RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly
Interview with Fran Kelly on Radio National Breakfast.
02 October 2018
SUBJECTS: Earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi; Minister Pyne’s trip to Afghanistan; Submarine contracts.
FRAN KELLY: Well, some more worrying signs for the plan to build 12 new submarines in Adelaide, with a call this morning from four South Australian senators for the federal government to cast off the French company which won the contract to oversee the project two-years ago. The deal with France’s Naval Group aimed to convert a nuclear powered sub design into a conventional boat that would give Australia regional superiority and replace the ageing Collins-class fleet of six. But key contracts still haven’t been signed by the government and the French company, and time is ticking. Christopher Pyne is the new Defence Minister, he’s just returned from a visit to Australian troops in Afghanistan.
Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good morning, Fran. It’s nice to be with you again.
FRAN KELLY: I’ll come to the submarine contract in a moment. But first the devastation in Sulawesi following the earthquake and tsunami that hit Palu on Friday night. The Australian government has offered assistance in form of military help. Has that offer been accepted by the Indonesian government, are there naval ships or what kind of assistance is on its way?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, Fran, I reached out to my counterpart in Indonesia, I know that Marise Payne and the government has, in general, as well. My understanding is the Indonesians are assessing what support that they might require and we stand ready to assist them once they let us know exactly what they need. So, the offer is there, they’re well aware of it, they haven’t rejected it, they’re just making their own assessment about what they might need, and then they’ll come to us and I’m sure that we will be assisting in the, as soon as possible.
FRAN KELLY: Would naval support be part of that and are we getting some ships in the area just in case?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We have platforms ready to sail to Sulawesi, and of course Hercules aircraft and C-17s and other different planes that could be made available. And we have significant capabilities in terms of forward health outcomes but it would be wise for us to wait for what the Indonesians want us to do rather than insert ourselves where we might not be needed or wanted. But the Indonesians, I’m sure, will reach out to us if they wish to, and we’ll respond. But the offer is there. We’re simply waiting to hear exactly what they want us to do.
FRAN KELLY: Okay. Your trip to Afghanistan last week, you visited Camp Qargha, where Australians are monitoring- mentoring – sorry – Afghan National Army officers. How’s that mission going? Because reports this year have suggested the Taliban is expanding its influence in Afghanistan, they’re not being contained.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I’m not sure if that’s the case. I certainly met with Supreme Commander General Miller, the US commander there, and of course visited our troops in Camp Qargha in Kabul. And they’re doing amazingly good work, mentoring the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. And while, of course, it is a war zone, there’s definitely the case that the Taliban are – and Al Qaeda and ISIS – are still operating in Afghanistan and needing to be defeated, that war is not over, it’s not true that the Taliban are expanding their influence across the country. They are still well contained but they are still a very potent force and…
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Well, what’s the definition of well contained? Because I’ve seen reports from the BBC earlier in the year that suggested that the Afghan government is only in full control of 30 per cent of the country, the Taliban controls the rest or at least operates openly. The New York Times just last month reported less than- that the Taliban was in control of 56 per cent of the country, I think it was. So, what’s the definition of being contained? Kabul has never been more dangerous, has it?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think it was much more dangerous seventeen-years ago. Seventeen-years ago, there were 450,000 people estimated to be living in Kabul, now there’s 7 million. There were 800,000 children at school in Afghanistan seventeen-years ago, none of them were girls, now there’s 8 million at school and 40 per cent of them are girls. So, dramatic…
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] And that is success. But in terms of the containment of the Taliban, is it fair to say that a lot of the land, the territory that US, Australian, and British forces and others helped seize from the Taliban has gone now back to the Taliban. That’s undeniable isn’t it?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No, I don’t agree with that. That’s certainly not the evidence that was provided to me in Kabul. Afghanistan is definitely a very dangerous war zone. We are operating there and we’re doing great work. There is certainly not the suggestion that the Taliban is about to overrun the country. Would we like the Taliban to come to the table and talk about a peace deal? Yes, we would. And there have been encouraging signs. There was the cease fire in June that was extremely well received by the Afghan people. The evidence that I received when I was in Afghanistan last week, was that Afghan people are very tired of this 20-year-plus war in Afghanistan, they want it to end. It’s certainly true that the government in Afghanistan has made enormous strides forward and they control, I think, a great deal more of the country than is being estimated in various newspaper reports. But the more important thing is that the peace is achieved, not what percentage of the country is controlled by whom. And there are many different operators. The Taliban is just, unfortunately, one group of people that are operating in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is still there, ISIS is still there.
