Subjects: Washington trip; progress on AUKUS; Indo-Pacific relations; support for Ukraine; emissions target legislation; passing of Shinzo Abe.
The Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, has spent the past couple of weeks in the United States. I spoke with him from the American capital, beginning by asking him about the state of the US-Australia alliance following the change of government here.
Kieran, great to be with you. We’ve had a great trip to Washington, been incredibly well-received. The security establishment here is, I think, working in lockstep with our government, with the Five Eyes partners and the AUKUS deal is now being rolled out and I’m incredibly proud of that. But it’s clear to me that the Alliance remains strong, we’ve just celebrated 70 years of it, and we will do whatever we can to support the strengthening of it. We must, because that’s the time in which we live and it will be more important than ever to stand united with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, India, and many others who share our values as well.
Now the Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles, has been in Washington, too, in the last week. Have you been reassured of Labor’s commitment to AUKUS?
Yes, and I’m happy to take Labor at face value. I think there’s been some mixed messages coming out of the Government.
I suspect they’ve been looking at the numbers over the next 10 years and they’ve been worried about if they’re going to increase spending on the NDIS, if they’re going to increase spending on social service payments, if they’re going to increase spending on Labor’s agenda otherwise, then I fear that Defence will miss out and that they’ll either compromise on programmes or push programmes out beyond the forward estimates.
So there’s a lot of rhetoric which sounds okay from Labor in relation to AUKUS at the moment, but I worry that there are mixed messages – the sense of them sort of crab-walking back from the submarine deal – but let’s take them at face value and we support them on that basis.
It will also be evidenced, of course, by the numbers in the budget, whether that rhetoric is matched by the financial support and underpinning that’s required to make it a real deal and to give us the security edge and the deterrence that we need in a very uncertain time.
There’s key legislation to back the provision of nuclear powered subs to Australia, it’s now in front of Congress. Is it looking like that will proceed without any hiccups?
The advice to us is that that yes, it will. Again, there are great Congressmen and women, Senators, who are very strong friends of the Alliance and of Australia who have really been pushing this along.
Joe Courtney and Mike Gallagher, Roy Blunt, others, have really stepped up and we’re very grateful for it. But of course the United States sees it in their best interests as well. They know that there is a lot at stake here, they need like-minded partners, they need the collaboration and they know that given our history over many decades, that we’re a very reliable partner.
Now the Defence Minister, Mr Marles, said he’d be using his time in Washington to help speed up cooperation in AUKUS between Australia and our allies. Is this what he should be doing at this time, in your view?
Very much so and, look, we’re nine months into the consultation phase now. The agreement was struck under the Coalition government, we really fought hard. We negotiated a very difficult discussion but we got, I think, the best possible outcome and it’s laid out for the Labor Party now to implement and hopefully they don’t get in the way of it.
I hope that that they can really condense the timelines because the very clear sense that I’ve got out of our discussions with the administration here is that things are deteriorating in relation to China, not improving.
The Americans understand that and it’s a very bipartisan position here as well, Kieran. The Republicans are talking the same talk as the Democrats. The Biden Administration is very, very frank in their assessment and, as I say, there’s nothing that’s been indicated to me that would say that the situation is improving, and I think we should be very mindful of that over the next few years.
Now, given that, do you welcome the reboot in relations with China? We’ve seen Ministerial level discussions resume, the Foreign Minister with her counterpart. Is that encouraging to you?
Yes, and we welcome that, but at the same time, we can’t continue to talk whilst China continues to amass nuclear weapons. China is growing its naval fleet at the same tonnage rate of our entire Royal Australian Navy fleet every 18 months and, I might note, at a time when most of the world is providing support, depleting their own stocks, to give Ukraine a fighting chance against Russia.
So, it is a concerning time. But if Russia is just talking this out, if they’re going through the motions and we hear the normal propaganda, then that is concerning and the government should be asking of China that, if they’re conducting talks in good faith and negotiating in good faith, that a sign of that good faith would be pulling back on the rapid expansion of their military arsenal.
Despite the concerns about China’s military build-up and the Taiwan flashpoint, is it the right thing to be having the dialogue where possible?
As I say, I’m fine to say that if the government’s got a dialogue, and it’s a productive dialogue, then, of course, it should be pursued. But if we’re just being handled, then that’s not a productive use of time.
