SKY NEWS AFTERNOON AGENDA
MONDAY, 20 SEPTEMBER 2021
SUBJECTS: Submarines; AUKUS; Scott Morrison’s treatment of the French; Afghanistan; Quad; Scott Morrison’s US trip
KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Peter and Dave, thanks so much for your time. Peter, I want to ask you, first of all, about the Labor view on AUKUS, because I saw that statement from former Prime Minister Keating. He had reservations essentially that we’d be tied into the US, we’d lose our sovereignty on that front. What do you say to that?
PETER KHALIL, MEMBER FOR WILLS: I think the first thing I’d say is that I said on your program months ago that after a $40 billion blow out on the Naval group, French contract, delays, uncertainty around Australian jobs, eight years of mismanagement of this project, a massive blowout – $40 billion, the mind boggles – that we needed to look at other options. So, Labor has supported and provided bi-partisan support for this deal, the sort of structurally part of this deal. But frankly, I actually think that the government has mismanaged the execution of the deal in many respects. Where was Marise Payne? MIA Marise Payne in trying to smooth over the relationship with France, giving them a heads up, working through the fact that they going to probably have to make this a big strategic decision, that wasn’t done.
So now we’ve got a problem with a major ally, and France is one of the major European powers in the Indo-Pacific and very important for us going forward. You touched on Keating’s arguments. I’m a big fan, and he’s a hero of mine, obviously a great Labor Prime Minister. He’s half right. I agree that we need to have a more independent foreign policy, but the point is this. The fact is that we’ve relatively been able to have a more independent defence and foreign policy for decades because the US has acted as a security guarantor in the region to create the framework for stability, peace, and prosperity. They no longer can do that on their own. In fact, we were able to get away with decades of not having to spend up to 2% or more of GDP on defence spending because the US played that role.
Now allies have to work together and Keating, I think is also wrong on the argument that the material dependency of this deal means that somehow we lose our sovereignty or that we’re somehow beholden on an operational front. That’s not the case. That doesn’t make any sense because logistics and material, and so on, means that if we buy any kit from anywhere, are we suddenly beholden to Canada? If we bought some kits from Canada or France or anywhere else, no, we’re not. On the broader and the last point that Keating made around the fact that we’re hurtling towards conflict with China, I think he misunderstands the fact that the better your defence assets, the better your force structure, your force posture, it actually goes towards deterring conflict and pushing parties more towards channels like diplomacy.
GILBERT: Dave, what do you say to the criticism from Peter there, that we have mishandled French relationship in all of this? There’ve been some concerns out of Washington reports that I’ve seen out of their Biden administration saying that they thought that Australia could manage it and smooth that over, clearly things have erupted on that front.
DAVE SHARMA, MEMBER FOR WENTWORTH: Well, firstly, I don’t accept the charge. I think it was always going to be a difficult decision to communicate and have accepted by France regardless because of the nature of what we were doing. It’s obviously not something we could give them a huge amount of heads up about until a decision was made within our own system. So, I can understand they feel a surprise and disappointed, I think partly that is inevitable. But I think what we need to keep in mind here is, Peter made the point, this is going to be one of the biggest and still will be the submarines, the biggest military acquisition in Australia’s history out of war time. And we’re talking about a program that was going to cost, and will still cost, something like three to four times what it costs us to acquire 72 joint strike fighter.
So this is an incredibly important and critical capability. It’s incredibly important and critical that we get it right. Now, the deal with the French was structured such that we had a number of exit ramps, a number of gates if you like, that the deal had to go through and all we’ve done here is exercise our commercial options under a commercial arrangement. I understand that’s not the decision the French would have liked and from their perspective, I can empathize with that, but ultimately every country has to take a decision in its own national interest. And when we’re talking about a capability that is this important, that is this expensive, and that would be this critical to Australia’s future, we have no other choice but to put our interests first. So of course, I regret French disappointment and anger even at this, but I’m also confident that the underpinnings of our relationship with France remain solid and strong and that this will blow over.