FRAN KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast. It’s eighteen to eight. Our guest is the Defence Minister, Christopher Pyne.
Christopher Pyne, on the submarines, it’s been two-years since Malcolm Turnbull announced with fanfare, a French company had been selected to build the Future Submarine Fleet. The key contract known as the strategic partnering agreement apparently still hasn’t been signed. What’s the hold up?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, there isn’t a hold up. The strategic partnering agreement is the second contract, the first contract is the design and mobilisation contract which was signed some time ago, and that is what is being implemented. That’s designing the submarine, designing the shipyard or the submarine yard, getting the workforce established, Australians in Cherbourg as part of the design process…
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] So, that’s all happening?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Of course. So, the submarine project is on schedule, it is on budget. The strategic partnering agreement is the second agreement that lasts for many decades into the future. There is no delay to the program or the schedule or the budget. The reality is that that negotiation is on track. Sure, it’s very important it be got right because it’s the long-term contract and therefore we are not rushing into signing it. But nor is it delayed. It is a negotiation, negotiations by their very nature take time and I’m very comfortable with the position that we are in with the submarine contract. There’s a lot of very overheated conversation about the contract. I can tell you it is going very well.
FRAN KELLY: So, these reports that you refused to meet the French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly when she was in Adelaide last week, they’re wrong?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Laughs] Fran, I spent Sunday night and all Monday with Florence Parly in Adelaide. So, that story that I’ve refused to meet the French is completely false. But I spent Sunday night having dinner with Florence, I spent all Monday [indistinct]…
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] And what about the Naval Group – that’s the group in charge of this contract – you’re refusing to meet them, is what I’ve seen reported.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I saw them as well, when they were in Adelaide last Sunday and Monday. And spent much time talking with both of them. But I’m not the chief negotiator, we have a negotiating team in the Department of Defence and commercial support for that negotiating team. They are the spear tip of the negotiation. But of course I am meeting with everyone who needs to be talked to about these matters because that’s part of my job. But the ABC story that I refused to meet with the French is completely false.
FRAN KELLY: Do you- yeah, it wasn’t just the ABC that reported it, I don’t think. But…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Interrupts] It was. It was Andrew Greene and the ABC who started that report, that canard running around the world.
FRAN KELLY: Well, Paul Maley has a big report in The Aus too on the weekend…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Talks over] Yeah, it started with Andrew Greene at the ABC. But I’m not criticising Andrew, I think he’s an excellent journalist…
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] He is.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …but he was the first person to report that.
FRAN KELLY: Four South Australian senators aren’t convinced that things are on track or that they should stay on track, including former submarine officer Rex Patrick who said the time has come to drop the French plan and buy 20 off-the-shelf subs to be built in Adelaide. What’s wrong with that as a plan?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, there’s no such thing as an off-the-shelf submarine that suits Australian conditions. That’s never been the case. Nobody was ever asked to tender for an off-the-shelf submarine. They were asked to tender for Australian conditions. The Barracuda-class offered by Naval Group won a very thorough competitive evaluation process more than two-years ago. The idea that we could scrap that when so much work has already been done on it and so much money spent on it is quite frankly fanciful and I hope the voters of South Australia remember that senators Storer, Patrick and Bernardi have called for the scrapping of the largest investment by the Commonwealth Government in any state since federation [indistinct]…
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] And can I ask you about the size of that investment. It started off as a $50 billion investment. There’s reports that it could end up costing north of $100 billion. Is that true?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It’s always been a $50 billion investment and it remains a $50 billion investment.
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] And it will come in on budget at $50 billion, that’s what you’re saying?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It is on schedule and it is on budget and there’s been no change to the $50 billion envelope. There is a lot of excited conversation about it but the facts are it is still a $50 billion project. It was always a $50 billion project in the acquisition of the submarines, which is the building of the submarines in Adelaide creating upwards of 5000 jobs, an extraordinary capability for our country and it remains on track. Sustainment and maintenance, of course, is in addition to that and always was in addition to that and has never been included in the $50 billion price tag. But the idea that you could buy 12 submarines for $20 billion as opposed to 12 for $50 billion, quite clearly if you turned up to buy something at the shops and you could be told you could get one less than 50 per cent, you’d need to have a serious think about whether it was any good.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It’s a great pleasure. Thanks Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Christopher Pyne is the Defence Minister, you’re listening to RN Breakfast, its thirteen minutes to eight.