Interview with Jim Wilson, 2GB

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-France relationship; recent overseas visit; AUKUS; former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s comments.

Jim Wilson: After a whirlwind US tour the Prime Minister, along with his Foreign and Defence Ministers, have returned home. Now, they’re all in quarantine. The fallout, of course, from the historic AUKUS alliance continues. The subs deal getting the thumbs up from just about everyone – that is everyone except the French who are still choking on their baguettes. Now, tensions between Australia and France have reached a high point with President Emmanuel Macron refusing to take the call of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. There’s never a dull moment being the Foreign Minister, and the Foreign Minister Marise Payne joins me on the line right now.

Marise Payne, welcome back to Drive, and welcome home.

Marise Payne: Hi, Jim, and apologies that we couldn’t make those time zones work last week.

Jim Wilson: Absolutely completely understand. I know you had a full table as far as meetings and high-level talks. Let’s talk about France. We read over the weekend that high-level French officials have no time frame on when the country will consider reinstating its ambassador to Canberra. How worried are you that tensions with a country that we regard as an ally have got this bad?

Marise Payne: Jim, we absolutely understand that the French are very disappointed that we’re not proceeding with the future submarine program that we had been working on with them. But we’ve made a decision in Australia’s national interests, in Australia’s strategic interests and, in fact, in the regional interests here in the Indo-Pacific of so many. But we appreciate the disappointment that they feel, and we will work this through. We will be patient and we certainly understand the challenges that are in front of us.

I spoke with my colleague Jean-Yves Le Drian, we’ve worked together for a long time, in advance of the announcement being made, the Minister for Defence also with Florence Parly, the French Defence Minister. We know the basis of the relationship is steeped in history, it’s steeped in shared experience, and I very much hope that we can work through it. That will certainly be Australia’s approach.

Jim Wilson: How much will this affect or impact, for example, our trade deal with the EU?

Marise Payne: I think that’s another story to be honest. I met last week with my colleague Josep Borell, who is the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. He has said publicly that should not conflate one issue with the other. And other senior European representatives have said the same. The Minister of Trade with whom I had a long conversation earlier today is meeting with the EU trade representative, Valdis Dombrovskis, when he travels to Europe in the next week or so. And so this is three years of negotiations so far. Our hope is to finalise an agreement over the next 12 to 18 months. It’s not happening in the next week or two weeks or month. So it is definitely a work that it is underway, and I think that we can continue to make those – make that progress.

There will certainly be perspectives, I’m sure, that are fed into that process, including from France, as you have suggested. But there is more to it than one country. That is what the European Union is all about.

Jim Wilson: Obviously the nuclear submarines deal was a long-term strategic decision for us. And I think it’s a great decision. But it seems that the US and UK have both managed to at least begin the process of patching up their relationship with France. We seem to be sort of behind the 8-ball.

Marise Payne: Well, ultimately that’s a matter for each country as they work through these issues. And it is Australia who has made the decision, of course, to cease the contract for the future submarine program. We are in a different position from both the UK and the US. But, importantly, the outcome for Australia and AUKUS and what it represents in terms of that military partnership into the future – not an alliance or not a new military pact, but a partnership of that – will enable us to make very serious contributions to regional security and will enable us to address the military modernisation which we know is occurring at an unprecedented rate in the Indo-Pacific. That is most definitely our focus. But we will, of course, work with our French counterparts both in Canberra here, in Paris with officials through our ambassador and, in due course, when the time is right through ministerial counterparts.

Jim Wilson: Speaking to Foreign Minister Marise Payne. What’s the process, Minister, to getting out of this French subs deal? I mean, obviously there’ll be compensation paid to break the contract. How much exactly will that be?

Marise Payne: Well, those matters will be determined between the parties, and that is always the case. There are legal provisions within the arrangements between us and Naval Group that will be examined on both sides – by the defence organisation here and by officials of Naval Group. I expect that those discussions if not already taking place will be underway soon, and ultimately they will come to government with a recommendation on that.

