Radio Interview, ABC Radio National

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

Media contact

02 6277 7800

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22 March 2024

SUBJECT/S: Submarine announcements, drones for Ukraine, Julian Assange, Kevin Rudd, Law Reform Commission report

HOST, PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Federal Government will today unveil the next step of the AUKUS agreement, handing $4.6 billion to the United Kingdom to expand its nuclear reactors to help fuel Australia's future submarines. The details will be outlined by British and Australian officials, as visiting UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron says the countries must work more closely to respond to aggression from China. The emerging details of how Australia's nuclear powered submarines will be built and maintained comes alongside a new commitment to provide drones to Ukraine. Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence, and he joined me a short time ago. Welcome.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, Patricia. How are you?

KARVELAS: Good, thank you. You're announcing a massive new commitment to the UK today to help expand its nuclear reactors to fuel Australia's AUKUS submarines. Just explain where that money's going.

MARLES: Well, the uplift in the UK industrial base will be in respect of Rolls Royce facility in Derby, which is where the nuclear reactors for Australia's nuclear-powered submarines will be built. A year ago, when we announced AUKUS, we made clear that we wouldn't be building the nuclear reactors in Australia. We'll be building the rest of the submarine at the Osborne naval shipyard in Adelaide. But that facility in Derby in the UK needs to be obviously producing nuclear reactors for the submarines at a faster rate- they obviously produce them for the Royal Navy's fleet as well, and that's where that contribution will go. But I think it's also important to understand that the vast bulk of the industrial uplift that we are doing is right here in Australia. I mean, through until the mid-2050s, we'll be spending something in the order of $30 billion in improving and uplifting Australia's industrial base so that we can build these submarines here.

KARVELAS: When do you expect the UK nuclear industry will have expanded to the point it can actually meet our demand?

MARLES: Well, again, we need to be clear that the time frame here is that the first of these submarines that we'll be building in Adelaide will roll off the production line in the early 2040s, so that is a way down the track. But what's implied in your question is correct, which is that that isn't actually so far off, and there is a challenge in meeting that time frame, but we're confident we can do that. In terms of the UK's industrial base, our commitment to it is really important to see it expand. I was at the facility in Derby last year and we're already seeing it readying itself to build the Australian reactors there. In fact, there are parts that are being made right now, which we saw, which will be on the submarine that rolls off the production line in Osborne in the early 2040s. So, we are confident that all these timelines could be met, both in Australia and in terms of the UK's industrial base in Derby.

KARVELAS: So, when will we be able to actually get the nuclear material needed for our submarines?

MARLES: Well, again, we're confident that those reactors will be built over the period through this decade and into the 2030s, which will allow the reactor to form part of the first of those nuclear powered submarines, which comes off the production line in the early 2040s.

KARVELAS: You're also announcing a new commercial venture between the Adelaide based ASC and British defence giant BAE Systems. What does that involve?

MARLES: Well, that's really the critical announcement of the day, because this is announcing that a joint venture will be established between BAE and ASC to build the nuclear powered submarines in Osborne. And a year ago, we said we would announce the builder of our nuclear powered submarines within a year. That's the announcement that we are doing today, and it's a really important step forward in, obviously, acquiring this capability, but establishing the production line here at Osborne. And it's an important commercial arrangement because it will see ASC, which is owned by the Australian government, and through that, the Australian people will really be at the table of this commercial arrangement in an enduring way, with an enduring, say.

KARVELAS: Details of this joint venture are not clear. What's the share ownership and the board composition going to look like?

MARLES: Look, those details have not been determined yet and, in fact, we'll take some time to work through. The important point is the construct of having a joint venture being the entity which contracts with the Commonwealth government to build the submarines. We will take the time to work out all those details and it may take a year or two to hammer out the details of the joint venture. Importantly, that won't stop the progress of the development of the Osborne Naval shipyard. In the meantime, we are getting on with it in terms of making sure that all the steps need to be taken to construct the yard right now. But given that we are talking about an entity which we intend to exist forever, I mean, this is an enduring capability to be able to make nuclear powered submarines in Australia. It is worthwhile to make sure that we get the very best structure in place for the long term. And that's one where the Australian people are sitting around the table with the greatest say possible. And that's why the joint venture with ASC as a part of it is so important.

KARVELAS: Let's go to Australia's new commitment to Ukraine. Australia is going to join this coalition providing drones to Ukraine. What's the scale of our part of this commitment?

MARLES: Well, we'll have more to say about that question in terms of the scale over the next few weeks and months as we determine exactly how our contribution is made. But drones is an area where we have a real expertise and a real capability. It's an area where we think we can make a difference. Already we've got Australian companies such as Sypaq who make cardboard drones actively involved in supporting Ukraine and its efforts against Russia. I think the other point to understand is the extent to which drones are forming a key part of how this conflict is playing out. I mean, we've said all along that we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes for Ukraine to resolve this war on its terms. And in doing so, we want to make contributions which are meaningful, where we can make a difference. Drones is an area where we have expertise, and we really think we can make a difference. So, we were very keen to take up the British offer, who are leading this coalition with Latvia to be a part of it. And we'll work out over the next few weeks and months to look at exactly what that contribution will be.

