Sky News Afternoon Agenda – AUKUS


Subject/s discussed: AUKUS, Australian naval defence capability, government failure

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me now is a Labor MP Peter Khalil. He’s also a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Peter, thanks for your time. Is the Prime Minister right, that Paul Keating was reflecting the views of some of your colleagues?

PETER KHALIL, MEMBER FOR WILLS: G’day, Kieran. Thanks for having me on. Look, I think the issue with Paul Keating’s views, some people might subscribe to parts of it. And I think Paul Keating is right on a couple of things. He’s right in his criticism of Scott Morrison being one dimensional in his approach with AUKUS, because where’s Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, the other partners in the region? There needs to be a deeper strategic construct there for us to work our region, to ensure that that liberal rules-based order is maintained and those diplomatic hard yards haven’t been run by the Morrison Government. So, there’s some shallow talking points, by the Prime Minister saying he’s working there, but it hasn’t really happened. He’s also right on some of the timelines around the subs.

But where I disagree with Paul Keating, Kieran, frankly, and this is where it’s really quite an important issue in the national debate, is the fundamental world view that Keating has. His view is, he’s an arch realist. He believes in a Hobbesian world view where ‘might is right’. Where he’s effectively arguing that China is so big and will become so powerful that the best that we can do is really take the edges off that by balancing out China. There’s two flaws with that, Kieran. And they both fundamental flaws in that argument. One, first of all, is that that endpoint is ultimately a defeatist point of view. In the sense that, the countries of the region, the middle powers and other major powers in the region need not try and work to collectively support that liberal rules-based order going forward. But it’s also fundamentally flawed because assumes that if we do get to that end point, and Keating has made these arguments, he deflects by saying China is not a contiguous threat, it’s not going to invade territory. But that assumes a benign China at that end point. And all the evidence that we’ve seen, particularly the last five to 10 years, is that even when we’re in a position of relative strength, is China taking certain actions. Whether it be with artificial islands, whether it be with cyber, whether it be with other types of interference. I just don’t buy that world view and that scenario. And so I think there’s another path, and that path is that Australia’s middle power with our partners and allies, and middle powers in the region working collectively in a multilateral sense, to ensure a liberal rules-based order. By the way, one which actually has benefited China economically over the past 20, 30 years. It’s not just our system or a Western system. It’s one that has benefited all of the Asian partners.

KIERAN GILBERT: One of the fundamental points as well was relating to AUKUS, saying that the Prime Minister went to Cornwall to find security in Asia. Now, I know there are elements of that you disagree with, but one thing that you’re concerned about, you’ve written about it in the AFR today, is about that capability gap for the submarine acquisition. I was interested to see a couple of your ideas in terms of how we can fill that gap. Can you elaborate for our viewers on what might be necessary? So that we’ve got some subs in the water before the twenty-forties.

PETER KHALIL: Yeah, I think my criticism of the government is that while the AUKUS deal and the nuclear submarines may be in its context an astute defence capability decision; they have greater endurance, stealth, range and that’s really important. The fact is we won’t, under the current arrangements with the government, we won’t have them in the water until the early 2040’s, if not the mid 2040’s. So we’re left with a defence capability gap for the next twenty five years. And this is an utter fail by the government. You know, we need defence capability in the next 10 to 15 years. If they are serious about the volatility of the region, and they’re serious about the needs that we have, then that needs to be addressed.

KIERAN GILBERT: We just had a had a drop in that link, but just I think we’ve got you back now. To pick up on one of those points, though, you say that we need to find a way to get those, you know, whether it be the Virginia class or the Astute submarines in the water. One of the things that jumped out at me, though, reading your analysis was who do we put on as the submariners? Because you need to have highly trained submariners to, you know, run those vessels, don’t you?

PETER KHALIL: Yeah, I mean, you might know this, Kieran, and others watching might know that even the Collins class subs that we currently have many of our captains were from the Royal Navy, actually, because of the expertise there. And there is a real need for some really strong and accelerated training for our submariners and our crews, and upping the upskilling the crews to get them ready for the work that’s necessary in our subs. I will say, I got cut off before, technical cut off. But the point I was making to is as well as defence capability gap, there is a need for sovereign capability. Which is about a skilled workforce in a time of great volatility in the region and globally, so that we’re self-reliant when it comes to defence industry. And there’s a need, and I think it’s very important that in that defence industry we’re talking about tens of thousands of Australian, advanced manufacturing jobs as part of that sovereign capability. And the government has failed on all three of these things. My analysis really goes to, “How do we get defence capability in the water before the end of the decade, so that we actually got the capability that we need.” Now the government is currently saying to us, “We’re going to give a face lift to the old Collins class subs. We’re going to give them two face lifts over the next 20 years, of the six boats.” These are going to be forty to fifty year old boats by the time we get to 2040. Are they really saying that these boats are going to be able to do the job for us?

KIERAN GILBERT: Like you said, it could all be like you doing your old Torana from 1976. So if you don’t want to do up the old Torana, what do you do? Do you, you know, is the Saab boat out of Sweden the right way to go? What’s the best option?

PETER KHALIL: Well, we’ve got a couple options on the table. And as much as I love my dad’s old Torana, as you said, it had already done half million kilometres. And, you know, probably good for a classic roadshow nowadays. A great car though, great Australian made car. So, there are a number of options on the table. We are either going to go and build a new conventional sub to fill that gap. That’s been put on the table, there is a Swedish company Saab Kockums that have the ‘son of Collins’ design in play. Which is very much the old Collins, so it takes advantage of the skills of the technicians and engineers and other Australian workforce and personnel that have got familiarity with it. If they’re going to bring forward the nuclear submarine to get them out in the water, are the government looking at a leasing option? They need to be straightforward with Australia about this. Are they going to get some of these boats out in the water? And it goes to your point about crewing, and the submariners, and the training that’s necessary over the next five to ten years. And if they’re going to do that, are we going to have them built in Australia, and how much of that is going to occur in Australia? You know Scott Morrison makes a big announcement with President Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, with all the flags, and hopes that all of this sort of fanfare will distract from the fact that he’s left us with a defence capability gap. He’s left us potentially with no sovereign capability because it’s going to be a valley of death for the workforce. Not going to be continuous workflow, if you like. And he’s left us tens of thousands of Australian manufacturing jobs short.

KIERAN GILBERT: Peter Khalil, great to chat as always. Thank you.

PETER KHALIL: Thanks, Kieran.