Interview: Patricia Karvelas, RN Breakfast




PATRICIA KARVELAS: Andrew Hastie is the Shadow Defence Minister and joins me this morning. Andrew Hastie, welcome.

SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE, THE HON. ANDREW HASTIE MP: Good morning, Patricia. Good to be with you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Chinese experts have warned that Australia has officially put itself on Beijing's defence radar. Have we made ourselves a bigger target?

ANDREW HASTIE: I don't think so. Patricia. I think you hear a lot of disinformation, misinformation out of the People's Republic of China and the comments overnight are no different. China, after all, is undergoing the biggest peacetime military expansion since the Second World War. So it's a bit ironic for them to give us a lecture about a modest increase in our military power relative to theirs.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now, what sort of response are you expecting from China? There had been a real attempt to get us out of the deep freeze when it came to diplomatic relations, will this set us backwards as a result?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well look, I think it's really important that we maintain a good relationship with China and this is a question for the Foreign Minister who will be on your program shortly. But certainly, we don't want to create any issues with China, we just want to make sure that we will be able to defend ourselves in the future. It's really important that when we make diplomatic approaches, we do so in good faith but we also know that history has demonstrated that sometimes there is conflict and we want to be in the best possible position for Australia if indeed that ever happens. And the strategic forecasts going forward over the next decade is that we're going to see more disorder rather than order and this investment in the submarines sets us up to negotiate some of the challenges ahead.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So given we essentially, you know, there's a rotation of the subs and then we're obtaining off the shelf or secondhand subs from the US as we work towards our own capability, that obviously raises big questions about what might happen and how we might be implicated in military responses. Wouldn't Australia be obliged to make these submarines available to the US in the event of, for instance, military conflict with China over Taiwan?

ANDREW HASTIE: That's a great question and that would be for the government of the day. Certainly, this is a deepening of our relationship with the United States and the UK, there is no doubt about that at all. We're going to have, from 2027 for example, five US-UK submarines on forward rotations out of HMAS Stirling in Perth. So certainly this is a closer integration, a tighter weave with the US and the UK. Now, whether that has implications for some crisis or conflict in the future, that will be for a government of the day. But we need to be clear eyed about this and this is a deeper integration with those two countries.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, absolutely it's a deeper integration. So if there was, for instance, conflict and the US decided to be involved, how could we possibly take any different line?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well again, that's a question of statecraft for the government of the day and we don't deal in hypotheticals and -

PATRICIA KARVELAS: - Fair enough, but is there a certain inevitability about us being tied to any military action because of this new defence program? I mean we are deeply linked now.

ANDREW HASTIE: I don't believe anything is inevitable, Patricia. I think we always have agency and our task always, is to seek diplomatic solutions to be a good neighbour, to work with our partners in the region and to preserve the peace and security that we've enjoyed for the last 80-years in the Indo Pacific. So sure, we have invested in these submarines but that doesn't mean that we don't have agency. And so future Australian Governments, like the present government, like the government before it, will always be working towards peace and prosperity in our region.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now, of course, this plan began under the Morrison government. Scott Morrison spoke yesterday on 7:30 and it now has been executed, if you like, by this government, would you have done anything differently?

ANDREW HASTIE: It's a great question. I haven't been privy to the logic and the processes of the Submarine Task Force. That's been a deeply compartmented and protected Task Force and so I assume a lot of work has been done. We know a lot of work has been done by Jonathan Mead and his team and look, we are supportive. I want to make that very clear to your listeners that the Coalition supports the Albanese Government's move to acquire these submarines. I think this is an excellent and prudent decision. Now we do have questions as an Opposition, we have questions about the timing, about the sequencing of the acquisition of these submarines and, of course, the cost to our bottom line because this is a massive spend - $268 to $368 billion over the life of the project. It is going to require sacrifice and that's an important point. So we'll be holding them to account as you would expect us to in the best traditions of the Westminster system.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, let's go to cost. Peter Dutton has raised issues around not wanting to see any other cuts in Defence, why shouldn't there be other savings found in the Defence budget to pay for this?

