Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 17 September 2021
Hamish MacDonald: Simon Birmingham is Australia's finance minister and leader of the government in the Senate. Good morning to you, Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Hamish, it's good to be with you.
Hamish MacDonald: We've had some detail overnight about these new arrangements for US forces here. Peter Dutton says there'll be greater air cooperation, enhanced naval capability, US ordnance will be stored here. Are you as a government without parliamentary debate or even giving the public a chance to vote on it? Turning Australia into a military outpost of the United States?
Simon Birmingham: Certainly not Hamish. Our alliance, some 71 years long now, is a strong one. It's an enduring one. It's also one that enjoys bipartisan support, and it's an important alliance that has helped to protect and position Australia through many, many different circumstances. And the environment we now face in our region is a profoundly different one to what we've seen through much of Australia's history that through much of our history, we have been a long way away from the centres of strategic competition around the world. Now that centre of strategic competition is perhaps most profound in our own region across the Indo-Pacific, and we're seeing military modernisation occurring at unprecedented rates and capabilities in this region rapidly advancing and the technological edge required to ensure we keep balance and keep Australia well positioned is what we are investing in.
Hamish MacDonald: Okay, but, what exactly has Australia been committed to overnight? Are we going to see us intermediate range missiles based here? Could US nuclear armed subs be docking in Australian ports? What are we agreeing to?
Simon Birmingham: Hamish, the nature of future force posture with the United States will be outlined in terms of any changes announced carefully by the defence minister, the foreign minister and indeed the prime minister, where appropriate, over coming days and beyond that. But what we continue to do…
Hamish MacDonald: Doesn't the Australian public have a right to know?
Simon Birmingham: And Hamish, if there are any detailed changes to be announced, then then they will be announced and the Australian public will know indeed. That's what we have the Foreign Minister, the Defence Minister in the United States for at present. And of course, the Prime Minister, having announced the step up of the strategic partnership even further through the new trilateral security arrangement yesterday announced by President Biden, Prime Minister Johnson and our Prime Minister is a demonstration of the new heightened level of commitment and cooperation in sharing technology capability and skills between our nations.
Hamish MacDonald: So are you saying that there is nothing to announce? I'm just trying to understand what all the fanfare is about overnight if you're saying there's nothing of substance? Well, what's the point of all of this?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Hamish, the very significant announcements yesterday made by the Prime Minister and the President and Prime Minister Johnson is, of course, the establishment of this new trilateral security partnership and the first step of that being the sharing of knowledge to enable Australia to build here in Australia in Adelaide, our own fleet of nuclear powered submarines. It also involves further cooperation in terms of cyber security capabilities and capabilities in other areas of defence cooperation, such as missile capabilities that we will be enhancing as part of Australia's force arrangements in the years to come.
Hamish MacDonald: Okay, how much is it going to cost to build these nuclear powered subs?
Simon Birmingham: Finalisation of those costs is something that will be assessed through the 12 to 18 month process we're now embarking on with the UK and the US. The prime minister has acknowledged that it will likely cost more than what we had assessed for the conventionally powered submarines. That's because we are building bigger submarines
Hamish MacDonald: So, more than $90 billion.
Simon Birmingham: That's right. That's because these are bigger submarines, more technologically sophisticated submarines. But crucially, we are buying submarines with far greater capability that meet our needs in our region able to operate at stealth with stealth for longer duration, with greater manoeuvrability, greater speed and therefore able to operate across different parts of the region that we need them to, to undertake the jobs we need them to in the decades to come. But we wouldn't be able to rely upon conventional submarines to do.
Hamish MacDonald: But fewer of them. We were going to get 12 French subs. We're going to pay more to get less.
Simon Birmingham: We're going to get at least eight of the nuclear powered submarines. But with that increased capability, we will be able to do so much more than all of the advice indicates would have been possible with conventional submarines once we hit the 2040's and beyond.
Hamish MacDonald: How much is it going to cost us to get out of the French submarine deal? We'd already spent about $2 billion,
Simon Birmingham: Around $2.4 billion committed to date on that programme. That shouldn't all be seen as lost sunk costs, that investment provides Australia with greater skills now, greater capabilities now, and some infrastructure that may be beneficial in proceeding with this new nuclear powered submarine capability. Frankly, we had to make the decision now. It was a gateway, checkpoint.
Hamish MacDonald: Minister, I'm going to nudge you, the question was what it's going to cost us to get out. How much is it going to cost us to get out of the French deal?
Simon Birmingham: That will be a subject of commercial negotiations over the coming few days. We've been quite upfront about what has been spent to date. But over the next few days and weeks, we'll obviously have to work through with Naval Group and other commercial partners to negotiate the out clauses of those contracts. And those figures will all be made public just as what's been spent to date. But it's important to acknowledge that the capabilities we now start with on this venture to achieve nuclear powered submarines are enhanced because of the work that's been undertaken over the last five years.
Hamish MacDonald: Minister, we don't know how much it's going to cost to get out of the French deal. We don't know how much it's going to cost to get the new US subs. We don't know when they'll be delivered. There's a lot of detail missing on this, isn't there?
Simon Birmingham: There's a lot of work to be done in a relatively short period of time, that is true Hamish and that's why it's crucial we now move on with that at pace. But it would have been far more irresponsible based on the advice we've received to push on with spending another $90 billion on building a fleet of new, conventionally powered submarines that although they would have been the best of their type in the world, they would not have been able to do the types of things that we ideally and optimally need submarines to be doing in the decades to come. This is a decision not about the next couple of years. It's a decision about the next few decades and beyond. And that's why we've taken it, taken it now and recognising that in doing so, Australia will be better placed to position our country as part of regional and global security.
Hamish MacDonald: Simon Birmingham In other news, the prime minister has sought advice from his department on whether Christian Porter breached ministerial standards by using money from a blind trust to
help cover legal costs in his defamation case against the ABC and journalist Louise Milligan. Having accepted this money, how can he possibly stay in cabinet?
Simon Birmingham: Well the prime minister said that he takes this matter very seriously. He's indicated he's discussed it with the minister and that he's seeking advice on implications related to the ministerial standards to ensure that they are complied with. And that's as it should be.
Hamish MacDonald: When did you find out about this?
Simon Birmingham: I only know what has been reported publicly, Hamish.
Hamish MacDonald: Yes. But when did you find out?
Simon Birmingham: Well, when it was reported publicly, Hamish,
Hamish MacDonald: You read about it in the press, did you?
Simon Birmingham: Yes.
Hamish MacDonald: Would you have accepted money from a blind trust?
Simon Birmingham: I've never had cause to do so, but I simply refer you to the prime minister's statement on the matter.
Hamish MacDonald: I mean, you've been notably coy in responding to these questions. Obviously, in your position as Minister of Finance and Leader of the Government in the Senate, you have some responsibility for these areas in particular standards. Is it your view that Christian Porter has acted in accordance with the expectations of ministers?
Simon Birmingham: I'm not going to offer a personal opinion, Hamish. The right thing is what the Prime Minister is doing, which is seeking advice in relation to adherence to the ministerial code. Each of us should do so to the letter and the spirit.
Hamish MacDonald: And do you think Christian Porter has done that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said before, I'm not going to offer a personal opinion. The right thing is what the Prime Minister is doing in getting that advice and ensuring that adherence.
Hamish MacDonald: Simon Birmingham, always appreciate your time. Thank you very much.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Hamish. My pleasure.