Radio Interview - 2GB Drive with Chris O'Keefe

16 Mar 2023
Prime Minister
AUKUS; Defence; Superannuation; NRL

CHRIS O’KEEFE, HOST: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, good afternoon.
PRIME MINISTER, ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good afternoon, Chris. Good to be with you.
O’KEEFE: ‘The worst international decision by an Australian Labor government since Billy Hughes sought to introduce conscription in World War One’ – it's a bit much.
PRIME MINISTER: This is the right decision for Australia. I take my responsibility very seriously indeed to listen to the defence and national security experts to determine what is the best way to keep Australia safe. And the best way to keep Australia safe is to invest in improving our capability, but also to invest in our relationships, and we've been doing both things. If you look at the action that we've taken, engaging with our international partners, resuming friendships which had been damaged, restoring faith in the Pacific through our action on climate change, but importantly, investing in our capability, that's what this is. A long-term investment with our traditional friends and allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, and it is the right thing to do. And I'm very confident that we have done the right thing.
O’KEEFE: What did you make of Paul Keating’s comments?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, Mr Keating is entitled to his view, of course, but the truth is that he has misrepresented the government's approach. And what we faced today, my responsibility isn't to look as the world was in 1996, it’s to look as the world is in 2023 and to make sure that we invest in the right capability going forward. That's what we've done here. This is ambitious, but it's also an approach in which we've been very transparent. We've put out there the full costing over decades, we have a plan that builds up, firstly, skilling up Australians to be able to operate nuclear powered submarines. We’ve brought in the International Atomic Energy Agency, they have visited Australia, we've talked it through with them, we've been talking with our partners. We will have the shipyards built in Adelaide able to construct these nuclear powered submarines, and that work will take place. We've already embedded Australian submariners, and engineers, and other technical experts in the United States and the United Kingdom picking up those skills. And as well, this is not just a defence policy, this is about Australian sovereignty and our manufacturing capacity. And just as Curtin and Chifley developed the automotive industry post the Second World War, what this will do is have a massive spin-off because this is the most highly sophisticated machinery that you can think of – a nuclear powered submarine. And so there will not just be 20,000 direct jobs created in Australia, there will be many more than that in indirect jobs. And so it's about our economy, it's about our national sovereignty, it's about our defence, and it ticks all the boxes.
O’KEEFE: What about the personal attacks from Paul Keating on yourself and Penny Wong?
PRIME MINISTER: They are unfortunate but that’s a matter for Mr Keating. I'm not going to engage in…
O’KEEFE: Do you think it diminishes his standing though as a former Prime Minister?
PRIME MINISTER: People will make their own judgement, but can I say this – I respect the job that Paul Keating did as Treasurer and as Prime Minister. I respect Labor's heroes, he is one of them, and he has my respect. But on this I have a different opinion.
O’KEEFE: It's hard to respect how he carried on yesterday, though, Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER: Well that’s for others to determine. It obviously isn't something that…
O’KEEFE: Put it this way, I don't think the Labor caucus was high fiving about the comments.
PRIME MINISTER: The Labor caucus, of course, has been taken through this process. The Cabinet's been taken through this process as well. And we will always, under my leadership, put the Australian national interest first. We didn't play politics with this idea when it was floated by the former government, we took our responsibility seriously. And then upon coming to office we've worked very, very hard, I assure you. The National Security Committee has met on some weeks two, three times getting on top of this. We've met through the Expenditure Review Committee, we've been liaising with our British and American counterparts. I've met with Joe Biden on four occasions and I've met with the British Prime Minister, three of them, Prime Ministers Johnson, Truss, and now Sunak about these issues. And I have every confidence as well that our experts, I took our Chief of Navy, Mark Hammond, flew to India and then came across to the United States with me. He is an outstanding Australian as are the others who've been front and centre here. And I respect the work that they do, the men and women who wear our uniform, and what they expect and what I'm determined to deliver is the best possible capability to keep them safe and to give them what they need.
O’KEEFE: Something briefly Prime Minister, is there anyone in the national security apparatus or in the Parliament who thinks the AUKUS submarine deal is a bad one?
PRIME MINISTER: I haven't had one person in any of those briefings oppose this proposition. What we’ve had is a very consistent…
O’KEEFE: It’s very telling, isn’t it?
