SUBJECTS: Submarines; AUKUS; Scott Morrison’s treatment of the French; Christian Porter’s resignation from Cabinet.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Earlier, I spoke to the Deputy Labor Leader, Richard Marles. I was asking him whether Labor would have agreed to go nuclear on submarines, if the government had decided that back in 2016.
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: I think what we’ve got here is a complete failure on the part of the Morrison government to properly manage this program. And this is something that we’ve been saying, not just in the last week, we’ve been making this point over the last few years. That the way in which the government set up the program with the French, down selecting at the point that they did, meant that Australia was at that bargaining table with very little clout. And as a result, we were seeing shifts, or delays in the timing. I mean, the program had gone back by a decade in the past eight years, we’ve seen almost a doubling in the costs. I mean, that was a failure of management on the government’s part. And really what we hear now about, you know, circumstances have changed – it’s just not true.
CONNELL: But I am talking about the circumstance, in terms of the security situation. Again, would Labor have ever agreed to nuclear powered submarines in 2016?
MARLES: Well, the government are the ones who have been managing this over the last eight years. And, and we were making the point that we needed to have the very best technology available, but we needed to get a future submarine capability in the water quickly. I mean, when this was first envisaged, the submarines were imagined to come into play in the mid-2020s- that would only be a few years from now. But over the course of the last eight years, we’ve seen that drag out to, you know- the first of the future subs was going to be in the water in 2035. Under this new arrangement, it looks like we’re now 2040. So, I think after people get past the fact of looking at nuclear powered submarines, people will realize that what’s happened here is we are seeing delay after delay, billions of dollars wasted, thousands of jobs going to waste as well. A huge capability gap potentially opening up. And this represents in terms of the management- or the failure to manage the future submarine program – it is the biggest bungling of defence procurement in our nation’s history. And it really has given one of the biggest rises to a failure in Australia’s national security, ever. I mean, that is the magnitude of the failure of the Morrison government.
CONNELL: Okay, but the agreement of the nuclear submarines, that technology was always going to need bipartisan support because otherwise, Labor gets elected, the project collapses and you pick something new. Again, Labor was never going to support this in 2016, that is pretty clear. Nuclear submarines- so, that is the best option to take, it could only have been taken post that period, isn’t that accurate?
MARLES: No. Tom, the proposition is put to us last week, we made very clear-
CONNELL: You might have agreed to it in 2016?
MARLES: The proposition was put to us last week, we made very clear almost immediately that we accept that this is the best technology for our future submarine capability. Right. So, that’s what we have done. The issue here is the failure of the Morrison government- this Coalition government – in handling our submarines since they came to office in 2013. Let’s not forget that-
CONNELL: Okay, but I just want to put this question again, because it’s important; bipartisan support is crucial here-
MARLES: But Tom- we’ve given bipartisan support.
CONNELL: There is no way Labor would have agreed to this in 2016, would it? Or are you saying that you might have?
MARLES: Well, what I’m saying is that when the question was asked of us last week, we gave bipartisan support immediately. So, that’s the answer to the question.
CONNELL: But anyone asked about nuclear submarines in the past from Labor has indicated it wouldn’t be something the Labor Party would support, is that true?
MARLES: The government were not pursuing this. The government we’re not pursuing this in 2016. I mean, that – that is the issue.
CONNELL: That’s because it wasn’t realistic though because it would never get bipartisan support.
MARLES: It can’t be an issue in respect of Labor in 2016. The government was not pursuing this in 2016. The story-
CONNELL: So it should have looked into nuclear in 2016, is that what you are saying?
MARLES: What it should have done is properly handle the submarine program from day one. You know, instead, bear in mind, Tom, it was it was the Rudd government, which actually committed Australia to having 12 long range capable submarines going forward.
CONNELL: But didn’t make any progress beyond that though.
MARLES: Well, that’s not true. The process was started under Labor. But under Tony Abbott, there was an attempt to have this done by the Japanese. We then see, you know, the biggest procurement in Australia’s history tossed around the government party room, like it’s a bargaining chip in respect of a leadership contest. Then we see a rapid down selection-
MARLES: No, this is important- a rapid down selection to one supplier so that they can do a press conference before the 2016 election. I mean, it has been politics from day one from this government, which is why we find ourselves in the situation that we’re in now with billions of dollars wasted, thousands of jobs not going to happen, and eight precious years lost at a moment when we’re facing the most complex strategic circumstances that we have, since the end of the Second World War.
CONNELL: Okay, let me just focus on the France reaction for a moment. The deal always had gateways to go through, so that at any given point, the Morrison government could say, ‘this is not for us’, compensation would be paid to France. And yet, France has responded dramatically, even recalling its Ambassador from Australia and the US. Is that a reaction that is over the top?
MARLES: Well, I think it was very clear from last week, that a consequence of the government’s failure to handle this program properly is that it has done enormous damage to our relationship with France. I mean, we can argue the toss about France’s reaction, but at the end of the day-
CONNELL: Well, what’s your view on whether it is over the top?
MARLES: Well, the point I would make is that the government’s failure to handle this is what has initiated the situation here. At no point in last week’s decision, was there any suggestion by Scott Morrison that France had failed to fulfil any of its obligations under the contract. He made it very clear that France had done the right thing in respect of the contract. There is no question that the behaviour of this government has led to enormous damage done to our relationship with France. Now, you know, ultimately, we get to control our side of the equation when we’re talking about any relationship that we have with any country, France has reacted in the way that they have. But in circumstances where you know, that it was clear from the decision that was made last week, that there would be enormous damage done to the relationship with France. I think that speaks for itself.
CONNELL: Briefly, on Christian Porter; the situation he is in now, having stepped away from the ministry, what rule is he breaking for Labor to continue to pursue this?
MARLES: We have a situation where there is, it would appear up to a million dollars being donated, without any clear idea as to how the blind trust was set up in the first place, but more importantly, who that money is coming from. We don’t know whether, for example, those who have provided that money have business with the Commonwealth. We can have no way of knowing that, in circumstances where we don’t know who provided this money. I mean, Christian Porter either needs to be paying this money back or making it very clear to the Australian people who has-
CONNELL: But why is that? Is there a specific rule he is breaking?
MARLES: Well, I think it is absolutely clear that for a member of this government, that if you are going to be receiving money of that kind, you need to be declaring where the money is coming from, who has provided –
CONNELL: But is that a standard, or an expectation or is that a rule?
MARLES: Well, we’ve all got declarations that we need to fulfil, as members of parliament and he should be – but-
CONNELL: But he could make that declaration. Isn’t the point here, because sorry, we’re nearly out of time, isn’t the point that perhaps, you’re talking about a standard where maybe you need a new rule, if this is not breaking a rule?
MARLES: Well, if Christian Porter needs that explained to him, why it is obvious that for a member of the government, be they a Minister or not, to be making clear to the Australian people who is donating up to a million dollars so that we can have a sense of confidence about the way in which our government is operating, well then he’s living on another planet. I mean, that needs to be made absolutely clear. And that’s what should happen now.
CONNELL: Richard Marles, thanks for your time today.
MARLES: Thanks, Tom.