now proactive in this region permanently.

We have the carrier strike group coming here next year and we're very much looking to working with you and your operations on that. And we have a very, very, through AUKUS, a very, very clear view of our role in helping to maintain and enhance the international order on which we all depend. And that's why the UK has been active and proactive in the Red Sea when we've seen freedom of navigation damaged by the Houthis there, by being one of just two nations. 

And we're again, very grateful for Australian support in taking kinetic physical action against the Houthis. Because, again, the read across is so obvious between what happens in freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and what needs to be free and open navigation in the Indo Pacific as well. So, we stand shoulder to shoulder in all of these many, many different ways. And as I said at the top, the thing which has struck me most in my first few hours with you here today is the extent to which distance is absolutely no object to us at all, because we stand united in our view of the world and what needs to be done. And we are proactive nations that are prepared to stand up and make sure that we do maintain the world order, which I think is very, very important. And it's great to be working on it with a new treaty together.

JOURNALIST: Thank you, Secretary Shapps, to the agreement you've struck today. I understand it's the first time you've done this with a country outside of NATO. Does it have immediate effect? Can you tell us practically what it will involve? Could we see British personnel on Australian soil in the next year or so? And on a related theme, would you like to see a greater Australian presence in the Red Sea? Perhaps a warship sent in the next few months?

SHAPPS: Well, look, first of all, I don't know exactly what the process is for you. When we sign a treaty, it goes in front of parliament to be ratified and approved. For us, it's a pretty quick process. It takes place in a matter of weeks or months. I'm not aware that a Minister has ever signed a treaty that hasn't been agreed by our Parliament. In fact, I can go further and confidently predict this will be a very popular treaty in the British parliament to be signing with our Australian friends. So, I don't think it will have any problem passing. But it does nonetheless need to go through the formal process.

And then, in terms of what it means, there are different aspects to it. I think one of the most important elements, actually, is that it describes a mechanism by which we consult when either of our countries are under threat. And we have those discussions more formalised than it is at the moment. We already do cooperate very significantly on defence matters, it should be said. So, we'll always be looking to deepen that cooperation between our countries. And signing a formal treaty, I think, signals the path to further cooperation. Exactly what form that takes will be a matter for us to work out over a period of time.

JOURNALIST: And in the Red Sea.

SHAPPS: In the Red Sea. First of all, I just want to reiterate what I said in my opening comments. We are hugely grateful. There are different types of nations in the world. There are nations who say they want something to happen. There are nations who put their effort behind it and actually sign up to it. And Australia didn't just sign up to Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is the overall. Those who just say that they want to see freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.

Richard specifically signed Australia up to supporting the actual action. On four separate occasions, the United Kingdom and the US have actually taken military action against the Houthis. And having that support means a huge amount to us, and goes beyond just Prosperity Guardian. Look, I very much hope that the situation in the Red Sea will be resolved and that we don't need to keep going to military action. We're not trying to expand that action. We're trying to ensure that the hooties understand that there's a price to pay. 

And anyone else who is going to interfere with open waterways understands there's a price to pay as well. So, we'll keep that all under review.

MARLES: In terms of the agreement that we've signed today, it is a treaty agreement, so it has had processes to go through here. But just as Grant said, we would not expect to see any issues as it progresses through the parliament. It provides a commitment to consult in the context of a contingency around our national security. 

But your question as to its immediate effect, why it matters now, is because we are seeing a much greater UK presence in the Indo Pacific. And whenever you have interactions in exercises, whenever our personnel are in the UK, whenever their personnel are here, there's a lot of work that needs to be done to authorise and regulate that. What this agreement does is provide, if you like, an architecture by which that happens on an ongoing basis. You don't have to repeat it each and every time. This is a reflection of increased engagement between our two defence forces. That's how you should read it, and it will greatly streamline the ability for us to work together.

JOURNALIST: And does it have a clause on threats posed to either nation?

MARLES: It has a commitment to console clause in respect to that.

JOURNALIST: If I could ask both Ministers. The Britain's submarine industry has been struggling after years of underinvestment. The astutes are late, the dreadnoughts are late. How will then Britain have the capacity to support Australia's submarine build? And isn't the AUKUS submarine timeline wildly optimistic? In that case.

