Press Conference with Minister Parly, Australia-France Defence Industry Symposium

24 Sep 2018 Transcipt


Christopher Pyne, Minister for Defence; and Florence Parly, French Minister for the Armed Forces press conference at the Australia-France Defence Industry Symposium.

24 September 2018

SUBJECTS: Australia-France defence industry relationship; Contract timelines; submarine project cost; operations in the South China Sea; SAS investigation; PNG APEC & Manus Wharf upgrade; Newspoll

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Thank you very much for joining us for the beginning, really, of the Australia-France Defence Industry Symposium. I’m Christopher Pyne, the Minister for Defence of Australia. And my counterpart, Florence Parly from France is the Minister for the Armed Forces. This is the minister’s first visit to Australia. Of course in the last couple of years as Defence Industry Minister, I’ve been to France on numerous occasions because we are beginning a whole new chapter in the Australia-France relationship. And I guess in some ways we have begun rather than beginning, we are a couple of years down the track for the establishment of the submarine project, the largest infrastructure project in Australia’s history when you add the Hunter-Class Frigates and the Offshore Patrol Vessels, it’s a $90 billion investment in shipbuilding and submarine building in Australia.

So, Florence is in Australia today, she’s been here for the weekend and will be leaving this evening. But today we have the opportunity to have this discussion this morning, open the Defence Industry Symposium where we have a few hundred, several hundred Australian companies being represented and then we’ll have a defence ministers’ meeting, a bilateral discussion about a number of the issues beyond submarine building that are binding Australia and France ever closer together. Australia’s relationship with France is very long-standing, over 200-years. But the relationship more recently has been invigorated by President Macron’s looking to the Pacific and the Indo-Pacific in particular, as France is a power in the South Pacific, and have priorities for our relationship – the India, France, Australia relationship which has real opportunities for growth; France in the South Pacific, Australia and France working together against terrorism in the Asian region as well, ensuring that the international rules-based order that we regard as a priority is strengthened through that relationship. So, there’s much to discuss and then Florence will return to France where no doubt she will get on with her most significant responsibilities.

So, they’re my opening remarks. I’m happy to ask the minister from France what she’d like to add to that.

FLORENCE PARLY: Thank you Mr Minister, Christopher Pyne, thank you. You’ve said a lot already, so I would like to share with you that yes, it is my first visit here in Australia, I’m extremely proud and happy to be there. And I would like to thank you, Minister, for your very warm hospitality.

So, yes we have a lot in common. We share the, first of all, common vision about the threats that surround us today. We are both democracies and we want to address the Indo-Pacific issues in the same way. As you said we have also a common memory and we are two days before we celebrate the first hundred anniversary of the end of World War I. And Australian soldiers were very brave and paid a heavy, heavy tribute for the end of the war.

So, yes we share a lot together and since 2016, since decision made by Australia to get a submarine capacity which will give her real regional superiority, our relationship have been enhanced even more. So, now we are today here to examine how we could implement, in practical terms, this true partnership between our two countries. And, of course, as France, we truly understand Australia’s wish to get industrial output from this huge program which will represent a huge investment from Australia.

So, that’s why we’re here today in this conference hall. I met – just before we start this press conference – some French companies who are here in Adelaide in order to try to identify relevant partners in Australia to create new companies, to create new jobs here in Australia and to make sure that the technology transfer which is attached to this Future Submarine Program works well.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Here, here. Thank you. So, any questions anybody might have?

QUESTION: With the Future Submarine Project, when will we see that agreement signed and why has there been a delay?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: There has not been a delay in the signing of the Strategic Partnering Agreement. The first part of the project is underway as part of a mobilisation contract which by its very name it describes exactly what it’s doing, which is mobilising the project. And that is in place and the work continues under the mobilisation contract, which was signed some time ago. The Strategic Partnering Agreement is really the agreement that covers the entire rest of the project, which is potentially a 40 to 50-year project. Therefore, it’s extremely important that it cover all the aspects of the project and that both sides are comfortable with signing it, which means it doesn’t really matter how long it takes to negotiate it, it has to be ripe when it’s signed. So there’s no delay in that agreement, we never set a deadline for the agreement being signed. Obviously, both France and Australia would like it to be signed sooner rather than later, and the visit of Minister Parly today gives us an opportunity - a punctuation mark as I’ve described it – where together, we can sit down this morning and talk about the Strategic Partnering Agreement. But I’m comfortable with where it’s at. Obviously, we don’t want it to drag on at great length, but it’s certainly is not behind schedule and the negotiations are ongoing.

