Interview: Kieran Gilbert




KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me is the Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie. Andrew Hastie, thanks for your time. You heard the Trade Minister, he's still hopeful that his visit to Beijing will happen, that their ongoing talks, the thaw in that relationship will continue. What's your sense of it? Do you think AUKUS will derail all of that?

SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE, THE HON. ANDREW HASTIE MP: Well, I first of all wish the Minister for Trade well, as we all do as Australians. Trade is a really important part of our economy and we want as big a market as possible throughout Asia, which includes China. Now, of course, we've seen the comments that the Chinese government have made in response to AUKUS over the past week, so I think I’d temper any enthusiasm with realism because I don't think the relationship is at its best at the moment and I think AUKUS is going to make it difficult for them to get back into a place where they want to go. So let's wait and see is what I'd say. But I'd hesitate to make it a partisan point as Labor have recently. There are things that are beyond our control. We've been a good neighbour into the region, particularly under the Morrison government and I think it's unwise to make partisan points about the way other countries respond to important decisions that we've taken in the national interest.

KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s get to that very, very important decision, which has culminated in this last week in terms of the formal announcement of the pathway for our submarines. What do you say to the critique that this makes us a bigger target if push comes to shove with China?

ANDREW HASTIE: I just think it doesn't engage with the reality of the region. We are a trading nation, a lot of our prosperity is born across the seas, those lines of communication and those lines of trade need to be protected and preserved. We are experiencing a change in our strategic situation here in the Indo Pacific region - China's undergoing the biggest peacetime militarisation since the Second World War and we have to respond to that. We actually want to contribute to the regional balance of power and by acquiring nuclear submarines, we'll be a force for good, we'll be able to preserve our own sovereignty and we'll also contribute to the preservation of our neighbours sovereignty as well. And that's why we've invested in AUKUS, that's why we're supporting the Albanese government in their decision. But we will be an opposition, we will ask questions about timing, sequence, and budget of course.

KIERAN GILBERT: I want to drill into that with you in a moment and look how you’ll address the Opposition approach to all of that. But just getting back to that thing about Australia being a target, does that critique also overlook the fact that we've already been a huge ally of the United States for many decades and ignore facilities like Pine Gap, for example?

ANDREW HASTIE: We've been an ally for more than 100 years. We've fought alongside the US in a number of wars and we do host very significant capabilities - you mentioned Pine Gap, there are others as well. We're about to embark on a huge investment into Western Australia at Fleet Base West, or HMAS Stirling, so that we’ll have a forward rotation of four US submarines and one UK submarine from 2027. Again, those who say that just increases the risk of us being attacked or targeted is foolish. We've already experienced some pretty tough treatment over the last few years - economic coercion, attempts to coerce us strategically - we need to be able to demonstrate that we can stand up for ourselves and acquiring nuclear submarines, one of the most potent capabilities a modern military can have, will definitely make us stronger in the future.

KIERAN GILBERT: Does it though, tie us into any US actions in our region, whether it be Taiwan or elsewhere, does it tie us into what they do because our capability is so tied in at every level, and now with this massive project with the submarines?

ANDREW HASTIE: Kieran, I think when we have our eight submarines, they'll all be Australian flags that are running those, they won't be under the operational control of the US or the UK. Indeed, the Virginia class submarines will start to be delivered in 2033, they will be under the Australian flag. So we'll always have our sovereignty and we'll always have agency. Any decision to commit Australians to war in the future is a decision for government and so I'm not going to get into hypotheticals, but I will say that we always have agency, we always have options and any government into the future, whether they be Labor, Coalition or what have you, will always be making decisions in the best interest of Australian people. Sure, were integrated, we'll be integrated more closely with the US and the UK, but that's a good thing - we already are through Five Eyes, we already have a very deep relationship in an intelligence sense, but also in an operational sense.

KIERAN GILBERT: You've discussed the need to make some difficult decisions facing this huge cost ahead, do you think that there needs to be an emphasis more on the sea via the subs and that sort of thing, and say less on a land war prospect like the tanks? Should the tanks go as part of our efforts to try and save some money in Defence?

ANDREW HASTIE: It's a great question, Kieran. As we know, there's $3 billion worth of offsets. We do have questions around the budget, about the projected cost of this project out to $360 billion dollars over 30 years, but we also have questions about what cuts are being made within Defence to pay for this. We know that there are a number of projects that are being reviewed through the Defence Strategic Review, and it's our view that AUKUS should be nested within the Defence Strategic Review. That's the shaping document and that explains some of the decisions that are going to come because of AUKUS and the delay is a month long or so before we find out. But certainly, we don't want to see any capability in Defence cannibalised. It's important that we have a balanced Force so we have options both in the air and the land, but importantly, the sea as well. So let's wait and see. But we'll be holding a microscope over their plans and making sure they're held to account because the defence industry, particularly Australian defence industry, needs certainty and that's what we'll be fighting for over the coming weeks.