SHAPPS: I didn't catch the media organisation. Yeah, you should definitely be working for Fleet Street. It's a spot on British attack line. Look, first of all, I think you make a fair comment, actually, which is and it's really what I was getting at my Lancaster house speech in London that the world after the Berlin war fell and after the cold war, thought it could get into a much more relaxed state. So, we saw Defence spending fall, and that happened in the United Kingdom as it happened elsewhere. 

The peace dividend was taken once, twice, three, four times, and you can't carry on doing that. We recognised that a number of years ago, and we've been increasing our defence budget, we always stayed above the 2%, which for NATO was always a critical figure. We always stayed above that. But we are now committed to raising it to two and a half as time allows. And we're on the second half of that, so we're about 2.27, 2.28. 

So, we have started to recapitalize and we're recapitalizing on submarine production in a very big way. And so Richard and I went to Derby, for example, to see Rolls Royce, where the nuclear power plants for these subs are built, including, I think we started to see some pieces actually being produced for the AUKUS subs. And that factory is going to be doubled in size with our joint work up in Barrow, which is where you've been to Barrow separately before. Not together with me, but you've been up there and in Barrow. 

We're putting in huge investment, and not just to the kit that you need to produce, but also the skills and things like the roads, which we're upgrading. So, the massive skills gap investment there. So, I think your point is fair looking at the past, but I think in the future, we have this as a national endeavor that is important for us to deliver. 

For us, of course, it also carries on to the dreadnought submarines, which are not just nuclear power, but for us, nuclear firing. And that program is our most significant national program, bar nothing. So, we absolutely are putting the time, energy and a lot of money into that now.

But also, I have to say, working with partners is a great way to also help you get the pressure from all sides to get it done. And if you want to do big things like building submarines, you do need to have this approach of it being a whole national effort, in this case, an international effort with partners, because otherwise, priorities elsewhere take over.

MARLES: Firstly, the time frame for when we would be completing the first SSN AUKUS submarine in Osborne is in the early 2040s. It is a challenging time frame, and some people actually look at that as being a long way into the future, but it is a challenging time frame and we are really mindful that every day between now and then counts. And it's why we are operating at a pace right now. And of course, the significance really, of doing or come in in Adelaide is about providing us the opportunity of going down to Osborne to see that. But we've also been really aware of the stretched industrial base in the UK and in the US, which has been part of the conversation that's been had here over the last few weeks as well. 

None of that is news, but it is why, a year ago, when we signed up to AUKUS, we made a commitment to make a financial contribution to the industrial basis of both countries, which was not without controversy, so that they could produce at a rate which would allow this to happen. And in respect of the UK specifically, Grant said that we went to the Rolls-Royce factory. In mean, the key thing for us there is that the nuclear reactors for the future, SSN AUKUS submarines, will be built at that factory in Derby. We are making a contribution to the factory which will build them. But it was remarkable that we actually saw pieces that were being manufactured which would be on that submarine which comes into fruition in 2042. We actually saw pieces right now. And so it is happening. It is a challenging time frame, but we're confident that we will get there. Last question.

JOURNALIST: There is a report from the Wall Street Journal this morning about Julian Assange’s case, suggesting that the US is looking at a reduced charge plea deal. Minister Marles, is this the kind of progress your government has been hoping for with its motion on the floor of parliament? And, secretary, if I may, does your government have sympathy with the position that the Australian parliament is taking on Julian Assange's case and the need for him to be set free, including the Labor government being a part of that motion on the floor of the parliament calling him to be released?

MARLES: Well, obviously, the judicial processes in both the UK and the US are independent of their executive governance, and certainly independent of us, and we respect their independence and we respect the rule of law in both countries. And so I'm not about to comment on that. Julian Assange is an Australian citizen and we have advocated on his behalf, as we do on behalf of Australian citizens around the world and that advocacy is being well documented and well known. And it's reflected, or the motion in parliament reflected, what that advocacy has been. We will continue to advocate on his behalf as people would expect us to do. And we do that with an enormous amount of respect for the independence of the processes in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

SHAPPS: It's really simple for me, actually, as a Cabinet Minister, I actually can't comment on the judicial process in our court. So, I'm afraid that is my answer in a nutshell.

MARLES: Thank you, everyone. Great to see you.

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