Defending Australia Summit Q&A

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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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28 May 2024

HOST, CAMERON STEWART: Well, look, thank you very much, Richard, for those remarks. I want to start off with a bit of geopolitics if I can. I think earlier this month a Chinese plane sprayed flares in front of an Australian naval helicopter. The relationship with China between the two countries has been improving. Trade sanctions have been getting progressively dropped. So, why is China still behaving like that to our forces when they're in the region?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: I mean, ultimately, that's a question for China. But I think the important answer to give from an Australian point of view is that whatever occurs, we are not going to be deterred from the fundamentally important mission of asserting the rules-based order. The work that we do is a significant part of the work of our Navy, in places like the South China Sea, the East China Sea. What you're referring to was Operation Argos, which was about enforcing sanctions on North Korea. All of that is work which is about asserting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation principles which are fundamentally important and not in an esoteric sense. I mean, most of our trade traverses the South China Sea. So, this is work which is fundamental to our national interest. And what is absolutely clear is that whatever increased difficulties we face in doing that work will not deter us from the doing of the work. And that, you know, it weighs heavily on me because when you are literally signing the papers which involve people going off and doing that, there is definitely a sense today that it is not routine and that people are going into a much, a place of much greater risk. I mean, I don't think it serves for me to speculate on what China's doing, but I can absolutely say what we're going to do, and what we're going to do is continue what we have been doing and not be deterred.

STEWART: You're talking about it being a record military build-up. What are you seeing at the moment? Are you seeing actually an acceleration of that, or a slowing of that? There economies not as strong as it was. What are you seeing at the moment?

MARLES: Well, again, I think this is not something measured over months or even a couple of years. It's something which is measured over decades. But when you look at it, and I think measured over a meaningful sense, what you are- that military build-up continues. I mean, the capability of China is growing at a fast rate. And literally, whatever metric one looks at across all the domains of contests, you're seeing dramatically increased Chinese capability. And history tells us that this doesn't happen for no reason. And that is the fundamental fact which underpins the complex strategic environment that we face.

STEWART: Do you think that, I mean, China argues that their military build-up is commensurate with their economy and their role in the world. Do you think that it's exceeded that? Do you think it is justified?

MARLES: I think there are two points to make about that. It is large, so I guess drill into it a little bit more deeply. I mean, we talk about conventional military build-up. There is a nuclear build-up as well. It's not on the same scale as what was occurring between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but below a nuclear threshold, it is the biggest military build-up that we've seen since the end of the Second World War. So, the first thing to say, there are other large economies, but this is big in those terms. But I think that the second point to make is what countries have a right to make themselves more capable. We're doing that. But in doing that, what we seek to do is provide a sense of strategic reassurance for our neighbours. When we are acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine capability, we are talking constantly with our neighbours about why we're doing it, the point of it, how we intend to use it, so that there is a sense of strategic reassurance for our region about why we are increasing our capability. I think that strategic reassurance has not been provided by China. And so in that sense, I think we are seeing a considerable amount of anxiety around our, well, I was going to say around our region, yes, around our region, but more broadly.

STEWART: Well, we had the punishment drills, didn't we, in Taiwan last week following the inauguration of the new president.

MARLES: I mean, clearly we're seeing the exercises that China is undertaking the complexity of those exercises, as you're describing, in a sense, the intent which might underlie those exercises. You add that to the fundamental military build-up, to the sense of seeking to shape the world around it, and this presents challenges for us and it's why we want to have the most productive relationship with China that we can have. I mean, they remain our largest trading partner, but when we talk about working with them when we can, but disagreeing where we must, that mantra is about trying to reconcile the challenges that we face in stabilising the relationship with China. Now, it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. We do want to have the most stable relationship with China, the most constructive relationship we can, but we simply have to be prudent in terms of our capability and make sure that we are putting ourselves in a position such that in a much less certain world in the future, we are able to resist coercion.

STEWART: The former Home Affairs Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, said he estimated the chances of a major conflict in the Pacific in the next five years were 10 per cent. Would you agree with that?

MARLES: I don't think it helps to put numbers on it, and I'm not sure how one does that. I certainly don't think it helps for me to speculate on that. It's what I've said, our strategic circumstances are complex and they are threatened in a rational world. The amount that one spends on defence is a function of strategic threat. We're spending more on defence and we should be. And we need to have complete clarity about what we're trying to do when we spend our money on defence and we believe we've put that clarity in place.

STEWART: Richard, you went to the Solomon Islands last week, which I thought was a very pointed statement, a well-timed statement, the contest, if you like, between Australia, the West and China in the Pacific- do you see this as something that might just come and go, or do you see this as a generational tussle?