KARVELAS: I just want to ask you a couple of other questions. There have been reports of a deal to downgrade charges against Julian Assange to misdemeanour a move that would, of course, potentially let him walk free. Are you aware of any deal? What does the government know?

MARLES: Look, I'm not in a position to comment about all of that. I mean, the processes, the legal processes which are underway in the UK and the US are obviously independent of their governments and certainly independent of ours. And so, I'm not commenting about that. What I would say is that as an Australian citizen abroad, we have engaged in advocacy on behalf of Julian Assange. What everyone thinks about what Julian Assange has done over the years, this needs to be resolved. His case needs to be brought to resolution. And that is the advocacy that we've been engaging in, both in the US and the UK. And we do that with great respect for the independence of their judicial systems. And that will play out as it does.

KARVELAS: The AUSMIN talks today. David Cameron told 7:30 last night he'd like to see the Julian Assange situation resolved. Is this going to be discussed?

MARLES: Well, I'm not going to go into the detail of that, other than to say what I've just said, which is that we continue to advocate on behalf of Julian Assange as an Australian citizen.

KARVELAS: Can you just confirm if it will come up in the AUSMIN talks?

MARLES: Well, again, I'm not going to go through those. We continue to advocate on behalf of Julian Assange to see a resolution to his case. It has been long enough, and there needs to be a resolution.

KARVELAS: Just finally, have you spoken to Kevin Rudd?

MARLES: Well, that's a broad question. I speak to Kevin Rudd a lot.

KARVELAS: I mean, in the last week, since the Donald Trump comments. 

MARLES: I don’t think I’ve spoken to him on the phone but-

KARVELAS: Have you messaged him? Have you had communications with him?

MARLES: I'm in constant communications with Kevin.

KARVELAS: Since the Donald Trump comments, which is clearly the point of my question. Have you spoken to Kevin Rudd?

MARLES: Look, there's a whole lot of heat and light around this. Kevin is doing a great job representing Australia in the US, and he's doing that across the political spectrum. We saw that at the end of last year with the groundbreaking legislation that was passed through the US Congress, which underpins AUKUS, and a lot of what we're announcing today. But the important point about that is that Kevin really led the advocacy effort in respect of that, and he did so not only with Democrats, but also with Republicans. I think Kevin is well received across the political spectrum, and he's doing a great job in representing Australia's interests.

KARVELAS: So, have you had communications with him and expressed your support?

MARLES: Well, I'm not about to go into the specifics of communications I've had with Kevin. I express my support for Kevin right now. He is doing a fantastic job on behalf of our country and will continue to do so.

KARVELAS: Okay. But obviously, this has become a story because Donald Trump was asked a question and led into this criticism of Kevin Rudd. Do you think Kevin Rudd is, if the event of Donald Trump presidency was to occur again, capable of repairing that relationship?

MARLES: I think Kevin is doing a great job on behalf of Australia, and I think he will be able to do that job, irrespective, excuse me, of who is governing America this time next year.

KARVELAS: There has been a lot written about Donald Trump's ability to repair relationships after lots of inflammatory things may be said. Is that how you see this?

MARLES: Really how I see it is that the alliance has endured over decades across governments of both persuasions in the US and both persuasions here in Australia. It existed right through the administration of Donald Trump previously. Whatever happens in the US in November, I'm confident that it will be able to persist because it has deep institutional strength. And I think Kevin's role in being able to advocate for Australia in the context of that can absolutely be maintained, irrespective of who wins the election in November.

KARVELAS: Just a domestic question, which is pretty important today. The Australian Law Reform Commission has given you its report on religious discrimination in schools that says you should scrap section 38 of the Sex Discrimination act, which lets religious schools discriminate against staff and students, for instance. Will you do that?

MARLES: Well, we've got the report. We will obviously take our time to consider it. I mean, we've made clear our desire to move down a path of these reforms, but we want to do this in a way which builds consensus across the community. And a lot of work has been done by the Attorney-General in respect of that, but also across the parliament. I mean, it's really important that in respect of these issues, that we are walking together as one.

KARVELAS: Religious schools seem alarmed by this report. Are you sympathetic with that alarm?

MARLES: Again, we're talking to those schools. We've received the report, but the Attorney-General is doing a great job in engaging with those schools, and we'll take our time to work through it-

KARVELAS: But will you honour your commitment that you would remove discrimination?

MARLES: The important point here- well, we certainly will honour our commitments, but the important point here is that what we want to do is to walk forward with consensus within the community and across the political spectrum, and that's what we're seeking to achieve.

KARVELAS: Thanks for joining us.

MARLES: Thanks, Patricia.


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