PRIME MINISTER: What you need to do, and what we've done with the Defence Strategic Review that we will release a version of, obviously some of the issues are not for publication and I think your listeners will understand that, but we'll release a version next month. I promised many years ago now as Leader of the Opposition, I promised a Defence Strategic Review looking at, what are the assets we need? What are the capabilities we need? And where should they be located? And we tasked Angus Houston and Stephen Smith, the former Defence and Foreign Affairs Minister, and a former Head of our Defence Force to undertake that work. They gave the report to the government a little while ago and we've been processing that as well. But we need to take a step back, what are the assets we need into the future given the strategic challenges that we face? And I'm determined to deliver on that. When you look at the cost of this, we haven't hid the figures, we've been transparent, but it's about 0.15 per cent of GDP. Or to put it another way, it's less than 10 per cent of our defence budget. Now, do nuclear-powered submarines increase our capacity of our defence force by more than 10 per cent? You bet they do. You bet they do. Because the difference between a nuclear-powered sub and a conventional submarine is that they're less detectable, they can stay offshore from port for longer, they can stay under longer, they're faster, the capability leap that they present is something that I've been certainly convinced of.
O’KEEFE: On the cost Prime Minister, what Australians are thinking is, can we afford it? And what do we need to either cut in spending or raise in taxes to be able to afford what is roughly a $10 billion annual cost over three decades?
PRIME MINISTER: The question here is can we afford to not do it? And the answer to that is no. We need to give ourselves the best capability. And it's like any other, if you think of it like any other product, if you go for an inferior product you don't want buyer's remorse. What you want to do is to make sure that we increase the capability of our defence force.
O’KEEFE: Stage three tax cuts, though, it seems like a pretty simple way to save $250 billion over 10 years, they can go a hell of a long way to paying for these subs?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, of course we don't have hypothecated taxes in in this country. Look, we don't resolve from the fact, and we made a decision recently on superannuation that will go towards the budget bottom line. We understand that there are real fiscal pressures. One of those is defence, another is the NDIS, another is Medicare and health with the ageing of the population, another is the increased interest payments based upon the trillion dollars of Liberal debt that we've inherited. So we know that those pressures are on.
O’KEEFE: What about a national defence levy? Because Howard introduced one when we went to East Timor with our troops, would we consider something like a national defence levy?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, we're not considering that. We will, of course, have to give consideration not just in this budget but future budgets as well, governments are going to have to make difficult decisions. And we've shown with this that we're prepared to make a difficult decision. What we’ve shown with the superannuation decision that we made is that we're prepared to make a difficult decision.
O’KEEFE: What does a difficult decision look like for Australians, Prime Minister?
PRIME MINISTER: It looks like the decision that we've had to make that will impact only one half of 1 per cent on superannuation.
O’KEEFE: So we can expect more of this sort of stuff?
PRIME MINISTER: No, we’ll make decisions based upon their merits as well. But when we got advice, again, that there were 17 Australians that had over $100 million in their super and someone had in excess of $400 million – and we know that that's not for people's retirement savings. That's not what superannuation is for. So the concession remains, but they get a less generous concession. So that was a decision that we put out there. It's received widespread support by everyone except for the Coalition in the Parliament. But we're prepared to make difficult decisions and there'll be some more that we'll have a conversation with the Australian people about. In the lead-up to the next election in particular, both government and opposition, they are going to have to lay out their priorities and what they see as fiscally responsible.
O’KEEFE: So any talk of raising taxes or significant cuts in spending, or how we live our lives, will be open for everyone to see before the next election?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's what we've been doing, having that conversation and we're having the open conversation about the cost of this policy. But as I said, when you actually take a step back and look at this, this is under 10 per cent of the defence budget, and it produces a quantum leap in the capacity of the Defence Force. And that, I think, signals that it's the right thing to do. It is an investment in our security and nothing is more important than looking after our national security. That's a precondition for a successful economy.
O’KEEFE: Prime Minister, just before I let you go, just on Penny Wong, just remind Keating that she's doing a good job will you?
PRIME MINISTER: She’s doing an awesome job.
O’KEEFE: Send him a text at his Potts Point unit and say ‘by the way Penny’s going alright’. Mind you, Bunnies or Roosters, what do you think?
PRIME MINISTER: The Bunnies, sure thing. Get on board. But your Saints are going okay.
O’KEEFE: One out of one. That's all you can ask.
PRIME MINISTER: One out of one, it doesn’t get better than that. But then against St George have a history of starting the season very, very well as you know.
O’KEEFE: In Hook we trust. Good on you, PM. Appreciate your time.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Chris.