Interview with Allison Langdon, Today Show

17 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

ALLISON LANGDON: Live from Canberra is that big fella from Down Under. Good morning, Prime Minister. How are you?

PRIME MINISTER: Good, pal. How are you?

LANGDON: Excellent. Hey, look, I'll tell you, he doesn't think you're a pal this morning, but the French, we know they're blowing up. With a deal so big, did you bother to pick up the phone and call President Emmanuel Macron?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well, we've been speaking for some time, and I had dinner with him back in Paris back in late June, and we talked about these very issues and the serious situation that Australia was facing and the needs that we would have and the challenges that presented with that submarine programme. So I understand they're disappointed and that's very, very clear and we will work through those issues. They're important part of France, particularly here in the Pacific, where we have so many shared interests. And so we'll work through that. And that's necessary. We don't have any issue with what you know, obviously France and particularly Naval Group with the Attack Class submarine we were seeking to do. It was a good submarine. It was a conventional submarine and that no longer met our needs. So we had to do what was in our national interests. And I'm sure that President Macron would always act in France's national interests. And so too must Australia.

LANGDON: Well, as you say, the writing was on the wall with this. But don't you think, though, you could have just picked up the phone and given him a call, giving him a heads up before that announcement yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER: Well he was told, he was told.

LANGDON: So how was he told? And when did that happen?

PRIME MINISTER: That happened the night before.

LANGDON: The night before, OK.

PRIME MINISTER: He was fully aware of the decision.

LANGDON: All right. OK, so what we're hearing from the French media this morning that they found out on an Australian news site was not correct.

PRIME MINISTER: That's right. Both the President and the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister were all briefed on that decision of Australia the night before it was made public here in Australia. And there had been an ongoing process for some months. And that began with the dinner I had with President Macron back in late June.

LANGDON: Maybe it just goes to how upset they are that this has happened. But as you say, look, it was it was a done deal, but it's north of a two billion dollar break-up. That's no small change, is it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this was all important investment for Australia, this has built our capability to now go forward. What we're doing, we've been skilling up people in submarine technology, in the maritime engineering skills that are necessary to engage on these very large programmes. But I mean, at the end of the day, we've got to keep Australia safe and we've got to take the decisions which do the best thing to keep Australians safe. And that requires a superior submarine capability for us to operate here in the Indo-Pacific region and to do that with our partners in the United States and the United Kingdom. And at the end of the day, what we were previously building was no longer going to meet that need. And so we weren't going to go ahead with it if that was no longer what we needed. And there was the opportunity to do that under the contract. Contracts have gates for that reason. I've been very clear about that. When I was in Paris, I said, there's a gate coming up and we have to decide whether we're going through it.

LANGDON: I mean, two billion, it's still a very expensive mistake. No surprises either. China not very happy.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Ally, I don't see it like that. I don't see it like that, Ally.

LANGDON: How do you not see it as a mistake?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the decision that was taken in 2016, that was the best submarine we could get access to. We've invested in building the capability to build submarines of that scale and now we can go further. So this has helped us get to where we are today and it'll help us with the project ahead.

LANGDON: OK, so China not happy this morning, as you know. Look at what they did when you called for an inquiry into the origins of COVID. Did we just put an even bigger target on our back?

PRIME MINISTER: We're just doing what we need to do to keep Australians safe and protect our national interest. I mean, China do the same thing. They have massive investments in their military capabilities, including in this area and Australia doesn't raise issues around that. All countries will take decisions in the national interest. We believe this will add to the peace and stability and security of the region. And that is, I think, a view that is widely shared about the impact of this arrangement. And we encourage all countries in the region to engage in that way.

LANGDON: Could our relationship with China be any worse right now, do you think?

PRIME MINISTER: We want a better relationship, but we also want to ensure that Australia always holds true to our interests and our values. And we're very happy to have a relationship that respects all of that.

LANGDON: OK, so Peter Dutton said on our show earlier that these submarines won't be ready for 20 years or so. What do we do in the meantime? Because we have poked the bear, China.

PRIME MINISTER: It will be earlier than that. But the other point I'd make is that the Collins Class submarines, they will be extended and they will go through what is called a life of type extension. That means that their capabilities are upgraded and they'll be operating well into the 2040s. And so those submarine capabilities will be preserved and enhanced and extended. In addition to that, that mean the agreement, AUKUS as it's called, a forever partnership, as I referred to it yesterday, that gives us access to the technology and the capabilities that Australia has never had access to before. I mean, there's only been one other time that the United States has shared their technology on nuclear powered submarines with anyone. And that was the United Kingdom in 1958. This is the only other time that has happened. And I think that underscores just how significant this new partnership is. I mean, this will keep Australians safe for generations.