MARLES: Well, I don't think it's something that comes and goes. I have to think about the phrase generational tussle, but to me, what it really demands is something I've felt for a long time, which is that we place the Pacific much more centrally in terms of our worldview. We've long had, actually, a very significant presence in the Pacific. If you look at a whole lot of measures in terms of our diplomatic footprint, our development assistance, our economic engagement, our people-to-people links, but I think over a long period of time, our presence in the Pacific has lacked intent and purpose and that has to change. We feel that under this Government we are changing that and we are understanding that what we want to be is the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific, but that's not something that we get by right- we need to earn it. And we need to earn it by being there, but also by focusing on the needs of the Pacific, development needs, security needs, and making sure that we are the partner in choice in terms of fulfilling those needs. Now, it was really good to go to Solomon Islands last week. I mean, obviously there's been a lot of focus on Solomon Islands over the course of the last few years, but it was my 11th visit to Solomon Islands. I've been there a lot and it was good to be back and to just remind myself that Solomon Islands is still Solomon Islands and the way Solomon Islanders feel about our country remains the same. We start so far ahead, you know, there is an affinity with Australia and we really do need to leverage this by putting in the effort. But actually, I felt very optimistic about the possibilities of a new partnership with Solomon Islands under a new government, and in that partnership seeing Australia firmly secured as the partner of choice in respect of security.

STEWART: Okay, so I want to go to the fact of how the Government is responding to these situations. I want to put to you a comment that Professor Paul Dibb said to me yesterday; he said the key defect with this government's defence policy is the stark gap between its promises and the lack of action to change defence preparedness. What's your response to that?

MARLES: Well, I mean firstly, I deeply respect Paul, and welcome Paul. You know, and Paul was the author of one of the seminal pieces of work in terms of Australian strategic policy, and we're very much indebted to what Paul has done. I mean, I don't agree with that assessment. As articulated in my prepared remarks, we have assessed what the landscape is, given strategic clarity around what needs to be the posture of our Defence Force. But we have resourced it. A $5.7 billion commitment over the course of the next four years. In the near term, when you take a look at it in historic terms, is the biggest four-year increase in Defence spending in decades. Now measured in the land of the real, against what governments can do, I think it is hard to argue that that is not meeting the challenge of the moment. And again, you can look at the ten-year figure and it is similarly significant in historic terms. But what I'd ultimately say is we didn't have a plan, a meaningful plan, for how we would have a surface combatant fleet which could meet our strategic need. Now we do. We didn't have a plan for how we get to new nuclear-powered submarines in a meaningful timeframe. Now we do. And we didn't have a plan for how we would have a mobile army and a resource plan. Now we do. So, I think when you actually look across the full spectrum of our Defence Force, of what needs, you know, the decisions that we've needed to take, but the resourcing decisions to underpin it, it's there.

STEWART: What about the argument of speed, which I guess is what Professor Dibb was going to, to a degree; we had the Defence Strategic Review, then there was a review into the surface ship fleet that went for a year. Another six months later, another announcement, and then a four-way tender for the general purpose frigate. So, all of that has been pushed out by almost two years. Given the urgency, strategic urgency, enunciated in the DSR. That doesn't sound very fast.

MARLES: Well, again, I would reject that. I mean, look, our second year anniversary of a government happened last week. The second anniversary of me being sworn in as the Defence Minister hasn't happened yet. In that time, we have not only reassessed all the things that we've done in terms of our strategic posture and put that in place, we have dramatically increased Defence funding in the near term to resource it, and we're getting on with it. Like you look at the steps that have already been taken in relation to putting AUKUS in place, we are doing it right now. I would challenge Paul or anyone to look at another two-year period in Defence policy and Defence planning and get the same tempo of activities and decisions and substantial movement as what's occurred over the past two years. And you can talk about the general purpose frigate. What we are doing is bringing forward capability in what will be one of the fastest acquisitions of a capability that we've seen. And that is because we made the difficult decision of acquiring- of seeking to acquire- a capability from overseas, which is in service right now, that we're not going to fiddle with, so that we get it into operation as quickly as possible. All of that equals speed.

STEWART: How have- Defence Ministers famously have robust relationships with the department? I think in February this year, you said something like you wanted the department to lift their game to achieve a culture of excellence. What did you mean by that?

MARLES: Well, I mean exactly what I said.

STEWART: And why did you feel the need to say it?

