Topics: AUKUS
0900 AEDT
Tuesday, 14 March 2023


Reporter: Senator Birmingham, what’s your reaction to the new AUKUS details that we’ve heard this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Well, we continue to give bipartisan support to a venture that we are proud to have started. There are many questions though still to be answered about the costs, the breakdown of those costs and details – that we expect the Government to be transparent about in coming days and weeks, as well as of course details around operating different platforms of submarines – the implications of those – and the job implications in the different states affected.


Reporter: …. blank cheque with $360 billion, it’s a lot of money?


Simon Birmingham: We are committed to AUKUS and to Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarine capabilities for the good of our long-term defence of our nation and stability and prosperity and peace within our region. But we also are committed to holding the Government to account in the decisions it makes in terms of defence spending. Where indeed are they funding the investments for AUKUS from? Are there any other cuts to defence? There needs to be transparency around those funding implications. When they talk about investment in different platforms – what does that mean for the life-of-type extension of the Collins class? Will that finish early and if it does, what are the job implications in South Australia? What indeed will the full implications be in terms of sustainment of new Virginia class boats? Will they be sustained in Perth or Adelaide or how will that operate? They’re all questions that need to be understood over the fullness of time.


Reporter: Are we putting all our eggs in one basket by spending this much money on one capability?


Senator Birmingham: We should be seeing a comprehensive response by the Government. Logically, many would think, that there should have been a response to the Defence Strategic Review in tandem with this announcement so that we can have a full understanding of the Government’s capability decisions and how they intend to go about it. But there is no doubting that having submarine capabilities, which in the future era really necessitates nuclear-powered submarine capabilities – to continue to do all that we’ve done in the past, is something critical to Australian sovereign security.


Reporter: Over the forwards the impact on the budget is neutral – that $9 billion cost is going to be found. Given that, would you like to see more detail now around how the Government is achieving that rather than waiting for the May budget and the response to the DRS?


Senator Birmingham: If the Government is saying that they are funding the $9 billion within the forwards  without any implications, then they need to be clear about what it is that they are cutting or reducing spending for elsewhere in defence or elsewhere across government to fund what they’re saying is additional investment attached to this program. So, budget transparency is one of the important aspects here around how money is being spent in Australia; how money is being spent in the US or UK too, and if there are cuts to defence or cuts to other programs, then they should be honest and open about that.


Reporter: There’s been some analysis that these submarines are a technology without a strategy. Is that something you’d agree with?


Senator Birmingham: Well, as I say Australia has long operated a submarine capability throughout our region? It’s been an important part of the way we have helped to secure stability, peace across the Indo Pacific in past decades and it’s important we maintain that capability in the future. But to maintain the capability with the same type of range of operations and other technical aspects, it is necessary to make the step change to nuclear-powered submarines. That’s why the Coalition Government made that decision previously. We welcome the fact that this Government has delivered on the Task Force that we established; is acting on it in concert with the partners we entered into partnership with; and we want to continue to provide strong bipartisan support to the Government, but that also means making sure that we hold the Government to account to ensure that this program and all of our defence-capability programs are successful for the national interest.


Reporter: Are you confident that Australia actually has the skills base to deliver on a project like this?


Senator Birmingham: Australia needs to build the skills base to deliver on this project. And so, investing in the skills…


Reporter: So you don’t think we currently have it?


Senator Birmingham: …we absolutely can do this, but we need to invest in the skills of the people who will be required to help play roles in the designing; in the infrastructure; and in the build as well as the operation and sustainment of nuclear-powered submarines. There are many aspects for which we need to invest in people, some of whom will be in our Navy, some of whom will be in defence industries, some of whom will be in other supportive roles. And of course, there are big step ups required in infrastructure and other areas that require the type of long-term planning that we put in place and that we are seeing as part of the funding commitments from government. We’d just like to see the full detail behind those funding commitments and the full implications of them.


Reporter: Mr Dutton raised doubts about the capacity of the US to scale up its production line and to build new submarines. You were privy to some of the same briefings he was while part of the National Security Committee. Is this something that you still share? Are you concerned that going with this UK design can push out our timeframe?


Senator Birmingham: Well, we deliberately put in place an 18-month process with the nuclear-powered submarine task force to make sure that the detailed work was undertaken, and that with the US and the UK, we could make effective decisions around what could be delivered. We understand that there are plans for investment, joint investment in US production facilities – important for us to understand what that means; what that will cost; and what Australia’s role in that regard will be – as well as what opportunities, if any, it creates for Australian businesses and Australian industries to play a role. So again, many questions still to be answered and I trust that you guys will all be fronting up to ask the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister those questions today. Thank you.