LANGDON: And when will they be in the water are you predicting?

PRIME MINISTER: Before the end of next decade and in a similar time frame, not too different from when the Attack Class would be in, and that's why we're extending the Collins Class submarines to give them more capability, but supporting our broader defence capability, particularly in maritime and air space with the missile programmes I announced yesterday, the Tomahawks and those that launch from air platforms. So we're expanding. And the AUKUS agreement also goes into cyber and quantum capabilities, undersea capabilities and many others with technology that as yet hasn't even been invented.

LANGDON: I mean, there is so much that has been announced and revealed in the past 24 hours. How did you manage to keep all of this quiet?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it was a very secure process, there's no doubt about that, we were dealing with the most sensitive of information that you could possibly imagine, and that has been going on for well over a year and a half when I first initiated this process. And I pay great credit to all of those who've worked on this and from Peter currently and Minister for Defence for many months now, and of course, Linda Reynolds before that. But Marise Payne as well has been sensational and working through this. Our Defence Secretary, the Chief of the Defence Force, the head of Navy, all of this, Chief of Navy. This has been a very closely held process. And, of course, you know, there have been quite a lot of other things going on with our management of COVID as well at the same time. And it just goes to show that as a federal government, you've got to deal with all the challenges you face. COVID is a very significant challenge, welcome the fact that 70 per cent first dose New South Wales, going to 50 per cent two doses. Tassie already there. Tassie still, you know, they're really doing well down there. They're doing a great job. And we want to see, obviously, in Queensland and Western Australia, those dose rates come up. But there's a lot of challenges that the federal government has to do. Some people say, "oh, you've only got two jobs, Prime Minister." Anyone who thinks I've only got two jobs doesn't understand anything about the job.

LANGDON: I'm just having a thought, I'm gathering you didn't tell Barnaby Joyce because I'm not sure he would have kept it a secret had Barnaby known. Not your inner circle?

PRIME MINISTER: Barnaby is the Deputy Chair of the National Security Committee of Cabinet. And we work that all through the National Security Committee.

LANGDON: So, he knew? Well done.

PRIME MINISTER: Of course, he did. And his predecessor, Michael McCormack, also did. And so they both look, this is this is probably the most significant decision that the National Security Committee of Cabinet has made, not just in our government, but in any government for a long time. This is as significant as going back to the original ANZUS agreement 70 years ago, which we've just marked. So it is a big step up, but you've got to deal with the times you're in. You've got to deal with the challenges that you face and as you perceive them into the future. And you've got to do what's right. And if that means you've got to take some hard decisions and I appreciate that that is a disappointing decision for France, who are our great friends. But you've always got to do, take the decisions that are in Australia's national interests, and that's what we've done.

LANGDON: So this is an incredibly big deal. It's an incredibly important move for us moving forward. I know you're heading off to the US on Monday to meet with the US President. Can you just just be honest with us with that moment yesterday? I mean, we're all holding our collective breath when he first started speaking. What was going through your mind when he called you that that fellow from Down Under?

PRIME MINISTER: I didn't pay much attention to it. I mean, these things happen. They happen frequently. I mean, from time to time. You know, I've been known to let the odd name slip from my memory. That's pretty normal in our line of work. I've got to be honest. And we've got a great working relationship. And the proof of that is in the pudding. I remember it was a few months ago, there was a few people give me a bit of a whack about the relationship when the three of us met together at Carbis Bay and I think it just goes to show there's lots of people who are prepared to have a whack, but they don't always know what's going on. And what was going on there was very significant. And the fact that they didn't know anything about it just shows that they probably don't know a lot about what's going on.

LANGDON: Just had to bide your time. And look, Prime Minister, we never forget your show here on the Today Show, OK? Your name.

KARL STEFANOVIC: You just did! Sucked in!

PRIME MINISTER: See Ally, it happens to us all, doesn't it? It happens to us all, pal. It does.

LANGDON: Oh my, Friday, I'm off, I'm out of here.

STEFANOVIC: You just got smoked by the PM.

LANGDON: Thank you, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks guys, all the best.