QUESTION: Minister Pyne…

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Interrupts] [indistinct], Florence?

FLORENCE PARLY: No, maybe just one point. I’m sure you know that every previous steps have been achieved properly, that we welcomed in Cherbourg a group of 40 Australian engineers. So, things are really working well and as Minister said, we had no particular deadline but that the best- the most important thing is that we get a proper SPA because as he said, we will live with it for quite some years.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Long after I’m gone, I can tell you.

QUESTION: Minister Pyne, do you see that in the last couple of weeks since your rapid elevation to being the Defence Minister, that is going to- by its very nature, you being from South Australia, is going to leverage more for this state out of this contract?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, the national shipbuilding enterprise is a national plan and the Government a few years ago decided - I think quite courageously and made the right decision - that we would have two major shipbuilding facilities in Australia or hubs in Australia. For large platforms like submarines and frigates, that would be here at Osborne and for smaller platforms like offshore patrol vessels and the Pacific patrol boats that would be at Henderson in Western Australia. So, we are working as part of that plan, which is a $90 billion plus shipbuilding plan, to maximise the Australian defence industry content across the whole country. And that will certainly benefit and is benefiting South Australia already. The Naval Shipbuilding College is underway, training people here in South Australia and nationwide. Steven Marshall and the State Government are taking their responsibilities to provide the skilled workforce very seriously, and Steven will be here at 9 o’clock as part of the opening of the symposium because he takes this very seriously. As you know, there are officers and new signs popping up all across the city, of companies like Naval Group, Thales Australia, Safran, Airbus, all French companies as well as the expansion of Lockheed Martin, which are doing the combat system integration, of course, that’s popping up across the city. So, it is benefiting South Australia already and will continue to benefit South Australia.

In terms of new projects, universities are all taking the opportunity very seriously to expand their own research and development centres and innovation hubs, and that will have a benefit across the economy. But, there’s no doubt- and if you ask Steven Marshall, they will tell you that the defence industry focus here in South Australia has given an enormous boost to our local economy, but also the Australian economy. And we don’t see this as a South Australia project, it’s a national project at which South Australia is at the centre and we should be delighted about that as South Australians.

QUESTION: Minister, there’s a report out today that the actual cost when you factor in the combat systems and you factor in the maintenance, that the cost of the submarine project will be more like- more than $200 billion. Are those figures right or [indistinct]?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, there are a lot of figures that are bandied around in these big projects and depending on the particular expert and their particular leanings, they’re able to say it’s a blowout or it’s an underspend or come out with quite fanciful figures. I haven’t seen that particular report. I can tell you that the overall project is $50 billion in the acquisition of the 12 submarines. It’s the largest submarine project of its kind in the world, and we’re absolutely delighted that Naval Group is providing those submarines here in Australia. The active- the sustainment and maintenance of submarines is about that figure again, at least, and over many, many decades, I can’t tell you what the final numbers are going to be. And I think anyone who claims that they can is fanciful. But certainly, the sustainment and maintenance is at least as much as the acquisition of any project, so there's at least $100 billion of value in the submarine project and that’s probably the most conservative estimate.

QUESTION: Does the $50 billion include the combat systems or is it-

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Yes it does, yes it does, yes.

QUESTION: Minister. A question for both ministers here. If given the opportunity, would you both join with the US and other nations for a multi-flag operation sailing through international waters in the South China Sea?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I’ll let you go first if you like.

FLORENCE PARLY: Well, that’s a very good question and it’s also one of the common concerns we have together. So for us, we’ll not take side on this issue, but we want to make sure that the free maritime sailing right is assured and guaranteed so that’s why we sail several times a year. And because we probably- one of our topics for discussion – how we could together, better coordinate, what we’re doing in the South China Sea because we are very conscious that China is more and more receptive. So, France’s position is very clear in this site. We want to- that China sticks to the international rules, but we remain very open to dialogue.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: So, Australia already engages with France on exercises. Croix du Sud is the major French exercise in our region, and we take part in that. And we always welcome French engagement in our own exercises in the region. In terms of the South China Sea, both Australia and France share a common view, which is that the South China Sea is international waters and that we are entitled to navigate as we see fit, and through the norm practice of any country, navigating through the South China Sea. Australia navigates through the South China Sea regularly. We have, in recent times, increased our pace of navigations through the South China Sea in terms of multi-flag operations – it really depends on how you define that. There are already numerous ships navigating through the South China Sea that are in contact with each other, they’re aware of each other’s position that are from different countries. And we are looking forward to doing so with France in coming years in terms of a group working together in one particular formation that is multi-flagged. I wouldn’t comment on that at this particular point in time, but there are, depending on your definition, we reserve the right to operate in the South China Sea with other nations completely peacefully, and we don’t see any reason why any country should see that as a particular threat to their sovereignty.

