ABC Radio Adelaide Mornings with David Bevan - 17/09/2021

17 September 2021

SUBJECTS: AUKUS; new submarine deal; concerns for South Australian shipbuilding industry jobs.

DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Penny Wong, good morning to you.


BEVAN: I am well. Now this announcement, which Labor was briefed on the day before yesterday but we've seen more detail emerge over the next 24 hours. There's absolutely no doubt that this is incredibly significant. But you've had 24 hours, just over, to get your heads around this. How do you describe yesterday's announcement to scrap the French sub deal, and build a UK, US nuclear submarine?

WONG: I think the first thing to say is - there's obviously a lot of fanfare and hoopla - but behind all of that, we're actually cancelling, this Government is cancelling the biggest defence project in Australia's history, a $90 billion project, which has been bungled and mismanaged over eight years. It's probably the biggest mismanagement of a defence project we've seen. A project that was delayed by 10 years, blew out by $40 billion and now eight years into it we are now starting from scratch. Particularly for South Australia, the reality of this is this is now the Liberal National Party's third submarine plan. And I am concerned from a South Australian perspective about what this means for local jobs.

BEVAN: We'll come to that in just a moment. But the justification for scrapping this deal, and Christopher Pyne who is the author of this, the deal that was scrapped, he's in the paper today saying, look, the situation has changed, the technology and the availability of the nuclear technology has changed, and that's significant. And, and also there's another argument that the situation in our region has gotten much worse. Are you buying either of those arguments?

WONG: Oh look, I don't think this Government has managed the submarine project well. I mean remember we had the Japanese submarine contract or proposal, then we had the French - firstly without local content mandated, and then with local content mandated - and now we have another announcement which they're going to talk about for another 18 months, and meanwhile our defence capability is impacted upon. We do need submarines...

BEVAN: But do say it was impossible five years ago when the French deal was signed up, that it was impossible to see five years ago that things were going to heat up in the in the Indo Pacific?

WONG: Well, I think we already knew that. I don't think anybody would suggest we didn't know that. But look, I don't think this project has been managed well. If you're asking me the broader point, we have said, yesterday Anthony Albanese said in terms of the new partnership, it's a partnership, what they described as AUKUS. It's not a treaty or an alliance but it is a strengthened cooperation with our close allies and that is a good thing. We've been calling for deeper partnerships with allied and aligned nations. We know that our region is being reshaped and we want to be part of shaping that. And we have to work with others to do that. The only point I'd make is it has to add to our existing engagements. We have to keep working with the region.

But can I go to local jobs, David, if I may, because I think that is really, from South Australia's perspective, such an important point. I was very concerned to see in the Advertiser today, comments from the Defence Teaming Centre about the possibility that we will have companies leaving the defence supply chain because of the timeframes involved, and the delays involved. Like I said, this is the third submarine plan that I've been on your program discussing. And in all of those, we have seen that this Government - the Liberal National Government - cannot be trusted when it comes to South Australian jobs. The first plan was the Japanese plan, in which the subs were going to be built in Japan because the Liberal Defence Minister said our workers, South Australian workers, couldn't build a canoe. Then we had the French submarine plan, where Christopher Pyne came on, I think your show, and certainly in a press conference said, there will be 90% local content. We then get the contract for that - no requirement as to local content. No minimum requirement. And so this program, the Advertiser, the South Australian community campaigned for a minimum local content commitment, which ended up being 60%, not the 90%. And now today in the papers, we have public reports that the Department of Defence is telling people only 40% - only 40% - of this new plan, new submarine plan will be local content. And you had the Premier, Mr Marshall, on earlier today, and he couldn't give a figure. I just don't think this Government, the Liberal National parties, can be trusted when it comes to South Australian jobs.

BEVAN: Could a Labor Government overturn this deal for nuclear submarines?

WONG: On what basis?

BEVAN: On the basis you don't like it.

WONG: I think Anthony said yesterday and it was really, I think, a really important articulation of national interest. He said this is a multi-decade deal. This path that we're on now as a country, there will be governments of both political persuasions who have to be custodians of this. We said that we had three conditions for supporting the acquisition of a nuclear-propelled submarines - this is not nuclear-armed. We made it very clear that we would require that there be no domestic nuclear industry, that they not be nuclear-armed and that our obligations under the nuclear proliferation treaty would be observed. But we have said to the Government, you should engage, in this pre-caretaker period, very closely with the Opposition. And we would do the same if we win government, so we don't have a situation where, again, there's chopping and changing or mismanagement of this project. We have delayed long enough for this capability, and the nation can't afford to delay anymore. And the way that can happen is if the parties of government can work together.

BEVAN: Well because we're only weeks, months away from a federal election, if you were to overturn the decision, it would be very early days. It was only announced yesterday, and it is going to take 18 months to work out what we're even going to get. All of the work has been done for the Shortfin Barracuda French proposal. Could Labor overturn this deal?

