Interview with Liam Bartlett, 6PR

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Submarine contract; relationship with China.
01 October 2021

Liam Bartlett:

Those harsh words Malcolm Turnbull directed at the Morrison government, whose Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne joins us on the program this morning. Minister Payne, good morning to you.

Marise Payne:

Good morning, Liam, how are you?

Liam Bartlett:

I’m very well, thanks. Thanks for your time today. So, deception in the national interest according to Malcolm.

Marise Payne:

I didn’t see the former Prime Minister’s presentation to the National Press Club; I was in a number of online meetings, the way of life at the moment. But I am confident, Liam, in the decision that we have made that it is an important decision for protecting our security and our prosperity, about making a contribution to the stability of our region. And, of course, nobody who is not part of those discussions and is not part of the decision-making process can ever know – and frankly nor should they – know the detail and the depth of the considerations that governments go into. These have to be done in a confidential way.

But certainly, the long-term discussions that have been had within government are ones that I am very confident in and very confident in having made the right decision. But absolutely I acknowledge the very deep disappointment that France and the French government are dealing with and have experienced. There’s no question of that, and that’s something that Australia will continue to work on with them in the coming weeks and months.

Liam Bartlett:

Are you saying that Malcolm’s vary acerbic criticism comes from a place of ignorance?

Marise Payne:

No, I’m not saying it comes from a place of ignorance; I’m saying that governments make decisions armed with full advice from defence, intelligence, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the most senior leaders in our nation in public service terms, and we have to make those – we have to make our considerations based on that information, and that’s what we’ve done here.

Liam Bartlett:

All right. Minister, can we go to the deal, to the actual deal itself? There’s been a lot written about this in the past couple of weeks. Aside from cancelling the deal with France, have we actually signed a contract that tells us when the first submarine will be delivered?

Marise Payne:

So, Liam, what we have agreed under the AUKUS arrangements – and I think it’s important to emphasise that it’s a partnership; it’s not a military alliance in those terms – is to start an 18-month process now for the planning for the acquisition of those submarines. Again, not something that happens overnight either. And with the significant goodwill between the three partners – between Australia, the United Kingdom and it United States – I’m confident they’ll be very productive discussions and very productive planning. It is, no question, a massive undertaking and we are – we’re very prepared for that and very clear eyed about the requirements.

Liam Bartlett:

All right. So just to paraphrase, we have cancelled one deal that was in ink, black and white, on paper, but we don’t actually have a new one?

Marise Payne:

Well, we’ve withdrawn from a contract in relation to the future submarine program at a gate in that contract process. We will provide whatever we are legally obliged to in that context with the French government and with Naval Group itself. But the next steps in terms of the development of the future nuclear-powered submarine that we will acquire through the AUKUS process are steps that are ahead of us, that’s right.

Liam Bartlett:

Okay. So as of right now in this moment in time, we do not have a solid, written future submarine program?

Marise Payne:

Well, no, we do have a solid, written, future submarine program because that is how the arrangements for the Australia-UK-US partnership have been brought about by –

Liam Bartlett:

No, but you just told me we have an agreement.

Marise Payne:

By a written agreement.

Liam Bartlett:

We have an agreement.

Marise Payne:

By a written agreement.

Liam Bartlett:

But we don’t have a contract.

Marise Payne:

A written agreement, which has been published.

Liam Bartlett:

Okay, we don’t have a contract to build that first submarine.

Marise Payne:

Well, we have to determine which submarine we acquire, what that process is, and that is the work that is ahead of us for both the Defence Department and for other agencies who are part of this, including the agencies in the United Kingdom and the agencies in the United States.

Liam Bartlett:

Have you got an agreement to lease a sub or subs from somewhere in the interim to fill the gap?

Marise Payne:

Well, we have, as you know, a strong life-of-type extension program and plan for the Collins Class submarines. And that is something which the defence agencies have been working on for some time now. And I’m confident that will provide us with significant capability in years to come. But these are all matters which the Department of Defence, the Minister for Defence and, frankly, the National Security Committee will determine as we progress the AUKUS arrangements.

Liam Bartlett:

Minister, one of the main reasons for turning to nuclear-powered subs has been the power base – pardon the pun – but the power base in the Indo-Pacific, which we all know to be about China. So how do you see the Chinese problem at the moment? Is it a future threat? Is it an ongoing threat or is it an imminent threat?

Marise Payne:

Well, I see it more in terms of engagement and the nature of the relationship, Liam. My role as the Minister for Foreign Affairs is to assure Australians about our ongoing commitment to engaging with China. But we will always be clear-eyed and practical in that and we will always operate in Australia’s interests. We have to be focused on our security, our own prosperity and our sovereignty. And we have been very clear that we are very ready to engage, to discuss any differences with Beijing at both ministerial and leader level, but those offers have, frankly, not been taken up by counterparts in China.

