Topics: Trump/Pratt classified discussions allegations; Albanese Government putting gas exports at risk; 

10:25AM AEST
06 October 2023


Laura Jayes: ABC America is reporting Donald Trump allegedly discussed nuclear submarines with foreign nationals, including Australian billionaire Anthony Pratt. Sources have claimed that Mr. Pratt told Trump he believed Australia should start buying its subs from the US to which Trump replied with information about them. Joining me now is our Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. Just on an initial read on this story, Senator, how concerned are you about this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, LJ, I think we need to keep this story in perspective from an Australian element in standpoint that is that the AUKUS agreement, which has seen the United States agree to share its most sensitive submarine technologies and capabilities with Australia was one struck between the Morrison government and the Biden administration. So, these discussions that may or may not have been had that are subject to public speculation would not have been discussions that were informed by or privy to the type of negotiations that were being undertaken to achieve AUKUS. So it’s quite a separate matter in that sense. There may have been, as you just said, in terms of the speculation, hypotheticals about whether Australia should access American technology or submarines, but they weren’t part of what is actually being struck and delivered for our future defence capabilities. Now of course these are highly sensitive materials and information and it’s why so much care needs to go into how we engage with the United States. It’s obviously why this will be a point of great sensitivity in the US in their defence establishment in terms of this story and its implications.


Laura Jayes: Yeah and look, there’s no suggestion here that Anthony Pratt has done anything wrong. He’s been interviewed twice by prosecutors and the FBI. This, you know, if you can put yourself in that conversation. Oh, to be a fly on the wall. But it seemed like, you know, Donald Trump was, you know, kind of mouthing off, perhaps. But on a more serious note, the allegations are that he’s told Anthony Pratt about how many warheads these nuclear submarines typically carry and how close they can get to enemy vessels or other submarines without being detected. You would know better than most. How sensitive is that information or is it easily found out?


Simon Birmingham: Well, parts of it will be very sensitive. Certainly when we were going through our assessments about whether to continue with the attack class submarines or to as ultimately we did as a government, make the shift to the AUKUS agreement and pursue a nuclear powered submarine capability that was informed through extensive discussions had around the National Security Committee table about the different capabilities and projections for those different capabilities decades into the future. Of course, what those capabilities will be limited by in terms of other operational factors and those things you can’t always talk about. Some of them I and the other members of the NSC will be expected to hold to ourselves for the rest of our lives and that is the type of sensitivity that those in public office are expected to hold to. Now, none of us are able to prejudge exactly what took place in these discussions, but US nuclear submarine technologies are the most advanced in the world. They are the the most treasured, if you like, prized asset of parts of the US defence establishment. It’s why it was such a big breakthrough for Australia to be in a position to have them shared with us. But it’s also why I’m sure many in the United States will take very, very seriously the suggestion that these types of technologies and the capabilities associated with them could be subject to discussions outside of those confined spaces, such as, in our case, the Australian NSC.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, right. So all that detail that is alleged to have been discussed at Mar-a-Lago, I imagine. I mean, Donald Trump doesn’t drink, but perhaps a few drinks were being served at the time. I don’t know. But all these details. Are you saying you mean you can’t tell us what is discussed at NSC. But these details are subject often discussed in those very private classified meetings that you’d have in government.


Simon Birmingham: When governments are having to make big acquisition decisions, big defence decisions. Well of course you want to scrutinise the reality around the choices that at your disposal and to understand the technologies, to understand the capabilities associated with those technologies, how they will interact with the capabilities of other nations and their limitations and effectiveness decades into the future. So yes, of course there part of what you assess and I’ve got no reason to believe that would be any different in a US construct in terms of their leadership wanting to understand their defence capabilities, what their investment is achieving and how they achieve the maximum capability and impact and potentially lethality into the future. So, all of those things are important, careful considerations for leaders as well as for defence experts. That doesn’t mean that they were or were not discussed in Mar-a-Lago. I can’t prejudge that. But, it is why the suggestion of such matters being aired in ways that breach national security undertakings is one that I’m sure US officials would take very seriously and I would expect them to similarly in Australia.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, they certainly are taking it seriously, it would seem. I mean, it’s hard to tell. There are so many investigations into Donald Trump, it’s hard to see, you know, what is on the witch hunt side, what is genuine in a national security concern. So, what I was just trying to establish with you and you’ve answered the question pretty well, there is if this information was discussed in this, you know, frivolous way, that would be a serious breach, because these matters, ministers of governments take very seriously when it comes to protecting those secrets and not leaking them.


Simon Birmingham: LJ, I think there is the national security protection aspect, which is important for all countries and especially for the US. It’s important for us that US national security is protected and their secrets are protected but then there are the politics of these issues as well. And I think you just put it well in terms of the question there, that with so many different investigations running and the problem with and the challenge in the US system is that the politicisation that creeps into parts of their justice systems in terms of those who are in elected offices and the like, does then create a cloud around parts of the different charges or investigations that are being pursued that wouldn’t exist, you would hope in a system like Australia’s where we don’t elect people to those offices and they don’t carry party tags in those different investigating or judicial offices. So, that’s an important protection for us. On the whole, though, America’s democracy system and its system of law and justice is one of the strongest in the world. And despite all of these challenges, I think we have to continue to acknowledge that it has the systems built into it to withstand the challenges that are thrown at it and to come out at the other end, still reflecting the will of the people, but also ensuring that justice is upheld.


Laura Jayes: I just want to finally ask you another question on a different topic, and that is Japan expressing concerns about Australia being a reliable provider of gas and energy. How concerned should we be about that?


Simon Birmingham: This is concerning. These latest reports come on top of very strong statements made by Inpex, by the previous Japanese ambassador to Australia, and reflected no doubt, in private conversations between Japanese government officials and the Albanese government. That they are worried about Australia maintaining its status as a reliable and dependable supplier of affordable, high-quality energy to Japan. They’re worried about that because of the Albanese government’s constant interventions into the gas market, the creation of regulatory uncertainty. So, this Government and the Labor Government here has a big job to do to ensure that Japan, Korea, other regional partners continue to see Australia as being the type of reliable supplier of energy that they need. It was disappointing to see that our role in there, in the energy reliability to our region hasn’t been given the type of prominence in recent government discussion papers it should have. We have a big role to play in looking not just at our own energy sustainability but those of key regional partners, and that goes to their economic wellbeing, their national security and their ability to work with us in terms of regional security and stability.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, always good to talk to you. Thank you.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.