WONG: I think we've made clear the basis on which we are supportive of this, of this path forward. And I think, under this Government we've seen such mismanagement of the French submarine project. The last thing we need is yet another change in direction. I think the more important thing is for Mr Morrison to do the right thing - as you said, we're very close to an election - and to make sure he engages with the other party of government, so that whoever wins the election, this project stays on track. The country needs this project to stay on track. We've had two failed goes at it, under three Prime Ministers and six Defence Ministers in the Liberal National parties, and we can't afford any more.

BEVAN: Okay, so the takeaway message here is that, while you think there's been, there's a scandal surrounding the waste and management of the last five years, and the broken promises - that's a scandal - but, Penny Wong thinks that Scott Morrison has got it right now?

WONG: Scott Morrison... Scott Morrison doesn't get a lot right but I think there are issues of national interest here, David.

BEVAN: Has he got it right this time? It took him a while to get there but they've got it right now.

WONG: Well, hang on... I think it is a sensible thing to engage in this partnership. It's consistent with what we've been saying. We have, as you said, we were very late in this process. The day before the formal announcement and only hours before it was given to media, we were briefed. And as Anthony said in his press conference, we accept the advice that officials have given about the capability argument for this decision. Now, that doesn't mean - you don't just go into one briefing or one decision on what is the largest defence project the country has seen. There are a lot of questions which will need to be answered, both in terms of the build, but also in terms of how we would operate this capability. And what I'm saying to you is I think it would be best for the country if there were much closer engagement with the other party of government in the lead up to an election. We are in a pre-caretaker period.

BEVAN: That would make sense. But just to be absolutely clear, you're not going to overturn this policy direction. Labor is going to pursue the nuclear submarine option with the United Kingdom, and the US should you win the next election?

WONG: Anthony made it clear yesterday that we are supportive of this decision on the basis of the conditions we've announced

BEVAN: He's signed off on those conditions, he says it's not going to be nuclear armed and it's not...

WONG: David this is the biggest strategic decision we've seen for decades. So you know it's not a sort of word game here. We are trying to take a very sensible, national interest approach. And that's the approach we are taking.

BEVAN: Was getting a French nuclear sub a better option? And what I mean by that is...

WONG: The Barracuda...

BEVAN: Well, that was part of the problem wasn't it? We were trying to adapt and come up with a new sub based on a French nuclear submarine. If we decided that we wanted to go down the nuclear path, would it have been better to go with a French nuclear sub for two reasons; one is it wouldn't have spoilt the relationship with France, and it would have given us a stronger role in our region, stronger capability, but we would not have been locked in to the United States.

WONG: You probably need to ask the Government the question about the decisions it made, previously. I would make this point; this is the first time, on the basis of what I've understood the public advice is, that there has been the proposition that Australia could have a nuclear-propelled submarine without the requirement to have a domestic civil nuclear industry, and the latter has always been a problem for Australian governments of both Coalition and Labor. So, we are in a position where, given the different technologies, this is an option that hasn't previously been available. Now there are enormous questions associated with this, and many issues that we need to understand. We need to understand how this project can actually work, what the cost will be, the number of submarines built - I understand from reports, we've gone from 12 to eight - we need to understand the timeline for construction and delivery. We had a lot of flags and a lot of hoopla yesterday but the hard grind of actually making sure this project works, when over eight years we've seen none of this work in the way that we would have hoped, or so little of it work in the way we would have hoped, is what the Government has to get on with - and that will be governments of both Labor and Liberal over the years to come.

BEVAN: Just finally, do you think the United Kingdom and the United States are forever partnerships?

WONG: I think they are - I mean, the US is our principal, closest ally, and our principal strategic partner. And we've obviously got a deep, historical relationship with the United Kingdom. The US Alliance...

BEVAN: Would you use that kind of language?

WONG: Oh well, people can use, I perhaps talk a bit differently to Mr Morrison...

BEVAN: But would you use that...

WONG: I think they are enduring allies. And I just would make the point; the origins of our alliance with the United States go back to 1941 where John Curtin, a Labor Prime Minister, turned to America and at the time was criticised by the Conservatives for turning to America and not simply relying on the United Kingdom. But I do want to make this point, it's an important one, David; we always have to make our own way in the world. We always have to be a sovereign, independent nation, and we will work very closely with our with our strongest and most enduring allies, but ultimately we are an independent nation that has to ensure we engage with many partners in our region.

BEVAN: Well, how is getting a nuclear sub where you'd think the nuclear bit can only be serviced, looked after, by the United Kingdom, or the US...

WONG: Yes and look, I think that those questions have been raised publicly, those are questions which have been asked, and we will need to continue to ask those questions about how we ensure that the technology does what we are told it will do, which is that it doesn't require, for the life of the submarine, further nuclear maintenance as it were, so sustainment in Australia is appropriate, is possible. We need to ask those questions. They are legitimate questions.

BEVAN: Senator Penny Wong, thank you very much for your time.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.