Radio interview with Stacey Lee and David Bevan, ABC Adelaide

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: AUKUS announcement; investment in South Australia; China’s response.

Stacey Lee, Host: Minister Penny Wong is the Foreign Affairs Minister and a Labor Senator for South Australia. Good morning, Minister Wong.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Stacey, how are you? I promised you on International Women's Day I'd come on, and so I'm glad, glad we've kept the date, as it were.

Lee: Yes, we're glad to have you today to try and answer some of these questions for us. I guess the main one at the moment for South Australia is that certainty around the life of type extension for the Collins class subs. Is that something that the Premier was of the understanding the Federal government has committed to that LOTE, Life of Type Extension work on the Collins-class? All six of them?

Foreign Minister: That's correct. But look, to be honest, I don't think that's the biggest single question. I think the biggest question is what this means for South Australia. And I just want to start by saying this is the biggest single investment in Australian national power in the nation's history and it is the biggest single investment in South Australia in our history. And it will transform our state, it will transform our economy and it will deliver not just jobs, but jobs and high skilled jobs and capability and technology to South Australians for decades to come. We spent the last 18 months working on this. We will continue to work on the workforce planning aspects which are so critical, the skills aspects.

But the question you raised goes to, frankly, the mess that we were left by the previous government where there was a capability gap, which was, I think I was on, if not this show, certainly the predecessor's show talking about the fact that in Senate estimates, we'd ascertained very clearly a capability gap between the Life of Type Extension and the delivery of a nuclear propelled submarine. We've resolved that by the phasing of this announcement, which includes the purchase of Virginia-class submarines to deal with that capability gap. So just to go back –

David Bevan, Host: So Penny Wong, when will work begin at Osborne?

Foreign Minister: If I can just finish the answer. Yes, the Life of Type Extensions on the Collins-class will be retained. In fact, if you look at what capability has to be required, you have to do that as well as purchase the Virginias ahead of the delivery of nuclear propulsion.

Bevan: So when will work begin at Osborne in terms of the infrastructure?

Foreign Minister: That's a good question. I understand that the infrastructure construction on the yard will begin this year, due to begin later this year. This will involve both above and in ground utility relocation, construction of a new access road and other supporting infrastructure. Obviously, this is a very large undertaking and as I understand it from the many briefings and discussions I've been part of over the last year, this is a yard which is substantially bigger than the existing facilities, so obviously there's a lot of work to be done.

Bevan: So that's building a yard for a submarine that hasn't been designed yet.

Foreign Minister: Well, the point that we should make is this is the most complex engineering undertaking that human beings can engage in. This is –

Bevan: But how do you know what to build if you haven't got a design yet?

Foreign Minister: May I finish?

Bevan: Yeah, yeah, but if you could answer the question –

Foreign Minister: I'm happy to answer the question.

Bevan: How do you know what to build if you haven't designed it?

Foreign Minister: Thank you. So this is the most complex engineering undertaking that - other than probably space technology, that human beings are engaged in. The plan is to use the first two phases, which are the rotation of nuclear propelled submarines from the US and the UK, including training opportunities for Australians and the purchase of the Virginia-class. That gives us the time and space to construct the facilities here and get our industrial capability up to speed. So we are deliberately phasing this over many years because unlike others, we don't simply want to make an announcement, we want to deliver it. And we are giving ourselves time to do the work so we can deliver it whilst we are getting this additional capability by purchasing the Virginia submarines.

Lee: You've just said the building of that infrastructure is going to start this year.

Foreign Minister: Correct.

Lee: So how can you build a yard and sheds and all of whatever comes with building eight nuclear-powered submarines that we've never built here, if you don't have a design yet?

Foreign Minister: Well, the design, just to pick that up, the design is based on - it will be based on an evolution of an existing design. So there are basically two classes of nuclear-propelled submarines in this trilateral relationship. There's the Virginia, which we are purchasing, and then there is the Astute, which is the British design submarine. The SSN AUKUS, which will be the unique platform for both the UK and Australia, will be the evolution of the Astute. And you're right, as yet that is not finalised. Obviously it's evolved from an existing design and it will be two jurisdictions, two countries working together to construct it. But we do know broadly what will be required and so that investment in the infrastructure has to start now. So we are geared up.

Bevan: Okay. And the first SSN AUKUS will start to be constructed in Adelaide, the Premier thinks, by the end of this decade. When do you say? Can you give us a time?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, the delivery date for that is probably the early 2040s. So obviously this is a big undertaking. We are getting to work immediately on constructing that capability.

Bevan: Do you think we'll start putting it together before the end of this decade in Adelaide?

Foreign Minister: We will look at around the early 2030s of being able to have that design and construction in Adelaide. If we can do it earlier, we will. If it's a little later, that is obviously less problematic even in terms of Australian capability because –

Bevan: Can you see how it's all a bit blurred because he thinks he's going to start building the things before the end of this decade, before 2030, and you're saying "Well, if we can, but it will probably be the early 30s".

Foreign Minister: No, I'm saying we will do it as soon as we can, but obviously we want to make sure we get it right. But what I want to say is this, and this sort of goes to what underlies your question. I've been around for a fair 20 years in politics and I've seen the previous government have three different submarine announcements. It was the Japanese, the French and then this one. And I know in South Australia how hard South Australians, the workers, the community, the Labor Party, the trade unions have had to fight to ensure we have jobs here in South Australia. Because you might remember, and I think you and I spoke about it at length, David, the Japanese submarines, we were not looking at much content in Australia. We really never saw much happen on the French submarine announcement either. We are very focussed on making sure that this happens and we are very focussed on making sure that the largest investment in Australian and South Australian industrial capability in the nation's history delivers not just capability for the ADF, but the economic transformation that I know South Australians want.

Lee: And it's because of all those changes in the past that people struggle to believe something that's 10, 20, 30 years into the future. Can I just ask you about changes in government? Because there's a lot of speculation this morning that if Donald Trump is to be re-elected in 2024 in the US, that this deal could be up in the air. Is that a concern for you?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think that we are looking at a project where there is broad political support from across the political spectrum in both the United Kingdom and the United States. So you've seen members of Congress, members of the Republican Party also supportive of this. So what I would say is I think there is an understanding on both sides of politics, across to the UK and across the Pacific to the US, that this is a necessary and important part of our collaboration. At a time where we see a lot more escalation, a lot more competition in the world, we see the risk of escalation. What we want is to ensure we have sufficient deterrents to keep the peace. That's why we're all involved in this and that's why we're doing this.

Bevan: And do you think that we wake up today in a safer world when the Chinese leader has declared, clearly in response to this announcement, that China will build a military great wall of steel to protect its sovereignty?

Foreign Minister: What I would say is we want everyones’ sovereignty to be protected. Australia seeks a capability such as this in order to ensure we have a peaceful, stable region. We want to keep the peace. And when it comes to great power competition, you would have heard me say publicly on more than one occasion that we should be urging the great powers to manage their competition wisely. I've spoken about the need for guardrails. I'm pleased that President Biden has put guardrails on the table. And we would encourage the Chinese, we would urge them to participate in that dialogue with the United States, because Australia and the whole region wants peace.

Lee: Senator Penny Wong, thank you for your time.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you all. Cheers.

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