Radio Interview, ABC RN

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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 June 2024

SUBJECTS: China- Australia Defence dialogue; Hunter Class Frigate program, Solomon Islands, Opposition’s energy policy  

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Australia has made further progress to reset its once shattered relationship with China. After this week's visit by the Chinese Premier, the two countries have agreed to work more closely together and signed a series of agreements. Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister and joins me this morning from Adelaide, where he's overseeing the Hunter frigate project. Deputy Prime Minister, welcome to the programme.


KARVELAS: I'm great. Good luck tonight, but let's get to the serious business.

MARLES: Should I say go cats, to get this off to the right start?

KARVELAS: Look, I think you might be in trouble, but let's leave that. Let's start with the visit by the Chinese Premier. The Prime Minister said more military to military communication would begin to avoid some of the dangerous clashes we've seen, like the most recent one near the Philippines. What can you tell us about what you've advanced since that agreement?

MARLES: Yeah. When I first met my counterpart two years ago at the Shangri La Dialogue, which was in Singapore, which was the first of the Ministerial contact that we'd had in years with China, the substantive issue that we sought to progress there was re-establishing the defence dialogue. And indeed, even a couple of weeks ago when I was back in Singapore, I met my counterpart, Admiral Dong, who is the Chinese Defence Minister. This was the issue we wanted to progress. We have started a defence dialogue, which means that our departments of defence and our militaries are talking to each other. It doesn't resolve the fundamental issues that we might have between us, but what it does do is deepen the understanding that we have between us about what our behaviours are in certain circumstances. And in that way, you avoid misunderstandings and you build a much greater sense of understanding amongst our militaries about why we are behaving in particular ways. The level of that dialogue has not been where it was, say, ten years ago, when the dialogue would have been at the level of the Chief of the Defence Force or the Secretary of the Department of Defence and their respective counterparts in China. And what we want to do is get it back to that level. The meeting that we had with Premier Li earlier in the week has been really important in advancing that.

KARVELAS. So, was there an agreement that those communications at that level will now happen?

MARLES: Well, we won’t get them back as soon as possible. I think the way to put it is that there was definitely a desire to get that defence dialogue back to where it has been and to put that in place as soon as we can.

KARVELAS. So, what does that look like, if I can be really blunt? Like, is it, you know, picking up the phone if you're the Chief of Defence and being able to speak to your counterpart and deal with things as things are unfolding?

MARLES: It mightn't be at that level, but it is trying to build those levels of communication. What it definitely is, is an annual meeting between our Chief of Defence Force and our Secretary of Defence with their counterparts, which the fundamental point of that is so that you know your counterpart, you have an engagement with them. There is a way of communicating, lines are open and that's where we want to get to and I think, and it is about then being able to be able to talk to each other when issues arise. But it's really, it's also about flowing this down to the operational level so that we can have a proper understanding of when we're out doing what we're doing. This is the behaviours we're going to engage in, this is what we're trying to achieve. And China will explain their position as well so that people who are operating on the ground who are doing this work can know what to expect when they see their counterparts and deepening understanding. As I say, it doesn't resolve the fundamental differences that we have. That's not really what you're trying to do, but what you are trying to do is give a much better understanding of the behaviours in the moment so that there are not misunderstandings and you can avoid unnecessary escalations.

KARVELAS: So just final question on this. What timeframe are you working towards to get it to that level that you've just described?

MARLES: I mean, there's an answer which I have in my head, which I don't want to say because.

KARVELAS: Oh, come on. They say that to my listeners, they want to. They want to know what answer is in your head. Come on, give me a sense.

MARLES: Well, inevitably, I mean, these things are unpredictable is the reason. So, I don't want to commit. We want to do this as soon as possible and we would like to see this move quicker. And that was the point that I made to Admiral Dong a couple of weeks ago and we were really pleased that there was a response, actually, in terms of the conversation that was then had between Premier Li and Prime Minister Albanese. I mean, this was one of the real issues that was discussed between them and so we take heart that this is being progressed. 

KARVELAS: I mean, the point is you're talking weeks, months. I don't think we're talking weeks. 

MARLES: I wouldn't want to commit beyond that. But I suppose to give you a sense, these were meetings that used to occur every year. So, we want to get that back in place as soon as possible so that we are at that level. And I think the sooner this can happen, the better.

KARVELAS: Ok, you're in Adelaide today where the first piece of steel will be cut for the Hunter class frigates, six years after Malcolm Turnbull announced the programme. Why has it taken so long?

MARLES: Well, it has taken a while and there have been moments where the programme has been off track. There's been a number of reasons associated with that and to be fair, not least of those has been the pandemic. But we've been working very hard since coming to power to get this back on track. And we're now at a position where steel is being cut today, which is actually a very exciting moment in this programme. I mean, when we did the surface fleet review and we announced what our future service fleet would be, the Hunter class frigates, the six that we will build in Adelaide, will be really the centre of our combatants surface fleet. And to see this programme, it's not starting today, because there's been a lot of work leading up to today, but to see steel being cut today is a very, very big milestone along the way.

KARVELAS: So, you've done the design, but have you signed a construction contract with BAE, or is the price of the contract still being negotiated?

MARLES: No, we are working. We have a contract, or we will be entering into a contract. So, the price has been sorted through with BAE and the way in which the programme will be priced. I mean, in saying that, I'd point out this will happen over a long period of time, so you don't sign up to a single price for six ships over however long it will take to build them. You take it step by step, but contracts are in place and we are now at a point of cutting steel today, which is a really, really big milestone. And at its peak, this is going to employ 3000 people directly at the Osborne naval shipyard. In building these frigates, we will see the first come into service in 2034, and these will be the most advanced anti-submarine warfare frigates in the world, but will also have very significant vertical launch capacity. They will be very much at the centre of our service combatant fleet. 

