SUBJECTS: Passing of Olivia Newton-John; Taiwan; Australia’s defence capability; Voice to Parliament.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Australia is calling for calm as tensions in the Taiwan Strait continue to escalate following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last week. China has stepped up live-fire military exercises, including anti-submarine drills, which have disrupted sea and air traffic for days and have been described by the Taiwanese military as a blockade.

Richard Marles is currently the Acting Prime Minister and, of course, usually the Deputy Prime Minister, and he’s the Defence Minister, and he joins us this morning. Richard Marles, welcome.


KARVELAS: I’m well. I just firstly want to get your reflections on the death of singer, actress and icon Olivia Newton-John. This is obviously huge news internationally. She’s one of our biggest stars. This is a really sad day for Australia.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: It is a really sad day for Australia. And I think for people of my generation who grew up with Grease it’s one of these moments where you feel like an era has come to an end and the world is a little emptier. But, you know, we all grew up watching Olivia Newton-John and it’s hard to imagine that she’s no longer with us.

KARVELAS: Yeah, it certainly is. Look, let’s turn to the big international issue that’s dominating and certainly in our region, turning to China. China will extend its military drills around Taiwan by sending fighter aircraft to simulate air-to-ship strikes and conduct anti-submarine drills. How significant an escalation is this?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, you know, we are watching China engage in these exercises, and I think what underpins all of this, of course, is that China has engaged in the biggest military build-up that we’ve seen since the end of the Second World War, and that’s the fundamental fact which shapes the strategic circumstances of the region and obviously is a huge part of the strategic circumstances that we face as a nation. We have been calling for calm, and what we need to be seeing from everyone is that we have a return to normal, peaceful behaviour and that we get back to a sense of normality around the Taiwan Strait. And obviously, you know, we make that call today. And we would much prefer that we are seeing an end to these exercises and a return to calm and normal.

KARVELAS: Is China rehearsing a militarily complex blockade and possible attack on Taiwan?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think China’s obviously – this is a demonstration of its capability and it’s a demonstration of its force, and that is significant. What we need, though, to see now is a return to calm. And I think that’s what everyone obviously in the region wants. To be honest, I mean, that’s what everyone in the world wants.

KARVELAS: You say it’s a demonstration of its capability and force. How alarmed are you by that demonstration? You’re also the Defence Minister. We’ve got a looming capability gap. It must be quite alarming given what we’re seeing play out here?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ve made this point a lot actually since the election. We’re aware of China’s capability, whether it be demonstrating it now or not. I mean, we’re completely aware of the military build-up that China has engaged in. And that build-up has not been done in a way which is transparent. It’s not been done in a way which gives any sense of reassurance to its neighbours in the region. And it’s of enormous concern.

And, as I said, it is the single biggest fact which shapes the strategic environment of our region, arguably the world. It’s certainly one of the key facts in shaping Australia’s strategic circumstances. And it’s why we need to make sure that we are building a Defence Force which is as capable as possible, which is as potent as possible, so that we can keep Australians safe.

KARVELAS: The Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, who’s the previous Defence Minister, of course, says he’s pleased Nancy Pelosi visited because China’s reaction is completely over the top. What do you make of Peter Dutton saying he’s pleased that Nancy Pelosi visited?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s a matter for Peter to make those observations –

KARVELAS: But that’s not view? You’re not pleased she visited?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Nancy Pelosi’s visit is really a matter for the United States and it’s a matter between the United States and Taiwan. The point we’ve been making is what we want to see is calm, and what underpins our position is a view that we do not want to see any unilateral changes to the status quo on either side of the Taiwan Strait. That’s how we maintain peace and calm in the Taiwan Strait and in the region. The Leader of the Opposition is obviously entitled to make whatever comments he makes –

KARVELAS: But is it a break with bipartisan policy when he says that?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: As I say, I think it’s a matter for him. Our view is that Nancy Pelosi’s visit is really a matter between the United States and Taiwan. And I wouldn’t make any further comment than that.

KARVELAS: You don’t support changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, but is that what the PRC is doing?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, what we would be calling on everyone to do is not to change the –

KARVELAS: But is that what China’s doing?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not about to speculate on that. I mean, what’s really important is that we do not see unilateral changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. The evolution of the situation across the Taiwan Strait in our view ought to be the result of peaceful dialogue. And it’s really important that we do not see unilateral changes to that status quo. That becomes a matter which would then be quite destabilising.