MARLES: Well, I felt the need to say it is the point to make, and that answers the question, really. But I think the point really- a couple of points to make; I mean, when you go to, and inspect what people who wear our uniform, officers and non-commissioned officers alike, in fact, you look at the basic tasks. There is just the most wonderful culture of absolute competence, by which, I mean, people will not let a mechanic actually work on a plane unless they can perform their competency completely. I mean, there's no learning on the job. People will not allow people to fire an infantry soldier to fire a gun unless they know what they are doing completely. We expect total competence of those who wear our nation's uniform and it is delivered because the consequences of what they do are so high. Now, all I was asking is that what we expect of them, we should be expecting of our leadership to the highest level. And I don't actually think that's a big ask. The second point that I would want to make is that in making that ask, the buy in of the senior leadership of both the Department and the Defence Force has been fantastic and I think we have seen real changes in culture, a lifting of the game, if you like, over the course of the last eight months.

STEWART:  Does this include Defence being more, perhaps, more nimble in its decisions, in acquisition decisions? I mean, a lot of people were fairly surprised, I think, that when in the last couple of years, Australia hasn't got armed drones or anti-drone capabilities, when that was, you could see that was happening around the world. I mean, are you trying to inject a flavour of faster change within Defence?

MARLES: We are, but, I mean, I feel that's a bit different to what I've just described. I mean, what I want is, in all that we do is excellence, because the moment demands it. You know, I think what comes out of the DSR is a need to be more nimble. So, those points you've raised are totally valid. We need to be doing that, but we won't get there unless we go about our work in an excellent way. I mean, that's really the point I was trying to make. But we do definitely need to be much more nimble and much faster in the way in which we bring capability into service. You know, and I think there is an appropriate scrutiny on Defence. There should be. Michelle described it in her introduction- what I like is that there is a newspaper which is really interested in writing about Defence. That scrutiny is deeply welcome. But you look at drones, for example, you mentioned that. I mean, we have seen drone technology go forward in amazing ways terms of what's playing out in Ukraine. Also, I guess, in Gaza and Israel. We are now part of the drone coalition in support of Ukraine. We're going to be at the cutting edge of that. Australian technology is being used in Ukraine right now. Actually, we are a reasonably significant player or contributor in terms of what is happening there. And so I wouldn't talk down what we can do in relation to drones. But perhaps the most substantive point is that in getting the learnings that are there, we've got to make sure that we're getting them into service in our Defence Force as quickly as possible.

STEWART: You mentioned about spending before. I think you want to move to 2.4 per cent of GDP within the decade. A lot of commentators believe, given the nuclear submarines, the bills, the new frigates, that you need closer to 3 per cent of GDP. I wanted to ask you not so much whether you think that's necessary, but whether you think in Australia in peacetime, that's an achievable political thing for a government to do?

MARLES: Well, I mean, it's not going to surprise you that as the Defence Minister, I'm going in asking for the most resources possible. But public money is hard won and public money should be hard won. What I ask to be judged on is simply in historic terms. I mean, the money that we have won for Defence, not just over the medium term, but over the short term, is of historic significance. It is the largest increase in decades. Now, people can say, well, that's not enough, fine. I mean, whatever standard one puts in place, one can put in place. But, you know, there is a government process there; as I say, public money is hard won and it remains the fact that whatever bar people want to set, what we have done is more than has been done for decades now. It is right that that needs to occur given the strategic circumstances that we face. And your point is right as well, that this is being done in the context of peacetime. But I think the other point to make here about that is that, our sense of peace and war is nowhere near as binary as it used to be. I mean, if you look at a graph of Defence spending as a proportion of GDP, going back to federation, it describes a binary idea of war and peace. Essentially, Defence spending has been relatively kind of stable and then there's a war and then it's like a step graph and then the war finishes and it comes down again. But I think that binary notion of war and peace is being broken down right now. I think that's in part about Cyber, in part which I think drives a much bigger grey zone. You know, there is a lot more scope for geostrategic contests now than there has been in the past. And I think that does demand that we think about how we fund Defence going forward. But as a government, we're doing that. And as I say, the levels of expenditure that we are now putting into Defence, certainly relative to the last decade, but relative to the last decades, plurals, is historically significant and large.

STEWART: Now, your beloved Geelong Cats have lost their last four games, I think- 

MARLES: I think that's unfair. 

STEWART: That's unfair. But if you had a magic wand, I'm sure you wanted to change their form. If you had a magic wand, given that a lot of our big Defence capabilities are not able to come here for a decade, which one would you want to come earliest?

MARLES: So, what's your question?

STEWART:  Which major capability would you like to come earliest?



STEWART: If you had a magic wand?

MARLES: So, we're not talking about Geelong Football Club. 

STEWART: No, we're not talking about Geelong Football Club. We're talking about maybe subs, frigates or long-range missiles. What do you see as the most important?

MARLES: I think there is an answer to that question. I mean, if you look at the capabilities that we have operated and can operate, the most significant capability, which shapes our strategic capability, is long range submarines. There's not really any out about that. And so we need to be making sure that from this moment through until we're operating a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines, that we are evolving our nuclear submarine capability. And we will. And the day that we have that first Virginia-class submarine with an Australian flag on it will be a grand day indeed.

