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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

Media contact

media@defence.gov.au

(02) 6277 7840

General enquiries

minister.conroy@dfat.gov.au

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22 March 2024

INTERVIEW WITH TOM CONNELL
SKY NEWS REGIONAL AUSTRALIA, POLITICS NOW

THURSDAY, 21 MARCH 2024

SUBJECTS: AUKUS investment, Kevin Rudd, Australia-China relations and Australian aid to Ukraine 

TOM CONNELL: Australia will export 100 boxer heavy weapon carrier vehicles to Germany in a $1 billion deal. I spoke to the Defence Industry Minister, Pat Conroy, a short time ago, began by asking him about the export contract.

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I think it's a testimony to the expertise and skilled workforce, not just of the 600 workers at Rheinmetall in Brisbane, but their really extensive supply chain, from Marand Engineering in Melbourne that supplies parts for both the boxes and the joint strike fighter, to new press that does machining in my own electorate in Cardiff, to BlueScope and Bisalloy working on the steel. So, it's an example of the advanced manufacturing that this country is capable of with support from the Australian government.

TOM CONNELL: So, the exports going well, there is some concern around the imports, I guess you'd call it. The US Navy has proposed removing one of the AUKUS subs from its 2025 production. The spending plan there, the concern is their shipyards are struggling to keep up with the local demand. Have we sought clarification on whether one day our AUKUS subs might be in jeopardy?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, as Congressman Joe Courtney made clear in his remarks, this is the start of the budget process, not the end, so we'll see where that ends up. But importantly, we've got complete confidence in the AUKUS arrangements and the delivery of those Virginia-class submarines. Importantly, the same draught budget from the president had $11 billion of investment in lifting up the industrial base, the submarine industrial base of the United States. When you add 3 billion President Biden has already allocated, and our 3 billion, that's $17 billion going to uplift their industrial base to increase production rates, which are improving and improve availability. I think availability is already lifted to close to 70 per cent. Their goal is 80 per cent. I'm very confident in the AUKUS deal and I'll make the point that this is, I think, the third or fourth time AUKUS has been declared dead by commentators. We will get through it. I've got great confidence. And you'll see more progress announced shortly.

TOM CONNELL: There's obviously the capability thing and it's at least going to be spoken about when that sort of announcement happens, then there's a change of president. I mean, we've seen before with Donald Trump, it's America first. That would have to be something you'd keep an eye on, wouldn't it? If he becomes president and it becomes a choice between still supplying the subs or the US, is that something you'd have to keep an extra close eye on?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I'd make two points. One AUKUS, I've got great confidence in because it's in the interests of all three nations. This is not about a handout from the United States to Australia or anything like that. This is about lifting up the industrial base and lifting up the security of all three countries. It's in all our self-interest to do that. Secondly, there is incredibly strong bipartisan support in America for AUKUS. I was in the gallery of the Senate for when they passed the legislation that authorised the transfer of those Virginia-class submarines to Australia. It had 80 per cent support in the Senate and 75 per cent support in the House of Representatives.

TOM CONNELL: Does that mean you hope the Republicans, that are there that support AUKUS now and will then, are able to influence Donald Trump if he does get cold feet?

MINISTER CONROY: No, it means that there's strong bipartisan support.

TOM CONNELL: But the president [Indistinct].

MINISTER CONROY: I'm very confident that that will continue and it will survive changes of government in both Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, because it's in all our interests.

TOM CONNELL: And when you say in our interest that Donald Trump would also be convinced around the contribution we're making to America's capability for building, that would be made clear to him. Is that what we have as sort of ballast, if you like?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I'm not going to talk about hypothetical conversations. If a hypothetical event happens in November, what I can say to you is there's strong bipartisan support for it. We will be acquiring the most advanced submarines in the world in the 2030s, then building even more advanced submarines in Australia in the 2040’s, and that will help add to our national security.

TOM CONNELL: If Donald Trump does decide he doesn't want to deal with Kevin Rudd, you wouldn't have a choice, would you? The relationship is too important. You'd need a new ambassador.

MINISTER CONROY: Again, I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals like that. What I can say to you is that Kevin Rudd's doing an excellent job in Washington. I've visited the United States three times in the last year and a half, principally around AUKUS, and he's a force of nature in lobbying Congress. He's got great relationships with both sides of the aisle, as he's demonstrated in those levels of voting. He's doing a great job. I don't think it's really fruitful talking about these sorts of hypotheticals.

TOM CONNELL: But it's a bit more than hypothetical. When Donald Trump says specifically around what he might do, you can't have an ambassador that doesn't have a relationship with the president of the day, can you? That's just common sense.

MINISTER CONROY: Well, again, he's doing a great job in Washington right now, and he's got great relationships with both Democrats and Republicans and I'm sure that will continue.

TOM CONNELL: All right. The Paul Keating meeting with Wang Yi, is that undermining the Australian government?

MINISTER CONROY: Look, I respect former Prime Minister Paul Keating. He's made a huge contribution to this country as Treasurer and Prime Minister. He remains very active in foreign policy debates. That's his right, and that meeting is something that occurs occasionally and that's fine.

TOM CONNELL: What do you mean, occurs occasionally?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, former Prime Ministers and former leaders will meet with representatives of foreign governments.

TOM CONNELL: You've got no issue at all. You've criticised Paul Keating before.

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I make no secret of the fact that I disagree with his position on AUKUS. I think it's in our national interest, but he's entitled to his opinion and him meeting with representatives from other countries is something that happens quite regularly, not just with him, people like Malcolm Turnbull. I see meeting-

TOM CONNELL: Given Paul Keating's views undermining the Australian Government, you can imagine what he might be saying behind closed doors.

MINISTER CONROY: I don't think that's a fair characterisation of it and I just think it was a very successful visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister. Great meetings with Foreign Minister Penny Wong with real concrete outcomes. We've lifted 19 of the $20 billion of trade blockages and that means great news for Australian producers through stabilising our relationship with China.

TOM CONNELL: I wanted to ask you finally about the Taipan helicopters and just this very specific question. Did the Australian government ask the Ukrainian Government if they had any use for them before the decision around disposal and breaking them up and so on?

MINISTER CONROY: So, I've been very clear on the process here. We engaged NATO defence – sorry, NATO helicopter industries to establish whether any other country that uses them would be interested in acquiring our helicopters. The answer was no.

MINISTER CONROY: And secondly, they then engaged on a global scan to see if there's any new customers who would be interested in buying them.

TOM CONNELL: That's buying. Wouldn't Ukraine be getting them?

MINISTER CONROY: Again, I just referred to the comments from the Ukrainian Ambassador, which is, it's time to move on. We've provided around a billion dollars worth of assistance to Ukraine. We're proud to support them. It's time to move on from that particular issue.

TOM CONNELL: But this still goes to the question of whether the Australian Government perhaps should have thought of Ukraine. Did you specifically ask Ukraine if they had need for those helicopters before that?

MINISTER CONROY: I've described the process that occurred.

TOM CONNELL: But that doesn't actually answer whether Ukraine- 

MINISTER CONROY: You can draw your own conclusions about that. The Ukrainian Ambassador said it's time to move on. Would be very clear that these helicopters are not the right helicopters.

TOM CONNELL: My conclusion from that is they weren't asked.

MINISTER CONROY: You can draw whatever conclusions you want. But it's time to move on and concentrate on the fact that we've provided around a billion dollars worth of assistance to Ukraine. We're proud to be among the biggest non-NATO contributors and we'll continue to support their valiant efforts.

TOM CONNELL: I know you've got a busy schedule, Minister. Thanks for your time.

MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, Tom.

ENDS

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