I think part of the strain comes from – and not just for Australia, Liam, it’s very important to be clear about this – this is not just an issue with which Australia is dealing. And my visits with the Minister for Defence in the region and into the United States in the last fortnight have reinforced that for me. Certainly, China’s outlook, their external engagement, has changed significantly in recent years. But as they grow, as they achieve greater power, greater economic presence, greater responsibility comes with that to act accordingly, to adhere to what are internationally agreed rules, to respect the interests of other states. And so we have been dealing with those challenges. But we have a very clear-eyed view, as I said, about our relationship and the principles upon which it’s based.

Liam Bartlett:

Well, only a couple of days ago, as you well know, we saw a prisoner swap between China and Canada. Now, given that we have at least a couple of Australian citizens currently detained in China for spurious reasons – in fact, reasons that haven’t been given – do you have concerns about that prisoner swap and the precedent it may set?

Marise Payne:

I think that it’s difficult to compare cases directly. I am pleased for Canada that their citizens – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – were released from what we regard, and Canada certainly regarded as arbitrary detention in China. That was after nearly three years. And we’ll continue to work against the practice of arbitrary detention, whoever is using it as a tool, a coercive tool, anywhere. But I’m not sure that our cases and those can be directly compared.

What I can say about the cases on which Australia advocates very strongly, particularly Dr Yang Hengjun, particularly Ms Cheng Lei, is that we want to absolutely ensure that we are able to get access to them in line with our bilateral consular relations agreement. That has been happening. That we are very concerned that we don’t have, as you said, adequate detail as to the charges and the nature of the investigation made available to either Dr Yang or to Australia. And so we are concerned that that is a case of arbitrary detention.

In relation to Ms Cheng Lei, we consistently raise both her detention, her welfare, with authorities at the most senior levels. Over a year into her detention – she was detained in August 2020 – we still see a lack of transparency about the reasons for that. And although –

Liam Bartlett:

Well, I think you’re being very nice. I mean that’s almost being overly diplomatic. I understand your position, but calling it a mystery is an understatement as well, isn’t it?

Marise Payne:

Well, authorities have advised that she was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas. But we have no evidence of that, and we have no information on which to assess that. So, we have called for that information and that evidence to be provided to her and to her lawyers at the very least, and certainly for justice, for procedural fairness and for humane treatment to be met.

I do appreciate the very strong support for particularly both of those Australians and a number of others for whom I have concerns that is evidenced across the Australian community.

Liam Bartlett:

You know, Minister, on a parallel note, our Premier was waxing lyrical here in Perth last night about the importance of trade with China. They had a knees-up last night for the China National Day celebrations. How do you view the future of our trade relationship?

Marise Payne:

Well, the economic relationship has been extremely important between both of our countries. There is no question of that. But we base our relationship on a number of key principles, as I said, and that includes a commitment to open markets. That is why we have rejected the nature of the assertions that China has made, for example, in relation to Australian barley, in relation to Australian wine – 200 per cent tariffs with allegations of dumping on Australian wine – which we do not accept. And we have addressed barley, in particular, in the World Trade Organisation, using those accepted rules, if you like, and systems, democratic institutions and process that have stood us in good stead in recent – in seven decades, frankly.

Liam Bartlett:

But will we get anywhere with that? I mean, the Chinese will just ignore – even if we have a ruling from the WTO they’ll just ignore it, won’t they?

Marise Payne:

Well, Liam, it’s up to countries like Australia to make sure that we are very clear about the international rules and norms, the systems that underpin the lives that we’ve enjoyed for all of those decades. And whether parties do come genuinely to the table or not is ultimately a matter for them. But countries like Australia have, I think, an obligation and certainly a capacity to reaffirm the importance of operating within those rules, and we do that consistently. And this is another example of us making sure that we are clear and explicit about that.

Liam Bartlett:

You’d have to be slightly bemused by the energy problems they’re having over there at the moment, wouldn’t you, Minister? There’s an exquisite irony in the massive power shortages in China given their retaliatory ban on Aussie coal.

Marise Payne:

Well, that is, of course, a matter for the Chinese government to handle, Liam. But I would say that the openness and the transparency with which we engage I would certainly back that every day.

Liam Bartlett:

Well, the only unfortunate part about that is that every day Chinese people have to suffer. That’s the problem.

Marise Payne:

This is very true in terms of the concerns that we have in that regard, including on a number of human rights aspects. And one thing I would absolutely reinforce, Liam, is the extraordinary value that the Chinese diaspora brings here in Australia, in cities like mine in Sydney, in Melbourne and I’m sure in Perth as well. The diaspora is a rich and vibrant part of our global community within Australia, and I do want to emphasise that in making these observations in response to your questions.

Liam Bartlett:

Certainly. Thanks very much for having a chat to our morning program listeners today, Minister, we appreciate it.

Marise Payne:

Thanks, Liam. Good to talk. Have a great weekend.

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