Interview with Kim Landers, ABC AM

17 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

KIM LANDERS: Prime Minister, welcome to AM.


LANDERS: In Washington today, the Defence Minister Peter Dutton raised the prospect that American troops could be based in Australia as part of an enhanced forced posture. Is that right, US troops stationed here?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they already are. And these arrangements have been in place for some time. And, of course, we, when we get together with our US defence partners in the AUSMIN program that is underway, and quite historically, that's the day after we announced the AUKUS arrangement, then we obviously continue to work on the ways we can work further together, not just in the land space, but in the maritime and the air space as well.

LANDERS: But, basing has specific significance in the defence community. An American base here in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I'm talking, what we're talking about is exercises that we do together, the way we work together in, as I said, in all of those domains, and that has always been a feature of how we've worked together, and we want to do that with more and more of our partners.

LANDERS: China says that the nuclear submarine deal gravely undermines regional peace and stability, and aggravates an arms race. What do you say?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, of course we don't share that view, and I don't think that's the view more broadly in the region. I think this is seen as a positive move that contributes to peace and stability. All countries will invest in their own defence capabilities, and, indeed, China does in theirs. As, and as we know, they've invested heavily in those capabilities, and and quite certainly most, most certainly in the same areas that Australia has been, now intends to. So, look, I think that is well understood, and all countries will do things that they believe in their best national interests. We are certainly doing that, and we're doing that with our most trusted partners for more than a century.

LANDERS: The state media tabloid in China, The Global Times, carried a direct threat in saying, and I quote, ‘Australian troops are most likely the first batch of western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea’. Have you just provoked a military confrontation with China?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, I wouldn't describe our actions as that. But, I don't think that sort of language actually helps promote peace and stability.

LANDERS: What has been the response from some of our nearer neighbours? I'm thinking Indonesia, PNG, Fiji, for example?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, very, very positive. And they understand the context of what we're doing and they've understood the context of the relationship we've had with the United States and the United Kingdom. The presence of our two most trusted and long-term partners is very welcome in the Indo-Pacific and has been a mainstay of peace and stability, particularly the United States, for a very long time. And the welcoming of the UK into greater involvement here in our region is a positive thing. I’ve, I spoke to both the Fijian and the Papua New Guinean Prime Ministers yesterday, we’ve, and will be speaking to the Indonesian President, as we've already had the dialogue directly with foreign ministers and the and the defence ministers - which is how it works in the Indonesian system - and President Widodo and I will speak soon.

LANDERS: Australia has already spent more than ...

PRIME MINISTER: I also spoke, I should say, to Prime Minister Lee yesterday in Singapore, and that was also a very positive conversation.

LANDERS: Australia has already spent more than $2 billion on the French subs. How much more are we going to have to pay to to get out of the contract?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I see the investment that we've made in the program to date as a positive one. When you're investing in your capabilities, particularly an area like submarines, I mean, it's a very complex space, and we're building up skills, experience and knowledge, and all of that will be able to be put to work in what we're now doing under the nuclear submarine program ...

LANDERS: But, how much are we going to pay to have to actually break that contract now?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there were gates in the contract that provided for us to take decisions such as this, and we have acted in good faith all the way along in our arrangements with Naval …

LANDERS: So, what’s the figure, though, I’m asking?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, these are matters that the Defence Department will work through in good faith in our arrangements directly. But, those are commercial in confidence matters. But, at this point, what I'd simply say is the investment we've had of $2.4 billion, that is an investment that has been building Australia's capability and will help us step forward into this next even more significant phase where we can have a supreme submarine capability in our region, which is what Australians need to both keep Australians safe, to support peace and stability, and to be able to work closely with our partners, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, to complement what they're doing as well.

LANDERS: When it comes to the nuclear subs, can you give us a ballpark figure of how much they'll cost?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I can't. Not at this stage. We're going through an 18 …

LANDERS: You must have a rough idea?

PRIME MINISTER: No, we’re going through an 18-month period with our partners to finalise what the best way forward is. What I do know is that Australia's defence spending, as a share of GDP, will continue to increase, because it's not just about submarines. This is about a whole range of other capabilities …

LANDERS: So, what sort of percentage are you talking about?

PRIME MINISTER: The AUKUS arrangements that we're talking about goes to interoperability, cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities, beyond what we're talking with submarines. So, you know, as I said yesterday, as a share of our economy, this is, this is a, this is a commitment which will only continue into the future and increase into the future, based on what the needs and the capabilities we're seeking to acquire are. There's no target number. All I'm telling you is for us to be safe in this world going forward, we're going to have to do more, and we're going to have to do it forever.

LANDERS: If I could turn to another matter, why do you even need to ask your department for advice on whether Christian Porter has breached ministerial standards by accepting a big amount of cash from a mystery person to help pay a legal bill? Doesn't your own judgement say that that's just not okay?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I always act in these areas precisely, and I always act on the best possible advice. And I always want to ensure that the ministerial standards are fully understood in these contexts and the right decisions are made.

LANDERS: Well, you set up a similar process before ousting Bridget McKenzie. So, can we infer that Mr Porter will also leave Cabinet?

PRIME MINISTER: I don't think you can infer anything. I think you can just take, take it that I'm following a process which you'd expect the Prime Minister to do who believes strongly in ministerial standards.

LANDERS: Did you know about the money before Mr Porter updated his register of interests on Tuesday?

PRIME MINISTER: He only most recently, as I'm aware, became aware of becoming a beneficiary in that beneficiary payment becomes available to him …

LANDERS: So, you didn't know about it before he did?

PRIME MINISTER: These are not ordinary arrangements, and that's why we're seeking to have a full understanding of them.

LANDERS: When you spoke to him on Wednesday, did you ask him if he'd made any effort to find out who the money was from?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not going to go into my conversations with the Minister, other than to say that our conversations are about ensuring and that we share a view that the ministerial ministerial standards should always be maintained.

LANDERS: How can the public possibly believe that there are no strings attached to this money, either now or sometime in the future?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I'm saying is, is that it's a very serious issue. I'm taking it very seriously, and I will ensure that the ministerial standards are maintained.

LANDERS: If, for example, Mr Porter gave back the money, would that mean that he could absolutely keep his ministerial job?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Kim, I'm just not going to speculate on it. I'm just, I'm saying that we are taking the appropriate advice to make the right decisions to ensure ministerial standards are upheld.

LANDERS: Prime Minister, thank you very much for speaking to AM this morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Kim. Thanks for your time.

LANDERS: That is the Prime Minister Scott Morrison.