Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda, Sky News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s submarine program; Australia–France relationship; AUKUS agreement.
04 November 2021

Kieran Gilbert: Foreign Minister Marise Payne, thanks for your time. On 30 August this year, you and your Defence Minister counterpart released a communique after talks with the French Foreign Minister and Defence Minister. “Both sides” – and I’m reading this from this communique – “both sides commit to deepen defence industry cooperation and enhance their capability each in the region. Ministers underline the importance of the Future Submarine Program.” That was part of the communique, Minister. Can you see why the French are aggrieved?

Marise Payne:

Well, the two‑plus‑two is a very important meeting between Australia and France and this was the first of those meetings, Kieran, and it needed to discuss the full range of the relationship, which is, after all, a very broad one and broader than the Future Submarine Program itself. There’d been no decisions made, of course, at that time. And Australia is very focused, as you would expect and as you would expect a government to be, on our national security. And I don’t think removing oneself from a meeting of that nature while no decisions had been made was an appropriate thing to do. And indeed, reviewing all of the issues that go across the full breadth of the relationship was a very important part of that discussion.

That said, though, Kieran, I’ve said publicly, and I would reiterate now, that, of course, we understand – and I personally understand – the deep disappointment that France feels given the decision we have had to make in relation to the Future Submarine Program. And we will need to work very hard – and I’ve also acknowledged that – in moving forward and past this point in our relationship with France.

Kieran Gilbert:

Ambassador Thebault yesterday at the Press Club was scathing about that meeting and this communique. Was there scope for you and the Defence Minister to give the French some sort of heads‑up here?

Marise Payne:

Well, I think that you have seen in the Prime Minister’s comments and in some reporting that there had been a number of conversations between Australia and France in relation to the strategic environment in which we find ourselves – the very, very fast changes that we are dealing with here in the Indo–Pacific, the challenges that that provides in terms of capability and including submarine capability. So, certainly those matters had been discussed over time. What I do think is important for us to do now is to acknowledge the full breadth of the Australia–France relationship, to work through this issue and to make sure that we continue what has been a very positive and cooperative set of arrangements and activities, particularly in the Indo–Pacific.

France is an Indo–Pacific nation and we have a great deal of history behind us, a great deal of future ahead of us, notwithstanding this very significant difficulty. I heard some of what the Ambassador had to say yesterday. They’re his words. But I had a very constructive conversation for over an hour with him person-to-person in Sydney on Monday as well – a meeting which we certainly both agreed to use as the basis for the work that we’ll do going forward.

Kieran Gilbert:

I know that you say that the meeting with your French counterpart was a broad discussion across a range of issues. Ambassador Thebault says it’s more than just the subs though. It is about the sharing of top-secret information. He believes this is a breach of what was a growing strategic partnership. Can you see his argument on that?

Marise Payne:

And I’ve said that I understand the deep disappointment that France feels, and I know that President Macron and Prime Minister Morrison had a conversation in relation to these matters just before the Prime Minister went to the G20 leaders meeting and to COP26. I’ve also sought, as I said publicly last week, in relation to a conversation with the French Foreign Minister, to do that as well. We will work very hard with our counterparts, understanding their disappointment, but importantly, being acutely aware of the full breadth of the Australia–France relationship – as I’ve said, the history that stands behind that, including a very, very difficult shared history in World War I, but what is also ahead of us and the focus that we need to have, particularly in relation to the security and the stability of the Indo–Pacific region and, more broadly, where we are able to work together.

Kieran Gilbert:

Underpinning what you’re saying here though about the Indo–Pacific is China, the rising and more aggressive China. Is this spat now an own goal in that sense on the issue of strategic influence in our region with China growing as it is?

Marise Payne:

So, Kieran, I think perhaps we would miss the point completely if we ignored the fact that the premise of the decision that Australia made was our agreement to participate in an extremely important trilateral partnership with the UK and the United States, the AUKUS, and everything that is within that partnership – everything that is within that partnership, whether it is the technology‑sharing arrangements, whether it is the work that we will do on quantum computing and cyber and artificial intelligence on other undersea capability and, of course, the acquisition of nuclear‑powered submarines themselves. Everything we will do within that partnership, we do acutely cognisant of the challenges that we face in the Indo–Pacific from a range of vectors.

But importantly, we see an unprecedented rate of military acquisition and military modernisation. We see an unprecedented level of issues around security and stability that we are working closely on with all of our partners – our partners in ASEAN and across Asia more broadly, our partners in the Quad, our partners in the G20 and the G7 plus, and all of those relationships are core to what we do in our region and, importantly, what we’re able to contribute to our region in working with all of those individual countries bilaterally and, of course, in those groupings that I’ve mentioned.

