Topics: Submarine shipyard Osborne; Solomon Islands; New Zealand refugee agreement
Laura Jayes: The Osborne shipyard will more than triple in size to become what the Government says will be one of the most sophisticated construction bases in the world. The Government will lease 45 hectares of land to do it and it will be the first major step towards the construction as part of the AUKUS security pact. Joining me now is the finance minister, Simon Birmingham. You pull the purse strings, how much is this going to cost? And was this part of the AUKUS agreement?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Laura, this is an important part of the AUKUS agreement to make sure that we have the physical infrastructure and facilities, which requires you to have the land in place, to be able to have a world leading submarine construction yard. And that is what we will have in place. Now, what we’re doing at present is just securing the land to make sure that it can’t be grabbed by other defence industry players, developers or anybody else. And making sure that that’s in place where six months into the 12 to 18 month process of working with the UK and the US in terms of settling the model of boat that we will be procuring and building. We’re going to make sure that we step through each of these processes very carefully. UK and US officials have all visited Adelaide in recent months. They’ve been down to the shipyard, they’ve seen the land in question. So this is us getting on with doing as we promised. These are the shipyards that originally built the Collins class submarine and they’re the shipyards that build Australia’s air warfare destroyers. They built the first of our offshore patrol vessels. We now have BAE Systems Australia cutting steel, undertaking the initial stages of prototyping around our future hunter class frigates that are being built down there. And of course they’re the shipyards that will see the Collins class life of type extension and now the nuclear powered submarine program. But these submarines are far more technologically sophisticated, much bigger than previous submarines that have been built there or even been intended to be built there. And so they will require a bigger footprint, and that’s what we’ve taken the action to secure.
Laura Jayes: Will you have a local procurement and jobs package as part of this?
Simon Birmingham: When we come to building that shipyard we will absolutely be looking to use local contractors and provide local jobs as much as possible, just as we will be doing with this significant upgrade to the Henderson Shipyard in Perth. And as we will be doing when we settle on the site for an East Coast base for our submarine fleet to work alongside that West Coast base in WA. So what you can see there is, is the long term and strategic planning about building the submarines, sustaining the submarines and operating the submarines and the different sites across Australia, east, west and central sites that will be so crucial to doing that.
Laura Jayes: This is great, but it still seems that we’re getting a few subs in 15 years where China might have a military presence in the Solomon Islands next year.
Simon Birmingham: Well, this is long term planning, but it’s not the only thing we’re doing. I took you through some of the other naval shipbuilding activities that we have undertaken and have underway at present, making sure that we secure additional capabilities. And that includes the current frigate build. The upgrade to the Collins class that will provide enhanced capabilities there and extend their life quite significantly while the nuclear-powered submarines are procured. But they again are not the only things that are happening. Recently we announced the projections to uplift our Defence Force employment by some 18,000 over the course of the next decade. We’re able to do that because we’ve already increased the Defence Force budget and we continue to grow that out over the next few years. That’s allowing other investment in other technologies and under AUKUS working through areas of missile capabilities, areas of artificial intelligence capabilities, crucially areas of cyber cooperation as well. And through the budget process, people will see just how we’re investing further in ensuring Australia’s defences are as secure as possible in these very uncertain times.
Laura Jayes: AUKUS partnerships with countries the likes of the United Kingdom and America is crucially important. But don’t we have a look at the news today and say, well, those smaller partners, our neighbours, those relationships are just as important strategically. How have we allowed Chinese money to have such an influence in the Solomon Islands?
Simon Birmingham: Laura, the first point to underscore is, is what we what we would always say is that we respect very much the sovereignty of each of the independent nations in the Pacific. Those Pacific island nations are part of Australia’s family. We value them, but we respect their sovereignty and we urge them to also respect their own sovereignty and to work to preserve that. We don’t want to see anything occur in our Pacific Island region that destabilises the peace and security of the region. And we’ll continue to work with all nations across the Pacific to seek to preserve that peace and security and to seek to avoid any type of actions, construction or otherwise, that could undermine that in any way. We think the best model-
Laura Jayes: But we now see- this is on paper, it’s not quite signed off on, but this is on paper. Was this a surprise to the government when it was leaked yesterday?
Simon Birmingham: Laura. Look, I won’t go into what might be surprises or otherwise intelligence briefings or discussions with foreign governments or the like, which we hold confidential. What we can say publicly and is known is that the Solomon Islands, at the instigation of their prime minister, sought to extend the bilateral security agreement they have with Australia. That’s something that crucially is part of our partnership that in working with the Solomon Islands, Australia played a leading role in responding to instability and uncertainty there by putting our police forces with Defence Force support on the ground to assist them during recent troubles as we’ve done before. But we were supported by other Pacific Island nations and crucially that is the model that we think is most important for all of the Pacific family, that we should have Pacific responses to Pacific problems. And that’s what we’ve demonstrated can work and that’s what we will continue to urge in terms of how to provide that peace and stability in the region.
Laura Jayes: Is cash king here, though? Is that what we’re seeing?
Simon Birmingham: Well, in terms of countries respecting their own sovereignty, it is important that they don’t allow themselves to be caught in debt traps, money traps or other circumstances where that sovereignty is in any way jeopardised or undermined. It’s why when Australia invests through our Pacific infrastructure investment facility, it’s a very transparent arrangement. It supports building infrastructure capability, jobs, increasing services for Pacific Island nations and their communities. They’re the types of vehicles that we provide. We’ve increased them very extensively to provide that additional financial assistance. But they also come with a transparency and a guarantee that investments are for the benefit of the people of those nations.
Laura Jayes: Okay, let’s talk about the New Zealand refugee deal. For the better part of a decade, your government has been resisting this. Now this deal is done for 450 refugees here in Australia. What has changed? Why is this environment any different?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve actually been in discussions with New Zealand for quite some time, so this is the culmination of those discussions. We’d put a priority on making sure we delivered on the deal we struck with the United States for resettlement. You know, this is necessary because there’s a small legacy caseload of individuals. It’s only small now because we’ve managed to either resettle in other nations or return home, in many cases, individuals over a long period of time before the last election we managed to ensure no children in any circumstances-
Laura Jayes: Sorry to interrupt Minister. Sure. But your government always said that you wouldn’t send them to New Zealand because it would still have that pull factor. So what has changed?
Simon Birmingham: We’re now dealing with very small numbers at the end of what has been a very long process. We’re confident that under our policy settings, we will manage to continue to deter boat arrivals. And one of the reasons it’s a small number is because we haven’t had those boat arrivals for years, because we have been successful in all aspects of deterrence, and all aspects are the crucial thing to maintain. We’ve got an alternate prime minister running at this election who said that he didn’t think he could turn back boats. Well, unfortunately for him, that is part of the deterrence factor and that is one of the things Australians will have to weigh at this next election. A Prime Minister who initially as immigration minister did manage to stop the arrival of illegal maritime vessels and entries into Australia and from that has avoided the humanitarian catastrophes that come with that in terms of drownings at sea, or indeed the need to detain people for long periods of time to provide that deterrence factor. We now don’t need to do that because we don’t have the arrivals. Anthony Albanese would risk restarting that given his stated beliefs.
Laura Jayes: Okay, well we are well out of time so I won’t bring up the South Australian election result. We’ll leave it there. Finance Minister, thank you.
Simon Birmingham: Happy not to. Thank you, Laura.