KARVELAS: Does what we’re seeing in the Taiwan Strait emphasise the urgency of Australia lifting our military capability? Is this now a top priority for the Budget?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, making sure that we have the most potent Defence Force that we can have is absolutely a top priority for the government. There’s no doubt about that. And that really is a reflection of the difficulty of the strategic circumstances that we face, and we talk about that a lot. As I say, I think the Chinese military build-up is a key part of that. People can make their own observations about what we’ve seen in the last few days and how that’s an expression of that. But we need to be making sure that we have the most potent Defence Force that we can have to keep Australians safe. That’s why we are doing the Defence Strategic Review. That’s why we’ve added a whole lot of urgency to the process that’s being undertaken with the United States and the United Kingdom in respect of what is ultimately the future submarine that we run with so that we can look not just at what the platform is but how quickly we can get it. And if there is a capability gap – and we’re obviously concerned about that – making sure that there are answers to how we plug that gap.

So, we are very focused on making sure that we have an evolving capability for our Defence Force, that it’s as potent as it can be. And the point of that is to build Australia’s strategic space in the world but obviously fundamentally to keep Australians safe.

KARVELAS: Richard Marles, you’ve said that the interim submarines to fill our capability gap could be bought off the shelf and built overseas. Is that the only way we can get something quickly enough to meet our needs?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s a sort of – that’s more than what I’ve said, to be frank. What I’ve said is that our mind is open about whatever possibilities there are to plugging the gap. And I wouldn’t want to raise expectations on what –

KARVELAS: But your priority isn’t on local building if our needs – is that right, if our needs demand something else?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, I think people are writing in a lot to what I’ve said. All I’ve said is that we need to have an open mind about whatever needs to be done in terms of filling whatever capability gap arises. And we don’t know exactly the extent of that because the first thing we need to understand is how soon we can acquire the next generation of nuclear-propelled submarines. And so the only point I’ve made is that we need to be open minded about how we plug that capability gap. But what we must do is plug it. It is really important that we have an evolving submarine capability from this day in 2022 through until whenever the first of the nuclear-propelled submarines comes in the water. And the situation that we were left by the former government really is that that date was some time in the 2040s. Now, we’re hoping to bring that date forward and are looking at a range of options which can see that occur.

I would also, though, just make the point that it is going to be essential for us in terms of that future submarine capability to develop the ability to build the submarines in Australia. We need to be adding to the US‑UK‑Australia industrial base if we want these capabilities to come on sooner rather than later. So, there is going to be a very significant industrial capability developed in Australia.

KARVELAS: Just on another issue before I let you go, you’re Acting Prime Minister and your Government is leaning in very much to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and delivering on this. The Greens have said they will pursue a treaty with Indigenous Australians. They want the government to pursue that treaty and truth-telling commission in exchange for backing a Voice to Parliament. Do you think that’s the sort of deal that you could make with the Greens?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We are focused on the Voice, and we are focused on the referendum in respect of that. That is the commitment that we have made all along. And that is what we will pursue. And it’s not –

KARVELAS: But the Uluru Statement from the Heart has three elements. It’s not just about a Voice – it’s treaty, truth-telling, it’s all part of it. They obviously want it all to start. Are you willing to begin it all?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We are focusing on the Voice. And that was the commitment that the Prime Minister made in his speech – fantastic speech – at Garma. And that is the path that we are walking down. It’s really important that we walk down a path where we are able to achieve success here. We believe we can do that in terms of a referendum around putting in place the Voice. That’s the best advice we’ve received from Indigenous Australia but also Linda Burney, Pat Dodson and others within our caucus who are talking to us about how best to walk down this path. Achieving the Voice is our focus, and that’s what we will be doing.

KARVELAS: There’s a new Guardian Essential poll out today. A majority of Australians support the Voice, but really interestingly, a majority of respondents also haven’t heard very much about it. How much education are you going to have to get involved with, given so many people say they don’t know much about this?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, I think that’s a fair observation. And we’re very mindful that there needs to be a significant campaign, a whole lot of education around this in the lead-up to whenever the referendum will occur. But we also do believe that the sentiment is there to make this change. And we really feel that in having the proper campaign out there making the community aware of what we’re seeking to do that this can be a really uplifting moment for the nation, a moment where we really do take a step forward in the growth of our nation. And this may be one of the most profound steps that we take in this term of government – indeed, in this Government. So, we are very committed to this. There does need to be a public campaign, and we will be committing to that. But we think this can be a really huge moment for the country.

KARVELAS: Richard Marles, many thanks for joining us this morning.



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