Kieran Gilbert:

You’ve said many times to me and to others, you don’t share private communications with your international colleagues. Now, the Government or the Prime Minister or his staff releasing a text message from Macron to Morrison, was that a mistake in diplomacy 101?

Marise Payne:

I’m not going to comment on a text message of which I have no particular knowledge, but claims were made and claims were refuted. I think the most important thing for us now is to ensure, as a government and as a nation, that we are absolutely focused on our national security, on prosecuting Australia’s national interests in the decisions that we are making. The Prime Minister has made a clear statement on this, and I am very focused – including with our counterparts in the United States. I had a very productive phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken this morning – very focused on what we are going to be doing into the future under AUKUS itself, but, as I said, across those range of partnerships that I mentioned. The AUSMIN that we just held in Washington only a month ago – although it seems a lot longer now – that AUSMIN itself was one of the most substantive meetings between Australia and the United States. That sets the ground for a lot of that future work and that is certainly something I discussed with Secretary of State Blinken this morning.

Kieran Gilbert:

Malcolm Turnbull says this whole episode has undermined the trust not just in the Prime Minister but the Government, which should be a national security asset. What’s your assessment of what the former PM is saying? Does he have a point?

Marise Payne:

Well, those words are a matter for him, and I think the Australian people will make their own judgement about that. What we are focused on is the partnerships that we have that we are working with others in terms of our pursuit, as I’ve said, of security and stability in the Indo–Pacific. And the call that I had this morning with the Secretary of State, a number of calls that I’ve had with counterparts in recent days and weeks – whether they’re from Europe or Southeast Asia or the Pacific – goes to those partnerships and relationships. And they are – those relationships are what make the work that we do so important across the region, the investment that we make both in Australia’s interests but in the interests of the region itself, so powerful. And I am very confident that as we work through the development of AUKUS itself, as we work closely through the implementation of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership now agreed by ASEAN leaders – ASEAN–Australia CSP is the first CSP that ASEAN has ever agreed – as we work through those, we will be very much focused on contributing to security and to stability in this region, in the Indo–Pacific, the most dynamic region on the planet in 2021 where opportunity is enormous but where contributions to security and stability are absolutely vital.

Kieran Gilbert:

Back to what the French Ambassador said yesterday, he said “Love is good, but the proof of love is much better.” Obviously, it’s a difficult moment in the relationship but do you think he should have reflected more on the history, the battlefields in his own country, where so many Australians paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country’s freedom?

Marise Payne:

Well, of course, these matters are a matter for the Ambassador. I know that in 2018, the centenary of the end of World War I, I was in Villers‑Bretonneux, I was in Bullecourt, I was on the Western Front, or the area of the Western Front, and particularly moved, particularly struck, by the depth and the history of those aspects of the Australia–France relationship, and I know how many Australians feel that. I know how many members of the French population feel that. And I know that the leaders both reflect on that as well. But ultimately, as I said I think in response to your first or second question, as well as reflecting on that history, my focus is also on the future and on what we are able to do together both as bilateral partners and more broadly. This has been, and I understand that, a very disappointing decision that Australia has taken in our national interests. We will work closely with our partners in France to ensure that we are responding and we are engaging with them on the things that are important going forward.

Kieran Gilbert:

Finally, Foreign Minister, a quick question on the climate talks. Why did you not attend? Wasn’t that a chance to manage the international fallout, the expectations among our international counterparts?

Marise Payne:

Well, not so much a decision not to go, Kieran, as Team Australia being very well represented by the Prime Minister himself and, of course, by the Minister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor. I had just recently engaged with a range of my counterparts, as I think you’re aware, in visits to India, to Indonesia, to Korea, and ultimately to the United States and, of course, attending UNGA leaders week where many of my counterparts were also present and had the opportunity to meet with them. In the coming days, I’m heading to Southeast Asia – a chance to visit our colleagues and counterparts in Malaysia, in Cambodia, in Vietnam and in Indonesia, as part of the work that we do across the region, and also particularly that acknowledgement of ASEAN’s decision to accord Australia a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. That won’t be the last travel I do this year and certainly the work that you refer to of the Foreign Minister is well ongoing. But I think Team Australia well led by the Prime Minister at the G20 leaders and at the COP26.

Kieran Gilbert:

Foreign Minister Marise Payne, appreciate your time. Thank you.

Marise Payne:

Thanks very much, Kieran. Great to see you.

Ends

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