KHALIL: Dave’s being modest, probably should have sent Dave to Paris to smooth things over and use some of these diplomatic skills because Marise Payne did nothing.
SHARMA: You’re really trying to get me in trouble now, aren’t you Peter?
GILBERT: I’ll get back to Peter in a moment. Dave I want to ask you about what the Prime Minister said to me on Afghanistan. I asked the Prime Minister, we had a broader discussion about the Alliance. This is before he departed, in fact, before the AUKUS announcement was just ahead of that. And he said that in Afghanistan that he would have liked a delay in that withdrawal and indeed, did argue for that behind the scenes, along with Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron. What do you make of that? Was that a surprise to you?
SHARMA: I hadn’t heard that before, it doesn’t surprise me though and I think it’s certainly the right thing to do. I was arguing and I think Peter was as well from recollection, against a precipitate US withdrawal. And when it became clear that the Taliban was making gains in Afghanistan much quicker than we would have expected on the basis of a fixed US date for exit, I think many of us would in favour of having a pause there and allowing the Afghan government to stabilize itself and the Afghan national army, and to avoid what was a pretty catastrophic outcome in the end. All we can do though, of course, is look – . Ultimately, this is a US decision and President Biden’s decision. I think if we made the case for staying and he chose to go in a different direction, or we did the right thing and that decision was ultimately on his shoulders.
GILBERT: Peter, the Prime Minister made it clear in that interview with me that he was on the same page as Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, at least when it came to delaying the exit to allow more people, more Afghan nationals to be evacuated.
KHALIL: Well, it’s all very well for Morrison, Macron, or Boris Johnson to make the argument for an extension. That’s fine. The point is that this catastrophe that we’re seeing in Afghanistan unfold was locked in as soon as President Trump said the date of withdrawal is going to be sometime in May and then President Biden reiterated a date at the end of August or early September. The point is that this cannot be an excuse for Scott Morrison’s abysmal failure on national security in the sense that when you have people in a local theater work with us, locals work with us, we need to send them the message that we’ve got their back. And we failed the moral obligation to the people that worked with us for 20 years to get them out. I’m talking about the interpreters, their families, people who worked, served in the uniform with Australians, ADF personnel, as well as medical personnel.
GILBERT: More than 4,000 were evacuated.
KHALIL: Yeah, but he closed our embassy in late May. He took out all of the people that did the assessments or the staff that were doing the visa processing. They were only returned mid-August, three months later, at the height of the evacuation. There was a moral obligation that was failed and a national security imperative that was failed. He can’t just keep making the excuse that we asked for an extension of the deadline. He should have done better. And by the way, it wasn’t a surprise. We were telling him when Trump first made the call and when Biden reiterated the end date, get the people out, take them out to the UAE, process them there. And then you, you don’t have to rush in the evacuation that is inevitable, that’s going to happen. So he failed on both fronts.
GILBERT: I want to ask you both about this issue, which it’s parallel really to the Prime Minister and his talks in the United States, Dave, but I think it’s very much relevant to it. It’s this China bid to become part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that trade deal. What do you think of that? I see some analysts saying that we should be encouraging them for our economic strategic interests to get involved and therefore they’d have to reign in the coercive behavior. What’s your thinking on it, Dave?
SHARMA: I’m highly skeptical about it, Kieran. I think their attempt to join is an attempt to frustrate the organization. I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise, but you know, the problem that we’ve had today in our economic relationship with China is not the lack of commitments. It’s China’s failure to adhere to those commitments. So why would new commitments in the trans-pacific partnership made by China be any more likely to be honored than those it’s made to the World Trade Organization, for instance, or to Australia within our FTA? I think that’s the question, you’d have to ask yourself there. I think this is more an exercise in blocking if you like, and that is in advancing. The TPP is a sort of high ambition, highly liberalised trade agreement, obviously China isn’t in it, and that sort of concern to them as a matter of sort of geopolitical positioning. And I think what we’re seeing here from them is an attempt to, to make sure that they can use their role in an organization like that to frustrate as they’ve done in other international organizations. So look, I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise, but my initial reaction is skepticism.
