Topics: AUKUS announcement; Chinese Foreign Minister visit to Australia; Paul Keating meeting; Ambassador Rudd;  

09:45AM AEDT
22 March 2024


Laura Jayes: Australia will send billions of dollars to the United Kingdom to help build these nuclear reactors, to power our fleet of AUKUS submarines. Joining me now is Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham. Simon, thanks so much for your time. It’s all happening in your state today. We know that this is going to be costly. We know that it is going to take some time, but bipartisanship is still important to see the whole project through. Is that still enjoyed?


Simon Birmingham: It certainly is LJ. I was part of the National Security Committee of Cabinet when we made the decision to embark upon the AUKUS partnership, and we made the commitment to secure nuclear-powered submarines for Australia’s future. We knew at that time that it involved some difficult decisions in terms of changing course at that stage and in terms of the scale of industrial capabilities that we would have to establish in Australia. As well as to be able to do things such as securing the nuclear reactors from the UK and these are all the consequential steps from that decision. We’re pleased to see them being taken. We welcome the commitment from the UK and had some great conversations with David Cameron, the UK Foreign Secretary, yesterday, about the steps being taken to deliver AUKUS. These are necessary decisions in Australia’s long term national interests. These might involve difficult decisions today, but they are about ensuring that we secure the country’s future for the years ahead.


Laura Jayes: Will one of those difficult decisions need to send $5 billion to the UK government?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s about investing in the capability for having the nuclear reactors that are necessary to power these vessels. So, yes, that is part of the procurement process. Now, of course, under other procurement models, other decisions such as previous options around submarines, they all involved different scenarios with different companies from other countries and involved money that would have been spent in those countries. This is about getting the best technology that can give our Navy the best capabilities to have submarines that won’t be able to be detected easily into the future, to build a world class industrial capability here in South Australia for the construction of those submarines. But we always said the reactors themselves would come from the UK. Part of what made the difference to enable us to get these nuclear-powered submarines in the first place, was that next generation reactors will be able to power the submarine for its entire life. So, you get one reactor and you get 30 plus years of service of that submarine out of that one reactor. That makes a big, big difference and that’s what we’re investing in.


Laura Jayes: Let’s turn to another issue now in China, perhaps there is some confluence there with what we’re talking about this morning. But Wang Yi being in town, it’s a pretty big deal. He met with Penny Wong. He even met with the Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton. But he also met with Paul Keating. Do you think that meeting has done some damage? I mean, Barnaby Joyce has described those actions and Paul Keating as being a bit of a silly old bastard. Would you use that terminology?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I think Paul Keating’s approach and attitude towards the way in which we view regional security challenges is misplaced, misguided and frankly, dangerous if we were to adopt it as Australia’s foreign policy and defence policy outlook. So, in terms of what Paul Keating has to say and how it impacts on Australia. It is critical that Australian governments dismiss much of his outlook and his approach, because it does put far too much of a gloss and ignore the real strategic challenges that we face in our region. Wang Yi’s visit was welcome. It was very courteous of him to meet with Peter Dutton and myself, and to give that time to the Opposition. We had direct, frank, but also positive conversations about the way in which we can and should work together as a country, and the serious concerns that we still have and that need to be addressed as well. In terms of the Keating meeting, frankly, it was quite pointed of the Chinese embassy to seek that meeting and to request that meeting and somewhat insulting towards Penny Wong and the Albanese Government, who Paul Keating has been such a critic of, for the Chinese embassy to have gone and sought it, surely knowing the reaction that it would engender in Australia and the reflection upon Penny Wong and Anthony Albanese.


Laura Jayes: Absolutely not only the reaction. But is a complete break from, you know, diplomatic norms, isn’t it? Imagine, Penny Wong going to China, going to Beijing and meeting with a former member of the Politburo, a member of the government who is critical of the current regime. I mean, imagine China’s reaction if that happened.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think- well, we know that that’s just not possible because this underscores the differences in our countries in terms of different systems of government, different approaches to freedom of speech and freedom of democratic view and activity. So, you know, Paul Keating is entitled to his views. He’s entitled to have them aired in the public. We think they’re wrong. And of course, he’s entitled to have any meetings he wants to have. But it was pointed and insulting for the Chinese embassy to have sought that meeting. It was wrong for Paul Keating to accept it and undertake it. Even if we take it out of considering, could this happen in China? Frankly, in other circumstances, you wouldn’t expect visiting ministers to go and speak quite so openly with such open, hostile critics of the government of the day. They’ll meet with whomever they choose to meet with, and they’ll hear different perspectives, but rarely will they do so with such critics when it comes to sensitive issues of foreign policy.


Laura Jayes: Well, finally, let’s end on Kevin Rudd because he’s intemperate remarks perhaps have come back to bite him here. You know, he’s not the only one that’s made critical remarks about Donald Trump after he was president, not knowing that, you know, he’d have a good chance of coming back again. But the reality is, isn’t it, whether he’s a respected diplomat or not, if Trump wins in November, it would be very hard for Rudd to be effective in the role that he’s in now.


Simon Birmingham: Well, this is the test that falls to Kevin Rudd and to Anthony Albanese, who made the personal pick of putting Kevin Rudd in that job.


Laura Jayes: It was always a risk putting him there. Wouldn’t you agree?


Simon Birmingham:  It was always a risk, and many people said and wrote that at the time. We want to see Kevin Rudd succeed because it’s in Australia’s best interests for Kevin Rudd to succeed. I acknowledge he’s been doing some good job on things like getting the AUKUS legislation through the US Congress, and we’ve had good briefings with the with Kevin. And so I want to place on record our gratitude for that, our acknowledgement of his good work and the fact that we do want to see him succeed. But ultimately, Australia’s interests come first. And if Mr. Rudd has relations that need to be mended, then he needs to work hard to do that. If they can be mended and he can get on and do the job successfully, then all well and good. None of us know what will happen with the US election, but we will all have to respect the outcome of it. We will have to get the best from it, whomever is in office in the US, and that means Australia putting its best foot forward. If Kevin can do that as Australia’s ambassador by mending fences and getting on with things, great. If he can’t, the government will have to consider that at the time.


Laura Jayes: Fascinating things to happen in November then. Simon Birmingham, great to see you. We’ll see you soon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.