Topics: Albanese Government failing defence; US administration;

09:05AM ACDT
8 February 2024


Laura Jayes:  Today we have some reports that there is tension between the Defence Minister, Richard Marles, and the military’s top brass. Joining me now is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. How much of a concern is this morning?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this is deeply concerning, and it is a serious problem that the Albanese Government needs to address rapidly. But it is also a problem of their own making. The Albanese Government has put defence into a quagmire of endless reviews. It’s cut into the defence budget, it’s shown an inability to make critical investment decisions, and it’s shown next to no confidence in defence personnel to deploy them and do the types of jobs that they sign up for. So, it’s little wonder we’re in a situation where the decisions are piling up on Richard Miles’s desk not being actioned. It doesn’t seem to be able to win a single argument in the ERC to be able to get actual outcomes for defence. We’ve got projects now increasingly delayed, facing huge uncertainty. As I was driving to the studio for this interview, Adelaide radio is debating whether we’re building three frigates or six frigates or nine frigates. I mean, these decisions were made by the previous government. This government is choosing to review them and is now miring it in such confusion because it’s failing to actually make the decisions. The so called short sharp Surface Fleet Review was handed to the government way back in around September last year. What on earth is Richard Marles done with it since? So it’s little wonder that defence chiefs are at their wits end with the Minister, who is not making decisions, not getting outcomes through the budget and cabinet processes, and is just leaving all the hard capability decisions to pile up. with a budget going backwards and defence personnel numbers going backwards as well, they’re walking out the door on him.


Laura Jayes: Do you think there is part of this culture within defence of not wanting to be reviewed in the first place, and really not wanting to be questioned too much by the Minister?


Simon Birmingham: I actually got the impression there was quite strong goodwill around the Defence Strategic Review as it was undertaken, that was a promise the government made. They did it. They went through the process. But then when that review was completed, rather than the review providing the answers and the direction the Government initiated yet more reviews to follow that review. Rather than when the DSR was completed there being the necessary budget and investment decisions made, they were all deferred. The budget was actually cut and we’re just seeing this chaos drag on. So, I think there was a lot of goodwill at the start of the Albanese Government from defence. As they went through those processes. They’ve shredded the goodwill through their inability to make decisions and their refusal to invest.


Laura Jayes: Let’s get to the core concern here and this was uttered by Richard Marles in parliament, saying essentially the Defence Department is far from excellent. Would you agree with that assessment?


Simon Birmingham: Defence is a huge and complex undertaking and especially the very big procurement decisions. I think we all have to recognise that, and we have to work to try to build confidence in those big procurement decisions and projects when they’re underway, and that’s going to be especially crucial when it comes to AUKUS and the building of nuclear-powered submarines. As it is for the other big, particularly naval shipbuilding investments that are complex and challenging. So, we have to make sure we work to give them full support. But there’s no point Richard Marles sledging the department when he’s the Minister who is not giving the department decisions, they need to be able to execute projects and get on with things. He’s the Minister who is not getting the budget outcomes they need to be able to invest where required. He’s the Minister who, when the US comes knocking saying we like some deployments to the Red Sea, has turned them down. He’s part of a government where the Prime Minister, when confronted with the HMAS Toowoomba incident and naval personnel being put in danger, didn’t front up and take that up with President Xi of China. So, when you look at all of these things, you can quickly understand why defence personnel are leaving, why defence is despairing of its minister, and this is a real crisis. We are, as the government says, and we don’t quibble with this in the most challenging strategic circumstances since World War II. And yet, the Albanese Government is prevailing over national security policy and defence policy that is in chaos and in chaos because of their own inability to make decisions.


Laura Jayes: A big development in the last hour or so, and this is the department, the Justice Department, in an independent report describing Joe Biden in this way, a well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory. That same report went on to detail that Joe Biden couldn’t recall the years in which he was vice president. He also couldn’t recall when his son Beau had died. Is there concern now among America’s biggest allies, including Australia, that Joe Biden would not be up for a second term?


Simon Birmingham: Well, LJ, you’ve asked me previous interviews about former President Trump and some of the commentary that exists around him, and I’ve always been careful there to to give, of course, the diplomatic response. I’m going to be the same when it comes to President Biden. That is that ultimately our relationship is bigger than two individuals. It is about making sure that between our systems, we are able to continue to pursue what is the most successful alliance really in modern times between Australia and the US and our systems and the way in which they work are bigger than who’s in the Lodge or who’s in the White House and we’ve demonstrated that time and time again. So, we have confidence that the right approach from Australia will yield the right approaches from the US. They have a big election on this year, as we all know. And no doubt these factors will all play pretty hard into their domestic politics. But that’s a matter for them. Our job as Australian leaders is to work with whomever is in the White House, whatever the administration is, and the Congress to get the best outcomes.


Laura Jayes: But you’re saying for Australians who are looking at this, wondering about our biggest ally and where it’s headed, that the systems keep that unity, and it’s the system that you believe in rather than the man or woman itself.?


Simon Birmingham: As much as we put the significance, of course, around the US president, the administration, the system, all of that is actually what ensures that we have sufficient continuity, the range of partners that we work with. Not in any way saying that who occupies the presidency isn’t important. Of course, it is. But it’s entirely a matter for the US electorate as they vote and for us, our responsibility, be it a Coalition government as we did very effectively with former President Trump and then did with President Biden in striking the AUKUS deals, or for the current Labor government in delivering on those AUKUS deals. It’s all about making sure we work effectively with whoever’s there to get the outcomes for the alliance and the relationship.


Laura Jayes: Okay, I say man or woman in anticipation that there might just be a female president in the White House one day soon. Not this next turn, but perhaps one day soon. Senator, thanks so much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.