GILBERT: Peter, the argument that’s been made that I’ve seen in favor of engaging is that if you look at reform and I know that it has not been that forthcoming in recent years under president Xi Jinping, but if you look at reform in that country, it’s often driven by international leverage. That’s the point?
KHALIL: Yeah, that’s a very good point, Kieran. I wouldn’t be as a highly skeptical as Dave, or even have my starting position is one where we assume they’re not going to engage in good faith. I think we all, I think Dave would have to agree with this. We all want to be a responsible partner to work within the international rules, and that especially goes to engagement in trade and through the framework of international law around trade, because it benefits all of us and we need to bring Xi and the Chinese government back towards engaging on that front in those frameworks. So this is actually something that’s possibly a positive, and we should start off in good faith rather than assuming the worst about them. That’d be my view going into that. We’re all going to have a look at the TPP, both Dave and I are Chair and Deputy Chair of the Treaties Committee, so we’ll probably be doing that work.
GILBERT: Now just finally, I want to get both of your thoughts as foreign policy experts, Dave, first to you on the Prime Minister’s aims this way. What’s a successful week for Scott Morrison in New York and Washington?
SHARMA: Well, I think it’s a number of things. Firstly, the meetings in Washington, the Quad meeting of leaders is very important. It’s the first in-person meeting of the Quad as I understand it, in this configuration is still a new, relatively speaking, a new US administration. And so making sure we’ve got their measure and we understand some of their priorities and perspectives. Unfortunately, the Japanese Prime Minister will not be in office for that much longer. That’s a bit of a shame because obviously as Japan is a very important part of that partnership. But I think it will be a similar international agenda to what we’ve discussed and prosecuted elsewhere, the G20 and the G& and other meetings, it’s really about the stability and security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific and how our four countries can work together to support and buttress the liberal rules-based order, which has done so much to support the stability and the prosperity of the Indo-Pacific since over the last 70 years.
So anything from open and liberal trade as support to the global trading system support for important rights like freedom of navigation, the UN convention on the law of the sea, the settlement of disputes by arbitration rather than the use of force or those sorts of things. I think all of these things will be on the table with these countries.
GILBERT: Peter Khalil, last word to you on that. What would you see as a success for the Prime Minister’s visit? And I ask you that in the context, as well as someone who used to work for Kevin Rudd, and I do recall that at the time, and it was a very different international climate to be fair to him but he backed away from the Quad as a mechanism. Didn’t he?
KHALIL: Well Kieran, I would hope that Prime Minister Morrison doesn’t stuff up. I mean we are in a very sensitive and volatile period, the geostrategic tectonic plates have shifted considerably. We need to be more nimble. We need to be more dynamic in our relationships. We need to have multidimensional partnerships. While the Quad and the AUKUS are well and good. I’ve always argued for us as a middle counter to actually be far more dynamic, have a middle power fulcrum where we’re working with multiple countries, tri-laterals, quadrilaterals with different formulations and a myriad of different combinations to actually address the many, many issues that we’re facing. Because the more engagement that you have and the more of the countries in the region are working together, on issue by issue, the more you’re going to prop up that liberal international rules-based order.
And I just hope that Scott Morrison is not the proverbial bull in the China shop. That he actually can understand the nuances that are needed. It was a very different time in the past and part of the reason that Kevin Rudd didn’t support the Quad at the time was very different than today. And so things have changed considerably. And I think it’s a good thing to have this relationship with those countries in region, whether it be Japan, South Korea, India, the US. The more engagement is better. It provides a counterweight to those countries, whether it be China or others who, who wish to try and break away from the rules-based order.
GILBERT: Peter Khalil, Dave Sharma. Gentlemen, appreciate your insights. Thanks.