Press Conference Washington DC, USA

21 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

Prime Minister: Before I come to the very significant events of today, last night when we last spoke, we were being updated, I was being updated, on the situation of the earthquake in Victoria. Pleased that overnight, as further information has come in, those events have ended up being less serious than first thoughts. We welcome that. But, of course, it was an earthquake. That's a serious thing. And I want to thank all of those last night in Australia who were working this response and the coordination between federal and state government. Obviously, we need to remain cautious because of the threat of aftershocks and wish those well who are going through and inspecting and shoring up those properties that were affected and any damage that was there for that. It is pleasing to know that what was first feared was not realised, particularly in relation to any reports of serious injury. And that is very welcome news. 

Today, Australia received overwhelming support for our AUKUS partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom. We received overwhelming support when it came to Australia moving ahead to establish a new submarine fleet for Australia, to ensure that we can contribute to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific. There is great enthusiasm for us going ahead with these projects, whether it is from the Secretary of Defence, the bipartisan support that was on display today up on Capitol Hill, both at House and Senate. In the Congress, there is an overwhelming sentiment towards Australia. This has been built on a 70 year alliance and more than 100 years of standing together, the respect that the members of Congress feel for the service of our men and women in our defence forces, the way that Australia has applied itself to this partnership, as I say, looking to the United States, but never leaving it to the United States. That is a position that is understood in the United States and is one that is respected. And that has laid the platform of trust that has enabled us to establish this this new level of our partnership. And so I look forward with great confidence based on the extensive discussions I've had today at all, at all levels and across the partisan divide here in this town in Washington. And that will enable us, I think, to move forward in this next phase. 

It was also pleasing to have discussions across the broader array of defence and intelligence issues as we met with those with both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. The support on the Hill, of course, in the US system of government will be absolutely necessary as we progress this important partnership. It's great to have the strong support of the President, the executive of government, and today it's very clear that Congress and the Senate will be backing this in. There's a lot more work to do. But that work will be done in a spirit of cooperation, in the spirit of endorsement. So a very, I think, successful day for Australia, an important day for Australia, but one where Australia's ability to contribute to this partnership, and so not only are our own interests served in that endeavour, but also the United States can see the great value at all levels of what we're seeking to achieve here and they're getting ready to work with us.

Journalist: Prime Minister, around the time you went to the Pentagon, Joe Biden, the President, was able to make a 30 minute phone call to Emmanuel Macron, one result of which is going to be the return of France's Ambassador to Washington by the end of next week. What is your interpretation of the consequences that flow from that conversation for Australia and the resumption of diplomatic normality in Canberra? 

Prime Minister: I welcome the fact that they've had that discussion and that was discussed between President Biden and I yesterday. So I'm glad that call took place, I'm glad that he was able to reinforce not just from the United States perspective, but from all partners in this new arrangement that we very much want to see, not only France, but all the nations, Europe, our like-minded nations in Europe, playing a very important role in the Indo-Pacific. That's what it means for Australia. And I think it's been very important for the President to have that engagement. I look forward and when the time is right and when the opportunity presents that we will have a similar discussion. The issues that we're dealing with are different. Of course, Australia decided not to proceed with a very significant defence contract. And understandably, we know that France is disappointed about that. I think those issues will take further time to work through than the ones that were being dealt with between the United States and France.

Journalist: Are you confident there won't be any congressional roadblocks then, given what you said about the AUKUS partnership and your conversations today. And, Dan Tehan said yesterday in Canberra that states that follow the national plan should be able to travel by December at the latest. Would that include international travel? And did you discuss that with Boris Johnson last night? 

Prime Minister: On the first matter, based on the overwhelming bipartisan support that we saw today right across the leadership in both the Congress, in the House and the Senate, I can only go forward with confidence. But, of course, there are many issues still to work through. We all understand that. But we go forward from a position of great trust and great enthusiasm. The United States, amongst the parliamentarians that we met today, truly understand what the challenges are that Australia faces. As I said yesterday, President Biden gets in, the Congress gets in, the Senate gets it. And that is a great encouragement to Australia. They understand the challenges we've been facing. And they only wanted to give us messages of support, respect and encouragement. It was a very proud day to be Australian.

Journalist: On the second issue, Prime Minister?

Prime Minister: Well, you only ever have lively discussions with Boris Johnson, and that was tremendous to spend time together last night. At 80 per cent vaccination rates, the national plan provides for people to travel again. And that's certainly what we intend to facilitate and for vaccinated people to travel. We're not looking for any special arrangements. If you're vaccinated, then we are hoping to have in place, we're expecting to be welcoming back students, we're expecting to be welcoming back skilled migrants, expecting to be welcoming back when they're vaccinated, people into the country on that basis. Particularly, the Premier of New South Wales and I have already been working through those issues because they're likely to be the first state that goes into that opportunity. So I look forward to that. I think Australians look forward to that. That's the point of being in a position now, this week, we will hit three quarters of Australians aged over 16 first dose, and we will hit one in two having received their second dose. And those vaccination numbers will continue to rise. And as they rise, the opportunities to get back to life as normal as it can be living with the virus, will just be coming closer each and every day. 

