Parliamentary Speech: AUKUS

I thank the minister for his statement. Let me begin where he ended, in highlighting the uplift in capability that our future conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines will give the Royal Australian Navy. The Virginia class submarines and our future SSN AUKUS, complete with the same vertical missile system, combat system, torpedos and sealed reactor, will give us a formidable capability edge that will protect not only Australia but also our neighbours who seek a secure, peaceful and prosperous future.

It is true that we are a trading nation. Our prosperity is tied to the oceans, and our sea lanes and lines of communication must be protected, and any potential adversaries must be deterred. It's a law of the universe that deterrence only works when your adversaries fear your counterpunch, and the vertical launch missile system will give pause to those who contemplate breaching the peace.

The Virginia class submarine operating clandestinely and undetected can launch a salvo of 16 Tomahawk missiles simultaneously and ring someone's bell out beyond 2,000 kilometres. That fact alone will change the risk calculus for a potential adversary. It will keep them off balance, guessing and wondering about the wisdom of breaching the peace. This capability will induce a cold sweat on the bridge of a hostile naval vessel threatening our security, and that is a good thing because it will help preserve and uphold the peace in our region.

The past year has shown us why deterrence matters. Russia's unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine reminds us that we need to be vigilant and that we need to invest in our security and that of our neighbours. Our Ukrainian friends have shown us why a powerful counterpunch is so important, and we are heeding their lesson with the acquisition of conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarines.

Before I move on, I want to say something about the special operations capability in our future nuclear submarines. The Virginia class and SSN-AUKUS will give a massive lift to our force projection for our special operations capability. Not only will the Virginia class submarines be able to accommodate a special operations element for extended periods of time, but the nine-man lockout capability will also provide government with clandestine insertion and extraction options if the need arises. We don't have this capability at the moment. In my previous career, I was an assault swimmer at the SASR and I have conducted multiswimmer release from a Collins class submarine during training. It is a makeshift and risky task, swimming out of a submarine casing at four to six metres of depth from an underway boat. Not only that, but the Collins has to snort prior to conducting the multiswimmer release. That of course poses issues for the signature management of the submarine, which is why we are transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy on our submarines.

The Virginia class submarine resolves the special operations insertion and extraction challenge, and I'm excited about this step up in capability. Indeed, the AUKUS special operations capability will complement the over $250 million investment into Campbell Barracks made by the former coalition government, including the upgrade of the operations centre into one of the biggest top-secret facilities in this country. I also think, in the wake of the turbulent past few years, post Brereton, it's important that the SASR has a clear sense of purpose and mission, and this emerging water operations capability, which will be accelerated by the UK-US forward rotation from 2027 at HMAS Stirling, will certainly bring that purpose and mission.

The minister has made a comprehensive speech covering the details of the AUKUS announcement of last week. I won't traverse the same terrain, for the benefit of the House, but I will restate what the opposition leader said last week: we support AUKUS, come hell or high water, on the coalition benches. We are proud of our role in AUKUS and the way we negotiated it with the Biden administration and the Johnston government back in 2021. AUKUS is a truly historic achievement. It was only possible because we restored defence spending to two per cent of GDP and rebuilt our sovereign shipbuilding capability. This in turn rebuilt the confidence of our allies that we were a partner who takes defence seriously and who could be trusted with the sensitive nuclear technology transfer that is at the heart of AUKUS.

We will work with the government to make sure that we hit the crucial milestones, that we are ready to receive the forward rotation in 2027, and that we are sovereign ready, next decade, to own, operate, maintain and regulate a reactor as we receive our Virginia class submarine in 2033. But we are in opposition and we do have questions about AUKUS, especially how it will be funded. The Deputy Prime Minister has covered a lot of detail in his remarks today, but he has not mentioned the defence budget. This will be the largest capability acquisition that Australia has embarked on, but the Deputy Prime Minister has not addressed the cost of the project. I'm calling on the Albanese government to have a frank and honest conversation with Australians about the significant investment this decision represents to the national budget and defence spending. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, there is a cost to preserving peace, and the government should be honest about that. It is vitally important that the Australian people understand this and that we build trust with them on this journey, from a bipartisan perspective. Governments will change over the life of this project. We need to build financial continuity so that AUKUS will survive the political cycles of our democratic system.

It's not credible for the Labor government to say that there is no net impact on the budget, even over the forward estimates. The government has announced that $9 billion will be spent on progressing AUKUS over the next four years. They claim to be spending up to $6 billion over the next four years on Australian industry and workforce to support AUKUS. It's a good headline, but we need detail. Eight billion dollars has been announced in the deal for infrastructure in my home state of Western Australia, but in truth only $1 billion of that will be seen by 2027, when Submarine Rotational Force West will commence. It will need much more investment to realise the transition of HMAS Stirling from a conventional submarine base to a nuclear one.

We are also concerned about to opportunity costs in our defence capability. What capabilities are being cut by $3 billion from the existing Defence Integrated Investment Program to offset the AUKUS investments? Who is going to bear the brunt of these costs? These questions need to be answered. Cancellation of defence projects will result in lost regional spending, lost jobs and lost investment for defence industry. There are always tough decisions for government in managing the defence budget. Scarcity is a problem we all deal with and we cannot avoid. But the Deputy Prime Minister needs to be clear about how he will fund the $34 billion needed in addition to the existing $24 billion provisioned for a submarine program over the next 10 years to deliver AUKUS. Will the Albanese government cannibalise the Army or Air Force or Navy or ASD to pay for AUKUS? These are vital questions. We need answers. Labor have committed to a major undertaking, taking the next step in our AUKUS agreement, and they need to explain to Australians how they'll pay for it.

Finally, a few words about unity and AUKUS. This program does have significant risks. We have our own domestic challenges. There are political, industry and workforce risks. Then there are defence delays—all too common now, as the Productivity Commission outlined. We also have the challenge of working alongside two other countries, the US and the UK—both robust democracies with their own domestic political issues to deal with. The United States is critical to AUKUS and the delivery of our submarines. Everyone in this House will need to work on our relationship with the US Congress—everyone. To everyone, each one of us: at every opportunity, when you have the opportunity to speak to a US congressman or senator, you need to be closing on AUKUS with our American colleagues, because our Virginia-class submarines are still pending congressional approval. We need to maintain a very tight weave with our American friends. Our strategic adversaries know this and will seek to undermine this goodwill and this relationship, and we will need to act in the national interest and maintain good relations with the US regardless of political affiliation or government. This project depends upon it. By the way, I haven't even touched upon pillar 2 of AUKUS, with the export controls that need to be negotiated to realise its full potential.

In closing—and noting the kids up there; welcome to parliament!—this is a multidecade, multigenerational, nation-building task. You kids will probably have jobs in AUKUS in the next 15 to 20 years; that's exciting! We look forward to working with this government on a bipartisan basis to make it happen.