The Australian Government needs to be serious in the discussions and we need to ask China to explain the human rights abuses, and to explain what’s happening in relation to their military build-up, the attack on the P-8 surveillance aircraft only a couple of weeks ago, the surveillance of one of our ships within that contested area.
I mean, these are all reasonable questions to ask and I’m not aware that any of them have been asked by Penny Wong or by Richard Marles or, indeed, by the Prime Minister.
So you’re saying it’s okay to continue the dialogue, but you want to see some greater clarity about where China is heading?
Yes. I think it’s not unreasonable to ask China – if we’re having meaningful discussions with them – that they take concrete actions to demonstrate to us that they’re not heading down the path that the rest of the world believes them to be heading down.
Their own rhetoric in relation to Taiwan, their own actions in relation to the assaults on our military personnel, as I say, the P8 was put in a very precarious position and had that plane gone down, we’d be having a very different discussion, and I think the talks are fine so long as China is indicating to us that they’re not going to continue a repeat of the behaviour we’ve seen which puts at risk our Australian Defence Force personnel.
On the Ukraine issue, is there still united support in the United States for Ukraine or is it waning in some quarters?
I didn’t see any indication at all that they were waning. They were very complimentary of the support that we’ve provided.
When I was Defence Minister, we provided $280 million worth of military support to Ukraine, and Australia is respected for that: not just here in Washington, but across Europe and certainly in Ukraine as well: it’s a right and just cause to support, and the Americans – from all that I saw – have been very supportive, continue to be so, and very grateful that the allies that they rely on, including Australia, have been stepping up. The United Kingdom I think has done a wonderful job, a sensational effort, the Canadians, others, obviously, near countries in Europe who have provided that support.
But this is a protracted situation that we’re looking at now. There’s no indication that Russia is going to withdraw its forces any time soon.
The thought that this would be over within a few weeks, or maybe even a few months, this has now been going on since February, and we could expect by some of the analysis that I’ve seen, that this could go on for a long period of time yet.
So you’re in Washington DC. It’s been a difficult time for the United States, such a bitterly divided country, including, of course, with the January 6 hearings over the transition of power. Are you worried about the future of our closest and greatest ally?
The short answer is no, I’m not. There’s obviously a lot of reflection on – and you’re seeing that in the hearings at the moment – on the divide, on particular issues otherwise, but there is also a great deal of collaboration on issues that that are important to this country but, more importantly, to our country as well.
I completely dismiss this thought that the United States is on the decline or that the United States wouldn’t provide support to her closest ally. I don’t see any evidence of that at all.
I think the resilience here, the institutions, the systems, the strength of civil society, all of that will see the United States ebb and flow through different problems as it has done right through its history. We know who our friends are and we should stand by them, and I think it’s reasonable to expect that they will stand by us.
The Deputy Prime Minister says climate change is a greater threat to the Pacific than Chinese military aggression. Labor is facing some challenges with its climate policy, the Greens threatening to block their more ambitious targets. Are you resolute in your position in blocking Labor’s new approach?
Well, a couple of points here, Kieran. Firstly, yes, climate change is an important issue and it’s particularly important to our near neighbours and we respect that, and we in government, and now in opposition, we support sensible action in relation to mitigating and providing investment into new technologies and support around mitigating the effects of climate change – so everybody signed up to that. But for Richard Marles or anybody else, frankly, to suggest that that is a bigger issue in terms of security threats than China at the moment, I mean, it’s in complete defiance of the intelligence that he would be reading.
As I say, that the briefings that we’ve had here in Washington have been as sober as any I’ve had over the course of last six years around the National Security Committee table, and I can tell you they were pretty confronting.
It’s why I’ve spoken out very strongly, because I do think peace is at risk within the Indo-Pacific and I do think that we have to step up with the United States, with our partners in the region to stare down that aggression and the hard-fought peace that we’ve enjoyed for 80 years since the Second World War, it’s in a more precarious position now than it has been over those eight decades.
The United States, a Democrat, a liberal administration here in the United States under Joe Biden – hardly a Trump figure or an extreme right-wing figure – their language is exactly as we’re using: and that is that they’re worried that this is a period reminiscent of the 1930s.
So again, I think we need to be to be frank and honest, and climate is an important issue, but the biggest security issue in the Indo-Pacific at the moment is China and her acts of aggression.
