PETER KHALIL MP
MEMBER FOR WILLS
ABC Afternoon Briefing
Wednesday 15 MARCH 2023
Subjects: Keating, AUKUS
GREG JENNETT, HOST: We’re going to bring in our political panel today, and it’s another all-Victorian combination. We have Labor MP and member for Wills – he’s also chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence [and] Security – Peter Khalil is with us, and Liberal MP and member for Flinders Zoe McKenzie joins us now. Welcome to both of you, and Zoe, I promise I won’t turn this into an interview on Paul Keating with our ALP member Peter Khalil but kind of irresistibly, I do have to start there.
PETER KHALIL, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR WILLS: I’m sure you’re going to talk about it.
JENNETT: Alright, so former prime ministers, like former presidents, Peter, command esteemed places in a nation’s political history. Paul Keating’s views, I think it’s fair to say, are diametrically opposed to current Labor thinking. Is he recklessly endangering the AUKUS alliance?
KHALIL: Well, first of all, I have great respect for Paul Keating as one of our great prime ministers. But he has seriously misrepresented the government’s approach on AUKUS and the strategic environment that we face today. It’s not the benign world that he was living in the 1990s. The world has changed considerably, and that strategic environment is one in which there’s been the largest conventional military build-up, unprecedented really, since World War Two, where there’s been a militarization of the South China Sea, there’s been economic barriers placed on our exports by China. And there is a strategic contest at the heart of this between models of governance, whether it’s a liberal democratic model with an international rule of law and a framework around security and trade and human rights that we live in, or a model in which authoritarian states get to do what they want when they want because of their ability to use force. And I just make this point that Keating fundamentally is wrong about the capability acquisition that that is within AUKUS is important because it raises our ability to contribute to what I would call collective deterrence amongst a number of nations across the region. So, it’s not just the US and UK, there are other nations who have an interest in protecting that liberal rules-based order.
And that deterrence is important to deter countries from using force as a means to reach their strategic goals. We want to avoid confrontation. We want to avoid conflict. And the best way to do that is to make sure your capability and your defence is good enough and strong enough to make sure that it is part of a deterrent effect on that. There’s an old saying that says “the price of peace is preparing for war”.
JENNETT: I’ve got a few more questions on Paul Keating to cast back at you, Peter, but Zoe McKenzie – Paul Keating’s criticisms are as much directed at the Coalition in many ways. Even though he was targeting his own side, you implicitly support everything around AUKUS. How would you characterize your response, particularly in light of what Peter’s just had to say?
ZOE MCKENZIE, SENATOR LIBERAL PARTY: I obviously endorse what Peter said, and it’s good that the Coalition and the government are indeed as one on AUKUS. It was originally a Coalition policy, and one that we are very pleased to have seen taken forward so wholeheartedly by this government, with the series of announcements yesterday that the Coalition has endorsed and stands ready to assist with the implementation. The intervention by Paul Keating today was indeed a fascinating one, obviously very different from the viewpoint that Peter said out here. Peter has been solid for a long time – he’s a dear friend. But can I say what concerned me about his intervention was the proximity he intimated with the Prime Minister. It would appear he’s had the Prime Minister’s ear for some time on this as he does a number of people who look up to him. You know, Jim Chalmers’ Ph.D., I think, was written about the leadership of PJK, and so I found it interesting to realize just how present he had been in the debate, at least until February, when he last reached out to the Prime Minister’s office and indeed, his vast disappointment that he’s not being listened to.
JENNETT: TY that point, Zoe, he doesn’t have much sway, though, does he? I mean, it’s one thing to have each other’s phone number in your contacts, but it doesn’t count for much.
MCKENZIE: He sat down with the Prime Minister for an hour before the G20 meeting it. It’s not just occasional text messages, it’s more than that.
Nevertheless, I don’t doubt what Peter has said. I don’t doubt what the Prime Minister has said in terms of their commitment to AUKUS. We have seen it writ large in the last 36 hours and we are very, very pleased that that is the case.