KARVELAS: Was the recommendation from the former Defence Minister and the author of the Defence Strategic Review Stephen Smith, to scrap this Hunter class frigate program?

MARLES: No, it wasn't. And, I mean, there had been issues in the programme, which goes to your first question about why it's taken this time to see steel being cut. When we came to power, there was a lot of work which needed to be done to get the programme back on track, but we are getting it back on track. What Stephen Smith and Angus Houston said in the Defence Strategic Review was that this issue that is the Hunters along with the rest, the shape of our surface fleet needed to be looked at further. And that's why we established an independent assessment team to look at the our surface fleet, which led to the announcement that we made earlier this year in February. So, they essentially said that we need to have a look at it, which we did. And when we did that with our independent Surface Fleet Review, their recommendation was to stay with Hunter. And of course, that led to the announcement of the surface combatant fleet that we did in February, which contained 6 Hunter class frigates.

KARVELAS: If you're just tuning in, the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles is our guest. Richard Marles, next week, the Solomon Islands Prime Minister is anticipated to visit for the first time. Can you confirm when he'll come?

MARLES: I can't, but we really do hope to see Jeremiah Manele in our country soon. As soon as Prime Minister Manele was sworn in, we issued an invitation for him to come to Australia and we are really hoping to see him soon. Of course, I've been to the Solomon Islands since his swearing in and met with Prime Minister Manele, as has our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. So, we've had pretty significant early engagement already with Prime Minister Manele, and we are really pleased with how that is progressing in terms of really under a new government in Solomon Islands and having a new partnership for our two countries.

KARVELAS: Let me ask this. Before the last Australian election, Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China, and the new Prime Minister has also previously expressed support for China. What will your message to him be on that?

MARLES: Well, our message has been consistently to Solomon Islands, indeed, when Prime Minister Sogavare was Prime Minister, but our message was very much to Prime Minister Manele when I met him a few weeks ago, which is that we seek to be the security partner of choice for Solomon Islands, as we do for all the countries in the Pacific. We do that because what we want to see is that the countries of the Pacific look to our own region for our own security and that we can provide the assistance necessary in terms of the security partnerships that Solomon Islands are seeking. And actually, all the indications that we've had from Prime Minister Manele have been very positive about looking to traditional partners.

KARVELAS: Right, so you think there's a shift in looking to Australia in terms of providing security?

MARLES: Look, I think this is an opportunity to begin afresh. I think this is an opportunity for a new partnership between our two countries with a new Government in the Solomon Islands. And, you know I've been to the Solomon Islands a lot. It was my 11th visit and it was good to go back to just, you know, remind yourself that when you are there, there really is a deep sense of affinity for Australia. People naturally look to Australia for support. We are seen as a country which is not just geographically nearby, but which is a close neighbour, but a close friend and a close friend when it comes to security. And I actually couldn't have been happier than I was with the conversations that we had about where we're taking this relationship forward. And to that end, we really do hope to be seeing Prime Minister Manele in Australia in the not too distant future.

KARVELAS: Ok. Just finally, obviously, well across the fact that the Opposition has announced their nuclear policy, Peter Dutton says we have to find sites to put the nuclear waste from the AUKUS submarines anyway. So, while you're opposed to this Coalition nuclear plan, a lot of these issues, the Coalition says, are actually now baked into our AUKUS plan. Now you're responsible for that AUKUS plan. He's right, isn't he? AUKUS actually means that we do have to deal with nuclear on a new level.

MARLES: He couldn't be more wrong.

KARVELAS: But on that central question that AUKUS does, because they're nuclear submarines, we do have to find a place for that waste.

MARLES: It is like trying to draw a comparison between a car engine and a coal fired power station because they both use hydrocarbons. I mean, we're talking about a nuclear reactor which will power a single machine. He's coming up with a policy for nuclear reactors which are intended to power cities. And so the difference in terms of how they are managed, how they operate, I mean, the nuclear reactors in a submarine are sealed nuclear reactors which never need to be refuelled. A civil nuclear reactor, which is designed to power cities, is based on having fuel rods. You could not be more different in terms of what we're talking about. And just because there is the word nuclear in common does not mean that there is an appropriate comparison here.

KARVELAS: But there has to be a process for disposal. Couldn't you use that same process to deal with a future nuclear industry that Peter Dutton talks about?

MARLES. So, let's think about that issue specifically. We have committed to dealing with the high level waste, that is the used nuclear reactors that come out of our nuclear powered submarines. Now, the first will come into service in the early 2030s. It will have a life of about 20 years in the Royal Australian Navy. That'll be the first of the Virginias that comes from America, which means that the first of the nuclear reactors that we are needing to dispose of will be in the early 2050s. We are seeking to get to net zero emissions by 2050. If he is relying on the nuclear waste facility for our submarines for his plan, well, then there is a concession right there that his plan is going to make zero contribution to getting to net zero by 2050, which is a long window. I was saying that the timeframes are completely different here. I mean, for his plan to make any significant difference to reducing emissions before 2050, he is going to need to come up with a means of dealing with spent fuel rods at a much earlier stage than what we're talking about with the nuclear powered submarines. And it is just an example of the reason that trying to draw an equivalence between nuclear powered reactors in a submarine and for cities are completely different and raise totally different issues.

KARVELAS: Okay, I'm going to have to leave it there. Good luck to your cats tonight and a pleasure to speak to you.


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