Radio Interview, 6PR Perth

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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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9 April 2024


SEAN COWAN: Pat Conroy is my guest this morning. Good morning, Pat.

MINISTER PAT CONROY: Good morning, Sean. How are you?

SEAN COWAN: Well, thank you. Now you're over in the US at the moment, obviously furthering the AUKUS pact. Can you tell us what the purpose for your visit is?

MINISTER PAT CONROY: I'm here to continue on advanced discussions with the United States on our AUKUS pact. We've got work underway, obviously, on building the workforce to sustain submarines in WA and build submarines in Adelaide. And we have our first us submarine that's undergoing maintenance in Australia arriving this year. So, it's a great time to come over and talk about further cooperation and how we really advance the pact. It's also the week of the Sea Air Space Exposition, which is the biggest non land defence industry conference in the United States, and there are over 60 Australian companies exhibiting. So, I'm here sort of waving the Aussie flag, talking about some great Australian companies and how they can win work in the United States and grow more jobs in Australia.

SEAN COWAN: Now, jobs in Australia is a big issue in connection with AUKUS, isn't it? Because one of the problems that we're facing is that labour shortage that has hit, especially in Western Australia, but certainly around the country. How much of your discussion will center around finding those people that are so desperate to make sure that we can meet the requirements of AUKUS? And how much of it is more about the technology?

MINISTER PAT CONROY: Well, it's both. When I have my discussions, the main topic people raise is the industrial base, the submarine industrial base and the workforce challenge, and that's across all three countries. But we're doing a unique thing in the history of Australian projects. We're going to be training Australians to do these jobs rather than poaching them. So, we've got Australians training right now to maintain nuclear powered submarines. And by next year, 100 Australians, mostly from the west, will be working in Pearl Harbour on us nuclear submarines as a way of training to then do that job in Australia. So, my conversations, I'm going to the biggest us shipyard on Wednesday and I'll be talking about what they're doing to train their workers and I'll be briefing them on how we're doing that. And we're going to employ 20,000 people in this project. And the only answer is train people. That's why we're funding 4000 new university places as well to do that, because if we just try and poach people, that's a zero sum game.

SEAN COWAN: Minister. One of the big concerns of industry in Western Australia is about finding that labour force, but also about the speed at which things are moving. Given the long lead-time required for these sorts of. Are you confident you're going to be able to get the sort of numbers that you need to get this thing up and running and off the ground in the timeframes that have been set down?

MINISTER PAT CONROY: I am. And to give you another example, besides 100 Aussies working in Pearl Harbour, later this year, we'll have a US submarine tender, which is one of their big maintenance ships that helps maintain their submarines. Coming into the west to do a maintenance period on a us submarine. On board will be 37 Royal Australian Navy sailors who've already been training aboard it in Guam. So, all that training is happening right now. I announced the new Defence Industry Policy a few weeks back, and part of that was the extension of the excellent WA Defence School Pathways Program, where we're training kids while they're still in school to get them into the defence industry. So, it's all hands on deck to really get this going, but it's also about providing continuity of work. So, we released our new Surface Fleet Naval Strategy a few weeks ago, where we're more than doubling the Royal Australian Navy's major surface fleet for the frigates and destroyers and those sorts of vessels. And we're delivering continuous shipbuilding in WA, in the Henderson Maritime Precinct. And one of the reasons we're doing that is so that workers know that they've got a job for the next 30 or 40 years, if they want it, they've got that certainty. Some will always take the coin and go up to those mining projects, but a lot of people will want that stability and they can know that they can work their entire working life building vessels for the Royal Australian Navy. They can raise their family, pay off a mortgage, and that's really important for retention of people. For too long, it's been a boom bust cycle of one project finishes, but another one doesn't open or start for the next five years. So, we're trying to learn from mistakes in the past and really address those issues now.

SEAN COWAN: Now while you're in the US, of course, there have been discussions, or certainly stories in the last couple of days about the expansion of AUKUS to include Japan in the pillar two part of the pact, rather than in pillar one. Now, that doesn't involve the nuclear submarines. But while you're there, will that be part of your process and part of your discussions? I note that the Japanese Prime Minister Kushida is meeting with Joe Biden on Thursday, so it seems a formal announcement is perhaps imminent. And I imagine there's further discussions going on in the background.