ANDREW HASTIE: That's a good question and look, as the Assistant Defence Minister, I saw a lot of waste. There are always savings to be made. So we're not arguing that there should be no cuts, we just want to make sure that these are done in a considered way, if they are done, and we also want certainty. I went to Land Forces in Brisbane - a big exhibition - I was at the Avalon Airshow with the Minister for Defence only a few weeks ago. The defence industry in Australia wants certainty and they're waiting for the Defence Strategic Review to be handed down because they want to know which programs will be cut, they want to know which businesses will be affected and the Australian public needs to know as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so you do accept though, that there may need to be some cuts or whatever you want to call them, efficiencies, whatever polite word there might be, in Defence to pay for it?

ANDREW HASTIE: Look, Patricia, we deal with scarcity in every sphere of life. There are always unlimited wants and limited resources, so we have to make hard decisions, we can't have everything that we want. And so yes, there will be decisions made but we need to know sooner rather than later because there is no certainty. And of course, we want to see how this interacts with AUKUS. AUKUS should be nested within the Defence Strategic Review - it's not. It has been announced a month prior and we're going to see the Defence Strategic Review announced mid-April. So we do want clarity about the other programs because AUKUS has a ripple effect throughout the Defence portfolio.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you say hard decisions. When Peter Dutton spoke to 7:30, he talked about potential efficiencies in the NDIS. Do you think there needs to be savings, cuts, found across different departments? What would you identify?

ANDREW HASTIE: Look, I think there's always waste in government spending. Peter mentioned NDIS as an example, he was referring to having a conversation with the government about finding efficiencies across government because that's the reality that we face. We can't allow costs to balloon, we can't live beyond our means. Now, the NDIS is a really important program for vulnerable Australians and the Coalition has supported it from its inception, I want to make that very clear. But funding AUKUS will require sacrifices and I think the government needs to be upfront about how they're going to fund it.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, and you're saying the sacrifices should also come from Defence, as well, they should come from potentially everywhere. The government has also announced, as you know, changes to superannuation where people have to essentially pay more tax if they have more than $3 million in their accounts. Aren't these sensible ways, and modest ways, of reforming the budget to pay for things like this huge investment in defence?

ANDREW HASTIE: Sure, as you'd be aware, our position on super was that it was a point of principle. You don't punish people retrospectively for investment decisions that they have made. But certainly more broadly, we need to have an economic conversation about how we pay for the things that we all want and that includes across government, not just Defence. And this is the time to talk about these things, particularly with the eye watering cost of AUKUS over the next 30 years.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: It is eye watering and it does go to the budget sustainability question. So you think we need a broader conversation about budgets, sustainability and all of the settings?

ANDREW HASTIE: I think it's always good to look at how we can be more efficient in government and also to revisit priorities - what's essential for Australians. But certainly, I want to say this, Patricia, about AUKUS - it's going to be a massive boost economically as well. Sure, the submarines will meet the immediate strategic circumstances we find ourselves in, but it's going to create 20,000 jobs. 20,000 jobs. Young Australians will be cutting steel on submarines, we'll have scientists operating in advanced technology. There are huge opportunities across Australia but also for Australians to work abroad in Rhode Island, Connecticut in the US also in Barrow-in-Furness in the UK. So I'm really excited for young Australians. I think this is going to create immense opportunities and career paths that they hadn't imagined only five years ago.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just a final question on something different but certainly in your defence space. A Russian fighter jet has hit a US drone, this is obviously news breaking this morning. Richard Marles has said that Russia is not playing by the rules. Do you see this as a massive escalation in the conflict?

ANDREW HASTIE: I think it's priced in with Russia. They're an authoritarian regime, they've started an illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Thousands have died in the past year. They're belligerent, they've been conducting assassinations on UK soil, they've done invasions over the last decade. This is priced in. When we hear the news that a Russian fighter has flown into a US drone, it sort of seems normal sadly. But this is the new strategic disorder that we are facing, not just in Eastern Europe, but also in our region. And that's why we support the government in taking action to acquire these submarines for the Australian Navy going forward.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Andrew Hastie, thank you so much for joining us.

ANDREW HASTIE: Thank you, Patricia.