Interview with Leon Byner, FIVEAA

17 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

Leon Byner: Scott Morrison, thanks for coming on this morning and welcome.

Prime Minister: Thanks Leon, good to be with you.

Byner: France are apparently a little aggrieved because they found out about the recent announcement we've been making about submarines and so on by the media. 

Prime Minister: That's not true. That's just completely untrue. 

Byner: Our newsroom just said that's what they're saying,  they're their official announcement. 

Prime Minister: That's not the case. This was relayed directly to the president, relayed directly to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Defence. 

Byner: So they know, what was their reaction?

Prime Minister: Of course, they were disappointed. That's understandable. This has been an important and significant project. And when I met with the President back in late June, I made it very clear we had a lengthy dinner there in Paris, about our very significant concerns about the capabilities of conventional submarines to deal with the new strategic environment we're faced with. And I made it very clear that this was a matter that Australia would need to make a decision on in our national interest.

Byner: These subs are going to use nuclear power, but are not considered a nuclear weapon. Is that the right characterisation, in your view?

Prime Minister: They're conventional weapons on a nuclear powered submarine. 

Byner: Yeah. Why do you think the US and the UK decided to share this top secret information with Australia?

Prime Minister: Because they trust us more than any other country in the world at the end of the day, and when it comes to their national security interests and their interests in global security, and particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, that Australia is a trusted and proven partner. We're the only other country together with the United Kingdom, which was back in 1958, where the United States had been prepared to share this technology. And this means that we will be able to boost our capability and that will add to theirs. And that's the key thing. This is about us adding to this partnership and our joint capability to boost peace and stability within the Indo-Pacific region. 

Byner: So, Prime Minister, is this new alliance going to be ratified whilst you're in Washington next week? 

Prime Minister: We will certainly be meeting over that. And I mean, it's a partnership agreement. It's not a treaty. So we're talking about a different type of arrangement. And those are done under a memorandum. And that's the normal process. 

Byner: How does South Australia fit into all this, because we've got Naval Group leaving as a result of this new deal. So what does this mean for the defence industry here in SA? 

Prime Minister: Jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs. That's what it means. I mean, saw the front page of the 'Tiser today, and that's that's clearly as that's been rightly, I think, interpreted. I mean, because it's not just this. I mean, the nuclear powered submarines, as I said yesterday to the world, that they would be built in Adelaide and obviously at Osborne, but there'll have to be a lot of changes there to gear us up to do that. And so we'll move from one project to the other, obviously, with a nuclear submarine, there'll be different components, obviously, that will need to be done in the places that involve the construction of those reactors. But putting that to one side, it means a lot of jobs, but it adds to the jobs of the Hunter-class frigates. It adds to the jobs of the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels already under construction. Of course, full cycle docking, you and I have talked about that many times, Leon. And I said very clearly that we would make a decision on that one once I dealt with a broader strategic issue. And that is clear now what we were working on. And that is now resolved. And the reason it's staying in South Australia is pretty straightforward. Because South Australia's been doing a great job on it and that the work that South Australia has done on this process has given great confidence to Australia's submarine programme, and that has been recognised by our partners. So there is risk, in our view, too much risk attached to transferring that role anywhere else. So certainly there are other states, and particularly WA, who were interested in that. But if it ain't broke, you know, you don't fix it. And it ain't broke in South Australia. They're doing a fantastic job on this and we want them to keep doing that job. And that is in the best national interest of Australia. So it's not a commercial deal. I want to stress this. We're keeping it in South Australia because that is the most important place for it to be done. 

Byner: Now, we know that China think it's a bad idea. What about other countries? 

Prime Minister: Well received. I've been speaking to many leaders. Japan, India, Singapore, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea. I'll be speaking to more again today, as our Defence and Foreign Affairs ministers have been speaking to their counterparts around the region. It's understood there's an agreement that brings the United States, the United Kingdom closer in our region, which only adds to the stability that is needed for the security and peaceful coexistence, happy coexistence within the Indo-Pacific region. 

Byner: Do you think it's true that some countries in our region have a better relationship with China than we do? 

Prime Minister: Of course they do, that's obvious.

Byner: Yeah. And are we going to improve our position with them, do you think? 

Prime Minister: With, with…

Byner: China, yeah

Prime Minister: Well, I would certainly hope so, and we're always interested in doing that. There is no obstacles to that on the Australian side 

Byner: And we aren't expecting these submarines to be delivered for decades. Is there an act of aggression against Australia in the region meantime, are we going to get the US to help us? 

Prime Minister: Well Leon, on the first point you make, I mean the timetable and these we anticipate being not too different to those on the Attack Class, ultimately with how that was progressing in tracking. The Collins Class life of type extension also being done in in South Australia at a cost of some $6.4 billion that starts in 2026, has a two year drumbeat and that will see Collins Class operating out into the 2040s. So that will continue. But the the agreement, AUKUS, Australia, UK, US, that agreement was put in place because I knew there would be a need for more than just submarines. This isn't just about submarines. That's the first initiative. But on the actual set of arrangements that we have agreed as part of this programme, we're extending out into a whole range of new capabilities in counter cyber operations, in AI and in quantum capabilities. In addition to that, I already announced yesterday the Tomahawk cruise missiles, the long range anti-ship missiles, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, all of this and the other technologies we will get for our defence capability will further enhance between now and when the first nuclear submarine comes into service, which will be, you know, before you know, before the end of the next decade, they'll start building them this decade, I should say, and it's in all of our interests to complete it even sooner than that. 

Byner: Do you think this sort of implies that we're going to have a khaki election soon? 

Prime Minister: I don't know if it means that at all. I mean, that's that's not the point. This is about Australia's national security interests and that goes beyond politics. But, you know, it's not unreasonable, I suppose, for people as we go to the next election to be asking who they believe they can trust to be a steward of these important responsibilities. 

Byner: How important is our state, SA, in all this? 

Prime Minister: Central. It's absolutely central. The projects that we're talking about, whether it's the frigates. And we also announced the upgrade of the Hobart Class air warfare destroyer combat management system yesterday. Now, that's around $5.1 billion. That's about 300,000 South Australian jobs at its peak. I mean, South Australia is a workhorse here for Australia's naval defence capability.

Byner: So you think this will have a very profound effect on the employment opportunities in those higher skill areas? 

Prime Minister: Absolutely. And this is why I mean, Premier Marshall is, we've just worked hand in glove with this and he understands how important it is to build up South Australia's skilled workforce capabilities. And this is why he's always been so pro-immigration in getting the skilled workers that South Australia needs to grow these industries. I mean, the defence industry capability. But what's happening down at Lot Fourteen, that's one of the most exciting precincts in the country, not just exciting for South Australia. I'm excited about it at a national level and what's being done in the space, the Australian Space Agency based in South Australia. South Australia has a very critical strategic role in providing for Australia's secure future. 

Byner: Prime Minister, thank you for coming on today and continued good health. That's Prime Minister Scott Morrison.