MINISTER PAT CONROY: Well, it's topic of frequent discussions, and the three Defence Ministers of the AUKUS countries released a statement overnight updating the public about progress, both from pillar one, which is the building of nuclear powered, conventionally armed submarines, and pillar two, which is the other advanced technologies we're cooperating on. And as part of that, we've said we've always been open to cooperating with other countries on a project by project basis on those other advanced technologies, things like electronic warfare, autonomous vehicles, like artificial intelligence, those sorts of things. And we said that the first country we're talking to will be Japan. And so Japan and the three AUKUS countries will talk about whether it makes sense to work together on individual projects. So, Japan is not joining AUKUS, but it's about. Does it make sense to work together? All three countries, the United States, Australia and United Kingdom, have got strong bilateral defence partnerships with Japan. Obviously, Japan's got one of the most advanced economies in the world with some of the best advanced technology. So, it's one where it's a win win if it works together. And this is all about getting the best technology into our soldiers, sailors and aviators hands and growing jobs doing so.

SEAN COWAN: Now, this might be a little bit difficult because we know that the things that are said by Ministers in terms of defence can be misread and can be misrepresented, and we need to be careful about what's said in terms of how other countries might take it. But it does seem that over the last couple of weeks, perhaps posture, I can't call it defence posture, because that's an official thing, but perhaps our posture towards China, at least publicly, has changed somewhat. We've seen people talking fairly openly about AUKUS and what it means. We've seen Japan possibly bought into the fold. And, as you indicated, there have been some statements we're seeing the US and China, sorry, US and Japan talking where there is. There's a summit, I think, between Joe Biden, Prime Minister Kushida and the Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos junior. Later this week, there were exercises involving the Philippines and Australia and Japan and the US on Sunday. Now, I certainly hesitate to mention war in the South China Sea, but certainly anyone looking externally could well be concerned about the possibility of Australia getting involved in Taiwan. What is the current position? Can you guarantee us that? That's not on the agenda. I know the US have talked about it for a long time and certainly want us to be alongside them, should that be the case?

MINISTER PAT CONROY: What I can guarantee is that we've stabilised our relationship with China. I think over the last two years you've seen the Australian government put enormous efforts into rebuilding a relationship on the basis of cooperating where we can but disagreeing where we must. And that's what we've been doing. So, we've stabilised relationship by taking a lot of the silly rhetoric out of the debate while sticking to our values. And that's why, for example, you did see us in joint exercises with the Philippine Navy and the United States Navy and I believe the Japanese navy last week, which is all about freedom of seas and respect for the rules based international order, but at the same time saying that we can have adult, mature relationships with people and you're seeing that pay off in terms of the release of those trade blockages. So, there was $20 billion worth of trade blockages imposed by China on Australia. We, when we came to power, didn't change our policy, but acted like an adult government and have slowly repaired that relationship and such that the wine trade was restored a couple of weeks ago. So, 19 of that $20 billion of trade blockages have been fixed, but at the same time always stand up for the rules based international order. We're a middle sized power. We're the sort of country that depends upon having respect for international laws and norms, and we'll always do that. And that's why you see us making comment about safety at sea and incidents in the South China Sea, but at the same time having adult relationships with all countries of the world.

SEAN COWAN: And just finally, Minister, what chance that the pact extends further than perhaps Japan? There has been discussion about the likes of New Zealand or even Canada being included in some way in that pact in the future.

MINISTER PAT CONROY: Well, we're open to that. And as I said at the start, it's about cooperating on a project by project basis where another country might bring a specific expertise. It's important that those countries have the highest security systems in place so that everyone's absolutely confident that technology doesn't get into the wrong hands. So, I think the countries he named are the sort of countries that people will talk about as being next ones possibly interested. But at this stage, we're focused on bedding down AUKUS, particularly pillar two, the new advanced technologies, turning that into capability for our warfighters, delivering jobs and discussing with Japan how they can make a contribution and work together on individual projects. I think more cooperation internationally is a good thing for Australia.

SEAN COWAN: Minister, thanks very much for joining me this morning.

MINISTER PAT CONROY: Not a problem, Sean. Have a good morning.


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