KIERAN GILBERT: And you've said this morning that we can't allow the Defence Force to be cannibalised, it was a similar statement from Peter Dutton last week. He warns of that option, or that outcome, as well. But you have said as a former Assistant Minister for Defence, that there is waste there, there is waste to be detected. So there are savings available within Defence?

ANDREW HASTIE: Look, Kieran, yes. There is always waste in every government department, particularly in Defence. Defence doesn't have a great record of delivering things on time and that's why we've got to really work together to deliver AUKUS. This is a nation building task that will span generations, it will span governments, it will span Parliaments. It's so important that we work together to get this done. That's why we need exceptional leadership because leaders will have to drive this whole process. We can't afford for people in government departments to be sitting on their hands, to be risk averse, to be wasting time and money. We really need a very, very forensic process going forward about how every dollar is spent. And that's why I've asked Richard Marles, I wrote to him in November, I made my case again last week publicly, that we need something like a Joint Committee for Intelligence and Security for AUKUS. This needs to be done in a very thorough way and the best way to do that would be to form a statutory committee with authority to look at AUKUS in detail to make sure the Department of Defence is moving at best speed to make this happen and keeps this train on the tracks. It's really important.

KIERAN GILBERT: Has there been any response from the Deputy Prime Minister on that offer?

ANDREW HASTIE: I've had private conversations and I'm not going to reveal the substance of those except to say that the Minister for Defence appreciates the need for us to work together on this. It doesn't matter who's in government, we need to work together. In fact, one of the great risks for AUKUS going forward is sort of a purist, activist politics that has sort of defined a lot of our smaller parties. The parties of government really need to work together to make this happen because there are a lot of risks and there are a lot of variables over the next decade and beyond and we need to minimise those risks.

KIERAN GILBERT: Would it reduce your capacity to hold the government to account on AUKUS if you were part of that committee?

ANDREW HASTIE: I don't think so at all, there would still be an estimates process but there's some conversations that we need to have behind closed doors to preserve the national interest. For example, in 2018 when we passed the Espionage and Foreign Interference laws, that was a very sensitive time, we had some very robust discussions behind closed doors and then when we stepped out into the Parliament with an agreed position, we were able to get things done. So I think there is scope for a committee like this and it's important that Parliament adapts - the rest of the country is going to have to adapt, industry will have to adapt, the private sector will have to adapt, the education system will have to adapt - only one university now offers a nuclear engineering program - the Parliament too has to adapt and modernise for this task ahead.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, it certainly makes a lot of sense. It's worked effectively in that Joint Security and Intelligence space, it is the most respected committee and influential committee in the Parliament, so that does make sense. You mentioned the risks inherent in all of this, though, I asked President Biden at AUKUS, at the announcement, whether the deal can survive another isolationist President, he said 'yes', are you as confident?

ANDREW HASTIE: I am confident that it can because of course, AUKUS was driven from the bottom up. This was the great wisdom in Scott Morrison's approach - not seeking a President to Prime Minister deal, but rather to work through the institution so that it would survive the turbulence of politics. So I think it's really important that we continue to work with the Congress, with the Senate and of course, the White House. And the task for me and other MPs across the Parliament will be to make sure we maintain those relationships with our United States and UK partners and as I've said to young Australians over the last week, you need to start learning about places like Barrow-in-Furness, Connecticut and Rhode Island because they're the three industrial hubs that we're going to be working closely with. Parliament is going to be working closely with our parliamentary and congressional partners, industry is going to be working with those industrial hubs in the UK and the US.

KIERAN GILBERT: And finally, I was interested by Kim Beazley, the former Defence Minister's statement this week where he says that this capability that the US has is so far ahead of other nations, including China. He said, quote, "I don't think China's got a snowball's chance in hell of catching up with them. It's an area of American capability that keeps advancing and China is miles behind." Do you agree with his very positive analysis of our new capability or capability to arrive on our shores over the coming years?

ANDREW HASTIE: I think Kim is onto something there. One of the great things about open democracies and open markets is the innovation and creativity and that's something that's unrivalled with the United States and the UK. I'm ambitious for Australia, I think we have that same potential here and so whether it's the Virginia class submarines, which are world leading submarines, or the SSN AUKUS, that we're going to co-design and co-build with the US and the UK, I'm confident we can create world leading submarines and build them right here in Australia. So yes, I do think the US has an edge, it's important they maintain that edge and by working through AUKUS, we can build the net size of the UK and US industrial bases as well as our own and make that contribution to regional security going forward.

KIERAN GILBERT: Shadow Defence Minister, Andrew Hastie, appreciate your time. Thank you.

ANDREW HASTIE: A pleasure, Kieran. Thank you.