Journalist: Just to clarify that answer, Prime Minister, does that mean that the English cricketers and the Barmy Army will be able to come in for the Ashes in December? And you've said a couple of times now that when the opportunity presents itself, you will speak with Emmanuel Macron. But have you reached out, have you offered to, to have you tried to call him and speak to him now? And is he just not taking your call? 

Prime Minister: Yes, we have. And the opportunity for that call is not yet. But we'll be patient. We understand their disappointment and that is the way you manage difficult issues. It's a difficult decision. It was a very difficult decision. And of course, we had to weigh up what would be the obvious disappointment to France. But at the end of the day, as a government, we have to do what is right for Australia's national security interests. And I will always choose Australia's national security interests. 

On the other matter, I would love to see the Ashes go ahead, as I shared with Boris last night. But there's no special deals there, because what we're looking to have is vaccinated people being able to travel, now how more broadly, visitors coming to Australia will be able to travel, that's an issue we'll have to look at carefully. But in terms of what those, I don't see a great deal of difference in skilled workers or students who will be able to come to Australia when you reach those vaccination rates, those who are coming for that purpose when it comes to their profession, which is playing cricket, I don't see the difference between that and someone who's coming as a skilled, qualified engineer or someone who's coming to be ready for study. That's the opportunity that we get when we get to those higher rates of vaccination. And that's the pathway that we spoke of. Now, how many states are at that position will obviously determine where people can go.

Journalist: Prime Minister Boris Johnson said to the French President "donnez-moi un break". What is your message to the President, do you agree with Boris Johnson?

Prime Minister: Well, I don't speak French. That wasn't one of my strong suits when I was at the school or even at university. But Boris has a way of expressing things that only Boris can. But, look my message is this,  we value our relationship with France. We have still around $6 billion worth of defence contracts with French companies. We have $32 billion worth of defence contracts with European countries. And we see Europe and France working with like-minded partners like Australia in the region to ensure a more stable and secure Indo-Pacific. So our door is wide open. Our invitation is there. We understand the hurt and disappointment and we'll be patient and we look forward to working with our friends again.

Journalist: Just following Annelise’s question, Prime Minister, the White House put out a statement today saying that the two leaders - that's Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden - agreed the situation would have benefited from open consultation among allies. How can that not be read as anything but a direct repudiation of your brand of diplomacy? 

Prime Minister: Well, they were dealing with different issues to Australia. The United States and France are NATO countries. And there are certain expectations amongst NATO partners about how they're engaged with each other on national security issues. Australia is not a member of NATO. The dialogue between the United States President and the French President was a function of their relationship. We had communicated, as I've said on many occasions, that we believe that a conventional submarine was not going to meet our requirements. We discussed that issue with the French over several months, and I was very clear that we would be making a decision based on Australia's national security interests. We made that decision. I understand that they're disappointed. We've acted in accordance with what we were able to do under the contract and will honour the obligations that flow from those decisions in the contract. And we will seek to continue to engage with. The issues that the US President was addressing are very different because it's a different relationship and has different obligations. We've been meeting our obligations under the relationship, but we decided not to go forward with the contract. So, of course, they're going to be disappointed. I'm not sure how people thought they wouldn't be disappointed or that there was any other way that such news could be made more attractive, of course it wasn't attractive news. Of course, it would lead to disappointment. 

Journalist: Prime Minister, the President essentially apologised for a lack of transparency. You said you communicated with the French, but they clearly still feel very angry, angry and blindsided. Are you willing to apologise to Macron now or when you get to speak to them, will you say sorry to him for what's happened? 

Prime Minister: I acted in accordance with Australia's national security interests ... 

Journalist: So you won't apologise for that? 

Prime Minister: ... and that is something Australia should always do, and I think all Australians would expect me to do. Hard decisions have to be made by prime ministers about our interests. And so, of course, that is something that was necessary for me to do. I don't share your interpretation of what the US President has said, the US President has said. I don't think it's fair for you to paraphrase him or put words in his mouth.

Journalist: Prime Minister, are you disappointed that all this diplomatic drama around AUKUS so far has taken away from your messages around climate change, cyber security, COVID and all those sorts of things? 

Prime Minister: No, not at all. What I've encountered here in Washington, as I did in New York, was excitement, support for this extraordinary new level of partnership that we've been able to bring together between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. And today, it was a great opportunity to talk about the other issues that you've raised with many of our partners here in the Congress and the Senate, and to advise and for them to pleasantly receive the news, I mean the progress that Australia is making with a 20 per cent reduction in our emissions, which I was able to say is above what has been achieved by the United States, Canada, New Zealand and a range of other countries. Our commitments are always backed up by plans. And I said that's an important thing about Australia. In Australia, if you make a commitment, you've got to have a plan of how you are going to achieve it. And that's what I will always do. 