STEWART: Well, in relation to that, how confident are you on the American side of the equation? We have an election in November, we have Donald Trump in front, and even though he made some reasonably positive noises about AUKUS recently, you never quite know with Donald Trump. You have a Congressional system that's quite complex and you have industrial slowness with the Virginia production class. You put it all together, is there not an argument to say that the American side of the AUKUS equation is definitely a bit of a wing and a prayer?

MARLES: No, I don't accept that. I mean, there are challenges and you can stack them up in the way that you have. But again, let's just look backwards. I mean, we heard all manner of doomsayers who are saying that we wouldn't be able to get through the Congress, the legislation which would enable America to sell us the Virginia class submarines. But that legislation has passed. And, yes, there was a lot of heat and light in the process, because there is heat and light in the legislative process of the United States Congress. That's what it is. And there will be heat and light in the future. But if you look at what has been done up until now in terms of America's side of the bargain, the reality is they've met every moment. There is not a single complaint. We've got Australians who are submariners, who are training in the American system right now, getting skills on how to operate a nuclear-powered submarine, like I met them, the first of the Australian cadre, if you like, who will drive our own nuclear-powered submarines on US submarines right now, real live humans. We've got people who are working in the US industrial basin learning how to sustain and to build submarines. The US is delivering on all of that. And, yeah, I mean, we're talking about a project which is multi decadal. And so there is always a question about what future politics holds. But I think we can take comfort from the fact that AUKUS has received support across the political spectrum in the United States, across the political spectrum here and across the political spectrum in the United Kingdom. And it's why I actually have a sense that it will endure and it will happen. There are going to be moments along the way where people will legitimately ask questions about, is this bit going to fall into place? But I'm confident it will.

STEWART: So, the most massive side of AUKUS, in lots of ways, is getting the right number of workers, skilled workers, to actually make it happen here in Australia. The Premier, Peter Malinauskas, said today that he'd be concerned about migration levels falling because of how it would drain indirectly, but drain the AUKUS workforce. What do you say to that?

MARLES: Well, firstly, I commend Peter on his leadership- in relation to leadership generally, but leadership in relation to this specific question. When we had the Jobs and Skills Summit September 22, I think, and all the state premiers came to that. The number one ask from Peter then, was around this question, and out of it we established a joint Commonwealth South Australian Skills Task Force to look at how we can make sure that we are generating the skills in South Australia to enable this grand project to occur. I mean, immigration will continue to form a part of Australia going forward and certainly the Australian economy. What we need to be ensuring that we are doing is investing in the training, which builds skills. And, again, Peter's leadership has been really important in this. But the training academy that we will establish at Osborne, on site, modelled very much on what BAE does at Barrow-in-Furness is going to be completely central to making sure that we have the workforce needed to deliver this project. It is a really big challenge. I mean, I would probably say it is the single biggest challenge that kind of keeps me awake at night, but I think about the most. But I do have a sense of confidence that we are placing it in its proper place, giving it the emphasis that is needed and that we are resourcing it such that we can meet the challenge.

STEWART: Ok, we are almost out of time. The last question is related to submarines. Again, the whole thing only works properly if you can keep the Collins class in water for a long time. You've had advice recently that suggests that's a very high risk probability. You know, how are you going to do that? How are you going to keep the submarines in the water so long with such a difficult program?

MARLES: Well, look, we are going to do life-of-type extension on Collins. And, again, we're confident that we can do this. There are difficult decisions which need to be. Be made in the process of doing it. But, as I said, we're willing to make those decisions, but we are confident we can extend Collins into the period where we start to operate Australian flagged-

STEWART: They'd still be like. They'd still be useful submarines-

MARLES: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I think it is important to understand that, Collins now is a highly-capable submarine. I mean, the point about these in electric submarines is not that they are not capable in 2024, and indeed that they will have a capability which extends into the 2030s. But it is to say that beyond that, if you want to maintain the kind of capability into the 20s, late 30s, 40s and beyond, such as what Collins provided us in the 2000’s and the 2010’s and the 2020’s, you need to move down a nuclear-powered pathway now. I think we can bridge that gap. It is a challenge, I wish things had been done differently a decade ago. But you inherit the world as you find it, and I am confident that with the decisions that we've made, what we can do from this moment forward is see an evolving submarine capability, meaning Collins gets better, given what we are putting into it, leading into a nuclear-powered submarine capability in the beyond.

STEWART: Right. Well, Richard, the Australian is very grateful for you to spend your time tonight answering these questions, giving us a speech. So, everyone, please thank the Defence Minister.


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