JENNETT: Can I take you, Peter, to a specific criticism of foreign policy as it is practiced by currently the Albanese Government, but maybe it was suggested that it was previously: “running around the Pacific islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy, it’s a consular task fundamentally. Foreign policy is what you do with great powers”. That’s a very direct criticism of Penny Wong there. Peter Khalil, is there any validity to it?
KHALIL: Well, setting aside the fact that he’s playing the woman in this case rather than the ball, which I I think is poor politics: it gets you a good pithy one liner and some headlines, but it doesn’t address the substance. And frankly, every foreign policy observer, every Australian, has seen clearly the tremendous work that Penny Wong has done as Foreign Minister in a short 10 months of the Albanese Government. She’s been to every single Pacific island country. It’s not just about throwing money around. She has reset relationships with our Pacific neighbours and throughout Southeast Asia based on their resilience on infrastructure, on the economic part of the relationship, on cultural exchange defence cooperation – which the Defence Minister Richard Marles has also been instrumental in doing – and that has been a substantive difference to the manner in which the previous government engaged with the Pacific, which was paternalistic, which was frankly very arrogant. Which ignored the existential importance of climate change as a front and centre issue for not just for us, but for Pacific countries. So, our engagement has reset those relationships, and Penny Wong has done it on a basis that those partners have chosen Australia as the partner of choice, frankly, and everyone can see that. So, Keating is fundamentally wrong on that. I should also say, he contradicts himself because he has a criticism of soft power which has been deployed by Penny Wong and Richard Marles and the Prime Minister across the region with respect to development assistance as well as diplomacy, and then at the same time criticizes our engagement with the big players that he says is what foreign policy is about. And frankly his other criticism around the Anglosphere is completely misdirected because last time I checked, India and Japan are not Anglo.
JENNETT: Fair point. Look, there were probably a few contradictions inherent in it. Zoe, you pay on results, though in foreign policy and in the Pacific, although this is a colourful criticism against Penny Wong, you’d have to acknowledge that she has results, doesn’t she? The engagement, the willingness of all of these countries to accept her as a high-level visitor is a marked difference to what was going on in the tail end of the Morrison years.
MCKENZIE: Look, I do think Penny Wong has been as visible and as present in the Pacific as is possible. She has also been incredibly gracious in that she’s taken bipartisan groups with her into our various most strategic and important partners in the Pacific. So, you won’t hear complaint from me on that point. We understand the importance of the Indo Pacific, and indeed our collaboration across the Quad. So, no complaint from me.
JENNETT: Alright. That’s fair minded, I guess. And Peter, I’d be negligent as the committee Chair if I didn’t put this one to you: “dopes and ning nongs in national security agencies, including ASIS” – has that been your experience?
KHALIL: No, it hasn’t, and frankly, I think it’s offensive by Paul Keating to run those sorts of pithy one-liners to degrade and denigrate the work that so many public servants do within our intelligence security agencies. Look, we can disagree on the politics. We can disagree on the execution of policy, on the substance of policy, and let’s have an argument about that. But to play the man and/or the woman, not the ball, should be beneath him. And unfortunately, this is something the media is quite excited to pick up on because it’s colourful. But it’s not substantive, and the people that are working in those agencies are dedicating their lives to protecting Australia and Australia’s interests, and I think it’s pretty poor form to criticize them in that manner.
JENNETT: Alright, look, really quickly because I want to move on to AUKUS proper, but Peter, again, not turning this into an interview with you, but the Labor membership: I think it was suggested by Paul Keating that he is in touch with a view that is out there in the branches. Are you?
KHALIL: I speak to members all the time about calling members and talking to them about policies and getting feedback. There’s a broad range of views, diverse views across our membership base right across the country. To claim that he represents the membership base, I’m not sure what polling he’s using to make that claim. It’s a bit of a throwaway remark. Frankly, people understand. People are intelligent. They understand that the strategic circumstances and the environment we live in are unprecedented. They’re the most volatile since World War Two. They also understand that we are taking decisions as a government to protect Australia’s interests and it is really about the world that we want to live in, what kind of world do we want to live in? Do we want one where human rights, the international law, where trade is respected under a normative framework, or do we want one where authoritarian states can dominate, invade their Neighbours like Russia has invaded Ukraine, without any consequence. I know which world I want my children and grandchildren to live in.