Journalist: Prime Minister, you've been very enthusiastic today about the reception you received in the US, about the passage of the potential legislation through the Senate and the Congress. Overnight, Senator Wong has raised some issues about Labor's concerns in Australia about the deal. How confident are you that you will be able to take Labor into your confidence and get the passage of required legislation through the Australian Parliament? 

Prime Minister: Well, I think Australians would be puzzled as to why there can be bipartisan support for this initiative in the United States and within days, within days, the Labor Party seems to be having an each way bet. I don't have each way bets on national security. If the Labor Party wants to have an each way bet on national security, the Australian people need to know that. The leader of the Labor Party set out three conditions of their support, all of them are met. All of them are met. So it really is a question for the Labor Party. It's important that this had bipartisan support. That was certainly the message that was delivered by the leader of the Labor Party. Of course, these matters will be worked through in the normal way, but the conditions that he set out are overwhelmingly met and will be met. 

Journalist: Prime Minister, Nancy Pelosi today praised your leadership on China. What exactly does she mean by that? And how do you think that's been read by Beijing? 

Prime Minister: Well, I can't speak to how others read things, all I can speak to is that Australia's record of standing up for our values and staying true to what we believe in, ensuring that we are a resilient country that values our sovereignty and works with our partners, stands up for freedom across the Indo-Pacific, these are values and goals that the United States shares. So here, as I found in many roles, there is an easy agreement between friends on these issues.

Journalist: The Shrine of Remembrance yesterday in Melbourne, Prime Minister, there were scenes there that are very disturbing. What's your response to those? 

Prime Minister: I think those scenes were disgraceful and the conduct was disgraceful. I think the RSL President put it best, this is a sacred place, not a place of protest. It was disrespectful and it dishonoured those Australians who had made the ultimate sacrifice. And I would hope any and all who were engaged in that disgraceful behaviour would be ashamed. 

Journalist: Did you have a response to Paul Keating's comments about AUKUS? 

Prime Minister: No. 

Journalist: Did you have any discussion with the Secretary of Defence about what the increased military capability will be in Australia? 

Prime Minister: Sorry, I missed that? 

Journalist: At your meeting at the Pentagon with the Defence Secretary, was there any discussion about what that increased military capability of the US will be in Australia, including marine numbers, or are they asking for anything like a missile launch program for Australia? 

Prime Minister: What today was a good opportunity for us to to lay out these early priorities of getting on with AUKUS. And that, of course, goes to the the arrangements being put in place to progress this 12-18 month program of working through on the nuclear submarines. But, there was also the opportunity to identify other important early priority areas, particularly in the area of cyber, AI, quantum, the electronic capabilities that are so necessary in this day and age, these are the things we had a very good discussion on today. I understand, I deeply share the interest and enthusiasm of the nuclear submarine program, it is obviously the centrepiece as the first initiative of the AUKUS arrangement. But the AUKUS arrangement is far more than the nuclear submarines. The AUKUS arrangement means, as we said many times today, that before such technologies are even imagined, we will already be working together on these. Which means Australia works with our partners to develop these technologies up, that means that you are able to understand them and ensure that we can integrate them into what we are doing in the earliest possible opportunity. There is a very encouraging understanding amongst all those I met today about the significance of what this new partnership means. This is something that so many people who work here, up there on Capitol Hill, the friends of Australia, who we met with today. These are the sorts of things they have come together to hope for and now they see them realised. And that was very rewarding to be there and see that. And I think it's very exciting about where this goes forward. 

Journalist: Prime Minister, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said today she conceded that the US perhaps should have consulted with the French before the announcement of AUKUS. Do you feel like we should have consulted with the French before that announcement took place? 

Prime Minister: Well, as I said, I'd already been engaged with the French going back to the middle of June, making it very clear that Australia had very big concerns about the capability of the conventional submarine and its ability to meet the strategic environment that Australia would have to operate in. I made that very clear. Both in discussions and in correspondence with the President. The President sent out Admiral Morio to meet with our teams to discuss these issues. So there'd been three months of discussion around that particular issue. 

Now, I respect the fact that the Naval Group, the French Government, while they shared our view about the changing strategic environment, they naturally were of the view that they thought the capabilities they were providing could meet that. We didn't share that view and we don't share that view. And that view was not shared by our partners. Now, as I said before, the United States is a NATO partner, it has a different relationship to Australia. We had a contractual arrangement with Naval and we had been working through those earlier contractual issues where there'd been some real difficulties. So we'd had an ongoing dialogue with the French Government on many issues, including the one that determined fundamentally our decision not to proceed through that second gate of the contract. And so we will now pursue the issues that are necessary to pursue following on from that decision based on what the contract provided for. And it's been good to assure people that, of course, Australia will do that. And that's the process we're now in. I look forward to engaging again with President Macron, I know there will be some time before that occurs, but we will patiently pursue those opportunities because we want to work together. There is so much more we're doing. And the bigger picture here, I think, ultimately requires us to come together and focus on those issues. And I'm sure they will. I commend the President on his engagement, that just builds the road map for the rest of us. Thank you all very much.