Tuesday, 14 March 2023
Peter Stefanovic: … joining us is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for your time. So what’s the Opposition’s official take on this this morning?
Simon Birmingham: G’day Pete. Well, we welcome the evolution in terms of AUKUS. We are proud of having been the government – the parties of government – that helped to deliver the AUKUS deal in the first place, and that was made possible by virtue of our restoration of defence spending to at least 2 per cent of GDP which made Australia a credible partner for the US and UK in this type of venture, especially alongside the other significant investments that we are making in other aspects of our defence spending. So we’re pleased to see this next step – delivery upon the Task Force work that we commissioned and outlining the next steps that will be undertaken in terms of Australia acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine capabilities. Of course, there are many questions about the budget implications, some of the timing and other implications that need to be understood and we look forward to drilling down through those over the coming days and weeks. But of course, we continue to give full bipartisan support to this very important delivery of defence capability and defence industrial capability for Australia.
Peter Stefanovic: $368 billion, the total cost over the lifeline of the contract or the agreement – that’s at the highest end. I think we can assume it’s going to go well beyond that as well by 2055, can we afford that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Pete, we have to invest in our defence forces and our…critically much of the effort in terms of being able to invest was undertaken through that restoration of defence spending – and which when we came to government was 1.56 per cent of GDP – we drove it back up to 2 per cent of GDP despite the challenges first of balancing the budget pre-COVID then of COVID expenditure – we always kept a resolute focus in terms of the nation’s defence expenditure because we knew that was critical to meet the challenges of our time and this Government, the Labor Government is going to have to do likewise to meet these needs to ensure that we are able to defend Australia against all threats and with that provide for a secure, peaceful and prosperous region. But they’re also going to have to detail how and where that money is going. What is the scale of Australian investment in US and or UK facilities? What is the cost of purchasing the Virginia class boats actually detailing some of those areas of investment will also be important to ensure appropriate scrutiny and accountability for the whole project.
Peter Stefanovic: But as for that $360 billion, you said there that the Government has got to outline how it’s going to do it, where it’s going to come from, etc, but you of a mind that whatever the bill there – that you’ve just got to pay for it to get those boats?
Senator Birmingham: We do have to make sure that Australia has this capability and to be able to operate at the type of level that is necessary to secure the stability, peace and prosperity of our region and that is important. We have long operated submarines as a nation. All of the technological changes mean that it is necessary to make the shift to nuclear-powered submarines if we hope to do in the future what we have been able to effectively do in the past with conventional powered submarines.
Peter Stefanovic: Rishi Sunak wants to take his defence spending out of the UK to 2.5 per cent ultimately, do you think we need to go there or beyond as many argue?
Senator Birmingham: Well, that’s really where we want to make sure we understand the details. We certainly need to go north of the 2 per cent that we restored defence spending to. How far north is something where we as an opposition will want to see the details around this announcement, including if there were any cuts elsewhere to defence, and if so, to what and what the details of those cuts are. And then of course, we’re still awaiting the Government’s response to the Defence Strategic Review. Many might think logically that the Defence Strategic Review should have come first or should have come simultaneous with this announcement around AUKUS and so we want to see that happen as quick as possible and what it needs to deliver, as we do on the second pillar, of AUKUS which is a whole range of other technological….
Peter Stefanovic: I’m out of time Simon, but I’ve just got to sneak this question in….you know, Xi Jinping has been strong overnight – we all assume that to be the case. Are you concerned at all about what China’s response to this will be?
Senator Birmingham: Well, Australia is investing in our sovereign capabilities, as is our right. And we do so very clearly with the same ambitions that we have always had with defence investment as a country that has long invested in our defence forces, long operated submarines in our region, and all of it has been for the purpose of the peace, stability and sovereignty of ourselves and our neighbours. And that’s what we continue to pursue and that’s what we would urge everybody in the region to support, including China.
Peter Stefanovic: Simon Birmingham. Appreciate your time on a historic day here. We all hope we can pull it off. Talk to you soon.