Jim Wilson: But there will be a substantial figure, a monetary figure, as far as getting out of this deal with the French as far as this subs deal falling over?

Marise Payne: Well, we should abide by the provisions of the contract. And in relation to cessation of the contract, they are our legal obligations and we will do the right thing by those.

Jim Wilson: How important was it for you to be in the US last week for those high-level talks, along with Defence Minister Peter Dutton, the Prime Minister was also there? What did you get out of it? What did you come away with?

Marise Payne: Well, I have to say for Minister Dutton and for me this has been an extremely productive two and a half weeks or so. Even before we were in the United States the Defence Minister and I had held 2 + 2 meetings of foreign and defence ministers in Indonesia, in India and Korea. So some really significant outcomes on Covid-19 regional recovery, including on vaccine access; on how our militaries are able to operate together; the integration of approaches on cyber and standard settings and cooperation in space; a whole range of engagements.

And then ultimately to be in the United States for the AUSMIN talks, the 2 + 2 AUSMIN talks, the Foreign and Defence Ministers of Australia and the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense of the United States at the time of the AUKUS announcement was, I think, very important for us. It enabled us to be on the ground and face to face with counterparts. We both supported the Prime Minister, attended with the Prime Minister in his meeting with President Biden as well in New York. And, of course, that was in the lead-up to the Quad, the meeting between the United States, Australia, India and Japan, which brings together those four like-minded democracies with one overriding commitment to the Indo-Pacific to ensure that our region is open and free and secure and prosperous.

Jim Wilson: Just on China, clearly it would be irresponsible to ignore China’s strategic ambitions. What did you make of former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s comments that Australia is “turning its back on the 21st century, the century of Asia, for the jaded and faded Anglosphere”? What was your reaction to the former PM’s comments?

Marise Payne: So I think I wrote earlier this week in some material that was published here in Australia that I really think it’s very important to recognise that it is 2021, that we can and must and, indeed, do have friends and relationships in more than one linguistic sphere, on more than one continent and certainly of more than one political persuasion. You don’t actually have to choose between one or the other. It’s about taking every opportunity – every opportunity – to engage, to form partnerships. The Quad is a really good example of that, which I just spoke about. And where a partnership as powerful as the AUKUS partnership with the UK and the US presents itself as an opportunity, not just in relation to nuclear submarines but in relation to that research, that science, that technology which will take us through into the 2040s, the 2050s and through to the back end of this century and beyond, then I think we have to grab that. And that’s certainly what we as a government are doing.

We have a really important partnership with ASEAN. ASEAN is at the centre of our view of the Indo-Pacific. We’re very engaged across the Pacific with all of our friends in the region. And, of course, we’ve already mentioned the European Union on the Indo-Pacific. In fact, we are welcoming a German frigate in Perth this week – Melissa Price the Minister for Defence Industry part of that formal welcome – which really signifies the engagement of Australia and Europe in the Indo-Pacific in many ways.

Jim Wilson: I read that piece that you wrote. I mean, you must be pretty frustrated with the former Prime Minister in Paul Keating criticising our foreign policy and long-held alliances so publicly and so vehemently.

Marise Payne: Well, it takes more than that to frustrate me, and there are a lot of former Prime Ministers with a lot of views. And –

Jim Wilson: But you were disappointed?

Marise Payne: I have a whole deal of respect for them all. But I do think it’s important to, you know, stand with both feet firmly on the ground in 2021 and look at the way the world is changing in fundamental ways, as I wrote. And those changes are going to impact Australia, impact our prosperity and our security for decades to come. It’s the responsibility of this government, as we do, to look across that entire horizon – all of the horizons – and make sure we take whatever opportunities that we think we can which will advance Australia’s national interests and protect our national security.

Jim Wilson: Minister, as always, thank you for your time, and well done on the AUKUS deal.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Jim. Great to talk.

Jim Wilson: That’s Foreign Minister and Minister for Women, Marise Payne.

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