QUESTION: Minister Parly, you mentioned in your opening comments about the threat to Australia, and I’ll assume a defence threat; do you include North Korea in that as well?

FLORENCE PARLY: The Korean issue is typically a threat not only for Australia, for the world itself. So yes, we have to take into account that a discussion has been started between the two Korea, and potentially it could have very positive output. But for the time being, we have to wait and see because they were [indistinct] very practical results, but we welcome this discussion that has started between the two Korea, and of course, between the United States and North Korea.

QUESTION: Minister Pyne, is it concerning a second letter’s been sent threatening members of the SAS against cooperating with the Defence Inspector General inquiry?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, the Government obviously supports the Inspector General’s inquiry into the rumours and allegations surrounding our operations in Afghanistan by the SAS. I'm not aware of the particulars of this second letter. Obviously, emotions run very high in these kinds of matters. But those involved in the SAS, which is our elite fighting force – which has suffered over 40 casualties in Afghanistan – it’s a very tight knit community with very strong emotions that run through it, and if such threatening letters are being sent, obviously that is not to be encouraged; it’s to be discouraged. It doesn't change the Inspector General's investigation, and I understand the police are engaged in trying to find the perpetrators of the threatening letters, and they should desist from doing so. But it won’t stop the investigation that’s ongoing.

QUESTION: Is the Government doing anything to make potential witnesses feel safe to come forward?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I assume the Inspector General is doing just that, and I don’t really feel that is any particular impediments to witnesses coming forward. They’re a pretty robust group of people, the SAS, and if they feel that they want to give evidence, then they should do so.

QUESTION: How soon will we see troops on rotation in PNG, and how many troops would there be?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: In which particular operation?

QUESTION: Just over- on Fiji, there were reports in the last week.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: In terms of Manus Island, or in terms of the APEC Summit?

QUESTION: Both, generally, but also in terms of- there is a talk of a naval base on Manus Island.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Okay, so in terms of APEC, there certainly will be a uniformed ADF personnel on the ground in Port Moresby and in the Port, of course, to help protect the leaders coming from across the Asia-Pacific Region for APEC later this year; and obviously we’re working very closely with the PNG Government and they’ve asked for our assistance in ensuring that APEC is safe and successful. So, there will be a significant number of ADF personnel taking part in that particular operation.

In terms of Manus Island, we always work with our South Pacific partners, in this case PNG, to prioritise their development opportunities, and Manus Island is one of those. So, we've invested in the port facilities, the wharfing facilities. As you know, it's our regional processing centre for asylum seekers. We’ve also invested heavily in building the town in the island, and its facilities. And just recently we announced another $5 million to build the- to strengthen the wharfing into the Port of Manus Island. Beyond that, we haven’t made any decisions or announcements about Australia’s engagement but we will continue to work with PNG to protect the safety of the South Pacific. We take our role in the South Pacific very seriously. We welcome France as a regional power out at New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and we’re delighted that President Macron visited Noumea when he was here in April, and we want to see that relationship continue to strengthen. The more nations who have similar values, that are engaged in the South Pacific, we see as being for the better.

QUESTION: Just one more topic, Mr Pyne. The results of the latest Australian Newspoll have Scott Morrison far ahead as preferred PM. What’s your reaction to that?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I don’t usually comment on polls, but maybe we’ll make this the last question. The reality is the Australian public don’t trust Bill Shorten. They think he’s a phony, so it must be very disappointing for the Labor Party that so briefly he was the preferred prime minister, I think it was one week in the last five years; it doesn't surprise me. The Morrison Government has been getting on with the job for the last six weeks and it’s quite clear that that is having an impact in the Australian community. What the Australian community want is stability and a strong government, and that’s being provided by Scott Morrison and his team. I expect that to continue to strengthen.

Okay, thank you very much.