JENNETT: Yeah, that’s the framing of it. Zoe McKenzie, why don’t I take you to AUKUS? All that lies ahead, of course. Money makes the world go ‘round, and some big funding decisions are going to have to be made on both revenue and on spending. Are you ready to participate in this in a mature way that looks at both sides of the ledger? Because you’re not going to get to $368 billion by nips and tucks.
MCKENZIE: Look, it is a colossal amount of money. I think on the weekend we were talking about 150 billion, by Monday morning it was 200, and by the time the actual figure came out yesterday, it was between 268 and 368. As I understand it, that the commitment for the forward estimates the next 4 years is 9 billion, 6 of which will come from repurposed funds for the original plan for submarines, and 3 billion is to be saved from the Defence Department. As your guest before us said, it is going to be hard yards indeed to find out from Defence. And I think there’s a certain amount of nervousness about where that may come from. You don’t want to actually undo some capability in pursuit of another one. So yes indeed, we need to sit down and talk about it. I think one option that is – you know, there’s a parliamentary joint committee in relation to intelligence and security. Maybe it’s time for a parliamentary joint committee in relation to AUKUS as well, and its implementation so that all issues can be looked at in a healthy, bipartisan way as we have seen over the last 48 hours and would be nice to see going forward. So, in terms of savings and budget appropriations, yes, it is going to be a hard time ahead. And I think our leader, Peter Dutton, and together with Andrew Hastie have said they are happy to sit down and work with government to find those savings so that we can afford it. I’m also mindful, though, that our government increased funding for defence from about 1.5% of GDP to over 2 without having to increase any taxes. So that is what we would like to see here as well.
JENNETT: Yeah. Alright, Peter, there is an elegance I suppose to that suggestion there from Zoe that not unlike your committee, there might be a dedicated bipartisan one for AUKUS. Do you see some merit in that?
KHALIL: Look, an AUKUS caucus might work. I think that the parliament’s role through the implementation process of AUKUS will be an important one, and I think there there’s merit in some of those ideas to engage parliamentarians across the aisle, across the crossbench, both houses in the substance of AUKUS business. Such an important strategic decision for our future, so I’m supportive of exploring those ideas. I will just say on the budget, really importantly, some facts here. The first part of the AUKUS is being offset. The costs are being offset by the cancellation of the French submarine deal of 6 billion and further savings that are going to be coming out of the Defence Strategic Review within the defence budget. But the defence budget is actually increasing, and under our watch it will go up from 2.25% of GDP up to about 2.35 by the end of the decade, and everyone bandies –
JENNETT: Is that the upper limit though, Peter, do you think? 2.35 [by the] end of the decade?
KHALIL: Everyone bandies on about this enormous number of 300 billion, but that’s out to 2050. So actually, you’re talking about increases in the defence budget in a quantative centre of around 10-12 billion a year. It’s about 0.15% increased in the defence budget each year – that’s what it sort of equates to. But remember, this is out to 2050 yeah, and that’s what we’re talking about: 27 year time frame. So that’s important to note. And I think the issues are so important for our national interest. I welcome the bipartisanship across the aisle with crossbenchers as well to work together on this because this is actually very important for Australia to maintain the stability and the security of the region that we live in and the ongoing prosperity that we’ve all enjoyed for decades and make sure that goes forward with respect for that rules-based order that we can all abide by.
JENNETT: Well, it’s probably necessary because it looks like it’s going to outlast all of our careers, in your case, in Parliament, in mine, just outside it and reporting on it. It is a massive endeavour, that’s for sure what’s been undertaken this week. Look, we could go on, but I know time’s going to beat us if we happen to dip our toe in the water on energy prices. We could be here locked up talking about it for fully 20 minutes. So we might sidestep it and conclude what has been a mature debate on all things strategic and defence. Zoe McKenzie, really appreciate your thoughts today, and Peter Khalil as ever, thanks to both.
KHALIL: Thanks Greg. Thanks Zoe.