On the broader question, we went to the last election with a policy in relation to supporting emissions and again doing it in a credible way. We had a significant part of the population vote for us on that basis and that’s what we will adhere to.
I’ve noticed some of the commentary over the course of the last 24 hours, where it’s obvious that the Labor Party don’t need this legislation. It’s a wedge, it’s a tactic, it’s a political ploy. The Greens have called that out as well. The legislation is not required to meet their commitment of 43 per cent which they took to the election. Why I think it’s quite reckless is that there is a significant amount of talk here in the United States, as there is in our country and in Europe, about the impact of inflation, the prospect of a deep recession here in the United States, inflation over 9 per cent, and if our trading partners – or an ally like the United States or others in Europe – decided to adjust their emissions; if Europe went into a broader war and there was a severe economic downturn, would the government want to have a legislated 43 per cent? Or would they want to adjust and deal with the reality of the times?
So, this is window-dressing and, frankly, as I say, a wedge for the Labor Party. It’s a political stunt and I’ve been clear in relation to our position, and that is that we don’t support the legislation.
We’re happy for reductions in emissions, but at the moment some of the decisions the Labor Party’s making will drive electricity prices up for families, it will make electricity supply less reliable, which ultimately means difficulty not just for families and small businesses, but it’ll make it difficult for businesses to stay onshore in a manufacturing business if they can go offshore and get electricity more reliably and at a cheaper price in another market and that will cost Australian jobs at a time when we can least afford it.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has copped a bit of flak for his overseas commitments recently. But do you recognise the need for him to engage because of the huge impact on our country from global strategic and economic issues right now?
Yes, of course I do, and I was very strongly encouraging the Prime Minister to go to the Ukraine. It was important, if he was in Europe, to be able to visit. So, I was supportive of that visit, and I’m supportive of the Prime Minister acting in our national interest in travelling where it’s necessary to do so. If it’s an indulgence, that’s a different story.
I was critical of the Prime Minister for delaying the announcement of support to flood victims in New South Wales so that it coincided with him being able to get back and have a photo opportunity. I thought that was fairly low brow, actually.
I think he could have made the announcement, provided the support, before he landed on the ground – and if there’s a criticism, that’s where I would level it.
One of the architects of The Quad, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Shinzo Abe, was, of course, assassinated a couple of weeks ago – a tragedy for Japan and our region. Is it a reminder as well of the need to maintain a civil discourse in our democracies?
Well, obviously, for his family first and foremost, the pain that they will be going through – his wife, his children, his brother and the extended family – he’s a human being in the end, and a brother and a husband and father and they would be feeling that most acutely.
All of us are feeling the pain of his loss because he was an inspirational leader. He was a great friend of our country. He was a force for good in the Indo-Pacific and across the world. His influence on the United States was well-observed during the course of the Trump Administration, so it’s a heavy loss.
But he was murdered at the hands of an assassin who was clearly mentally deranged or was motivated by something that, frankly, none of us could ever understand; that you could take somebody’s life in that circumstance is incomprehensible.
So, Kieran, on your broader point, I absolutely agree that we should have a more civil debate. I think that applies to members of parliament, to members of the public, to members of the media. I think it particularly applies to social media companies that facilitate some of the things that are said online.
I have a full-time security detail because of many of the absurd, dangerous, reckless things that people say online that they would never say to your face, I don’t think. There are a lot of people out there in the modern age who live through social media, believe what they read online, and it’s a less-safe place.
That is the case in our country, certainly in this country in the United States, and elsewhere around the world. We live in a great democracy. I disagree vehemently with Anthony Albanese on different issues. I’m fully signed up on other issues and, off-camera I have a very good relationship with him – a friendship of two decades’ standing – similarly with Richard Marles, and others.
We can disagree in a respectful way, which we do, but we should be able to express our views again without the absurdity of some of what you see on the social media and the abuse of female commentators on the ABC, on Sky and elsewhere: it’s reprehensible, and it’s something that as a society that we should push back on.
We’ve seen the impact on mental health of young people, young girls in particular, the use of social media and the impact it has on civil debate and discussion is, I think, frankly, a public policy that needs to be addressed and we should be doing more. We should be demanding more of the platforms that carry some of this dreadful content and nasty, humiliating, and spiteful content – it’s unacceptable.
Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.
Thanks, Kieran. Thank you.