ABC Radio National Breakfast: Kevin Rudd on Scott Morrison’s handling of nuclear subs deal

 

23 September 2021 – ABC Radio National

Scott Morrison
We understand the disappointment, and that is the way you manage difficult issues. It’s a difficult decision. It’s a very difficult decision. And of course, we had to weigh up, what would be the the obvious disappointment to France. But at the end of the day, as a government, we have to do what is right for Australia and serve Australia’s national security interests. And I will always choose Australia’s national security interests first.

Fran Kelly
That’s the Prime Minister speaking from Washington just a short time ago. Well, former prime minister Kevin Rudd has weighed into this whole issue. He’s written an opinion piece for the French newspaper Le Monde, in which he describes the decision to tear up the contract quote, “as a foreign policy debacle”. Kevin Rudd welcome again to breakfast.

Kevin Rudd
Good to be with you Fran.

Fran Kelly
Kevin Rudd, it’s one thing for a former prime minister to criticize Australian policy here at home. It’s another thing to do it in the pages of a newspaper abroad. Is it disloyal for a former pm to go public, take their criticisms, their own country overseas like this? Did you consider this?

Kevin Rudd
Absolutely, you will see that Fran, from the first paragraph of my opinion piece in Le Monde, a day or so ago, which says, it is not usual to write such things in a foreign newspaper as an opinion piece. But this is a matter of such an order of magnitude, given the depth of Australia’s long term political and strategic relationship with France, more broadly with Europe, the impact of this decision in South-East Asia and now forcing President Biden into, frankly, a humiliating apology to the French in the joint statement issued between Macron, the French president and himself following their bilateral discussion yesterday. This has got foreign policy debacle written all over it. That’s why I’ve weighed into this debate. Because I believe as someone who is responsible back in 2012, for negotiating with the French, the joint strategic framework between Australia and France, that it was important to engage in the debate in the way in which I have.

Fran Kelly
Why though did you feel it was your duty to express your deep regret at the way this decision was handled by the Morrison government you know, and to do it so directly to the French people.

Kevin Rudd
Because there has been an enormous investment by Australia, not just under my government, but also under Turnbull’s government in building a broad strategic relationship with the French. The French are members of the UN Security Council. They are members of the G7, members of the G20, where Australia is also a member. Together with Germany, they drive the future of the European Union, as well as therefore the future of Australian trade interests in Brussels. And therefore, it’s important for the wider French public to know that there are reservations in Australia, both from myself and frankly, from former prime minister Turnbull about the way in which this matter has been handled. It has been a debacle. I return to what I said about the joint statement issued by Biden and Macron. What Morrison has done by insisting on secrecy in the way in which this notification to the French was going to occur, has been driven in my judgment by his domestic political interests in Australia. The normal way you would treat an ally, if there was a bonafide reason for changing the project design from conventional submarines to nuclear powered submarines. The basic requirement is to bring in the French ambassador, speak to the French President, speak to the French contractors, Naval, and if you’re going to go to nuclear powered vessels, then to retender the process, and invite the French, the British and the Americans to participate. That’s the way in which a professional government would handle this. Not the rolling amateur hour stuff we’ve seen from Morrison,

Fran Kelly
You were very strong in the piece about, you didn’t mention the word amateur hour, but that’s the description, basically, if you read between the lines you write the Morrison government, quote, “failed to adhere to basic diplomatic protocols by not telling the French until the very last moment”. This was tantamount, quote “to deceptive and misleading conduct”. So the Prime Minister says, you know, confidentiality, secrecy needed to be adhered to, in order to make this occur. What do you believe the Prime Minister should have done once it was decided that the newest US nuclear submarines were in Australia’s best strategic interests?

Kevin Rudd
Well, it’s interesting you used the phrase in order to make this occur, that secrecy was necessary. If that was the view, for example, for deep strategic reasons between ourselves and say, the United States. Why did President Biden co author with Emmanuel Macron, the President of France today, a statement which says and I quote, “The two leaders agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultation among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners. President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard”, unquote. That’s Biden disagreeing now with the secrecy which I assume Morrison requested of the Americans in the first place. So why were they secret? I assume, where this has come from is not a deep strategic debate about the future nature of Australia’s submarine fleet, though that will partly influence it. The secrecy factor has proceeded from what really drives Morrison here, which is a domestic political agenda shift given pandemic impacts on his government’s re-electability and the desperate need to have a massive agenda shift to national security, with him looking hairy chested on China with new nuclear boats, and the Australian Labour Party in his hopes and wildest dreams looking like a bunch of pacifists. That’s what this was about. But Biden has now blown the whistle on it by publicly apologizing to the French for the way in which this is handled, leaving our bloke, Morrison out there like a shag on a rock.

Fran Kelly
Well our bloke Morrison, as you describe him, says the French had been well aware of concerns that Australia had with the submarines for some time now in terms of their suitability cost and timing blows. He said he’d had conversations along those lines with the President himself. And he explained that when the submarine deal was signed in 2016, the US was unprepared to share its nuclear technology, that’s changed now because of the threats facing our region. I mean, first off, do you accept even if you don’t like the way it was handled, do you accept this was a decision taken in Australia’s national security interest?

Kevin Rudd
I certainly believe the national security community in Canberra would be examining and reexamining the nature of the boats that we need given our strategic circumstances. But I can say however, also is that the substance of the recommendation about the nature of the vessels, their relative stealth, their ability not to be detected by any other Navy, their requirement for regular snorkelling, the signatures of the individual boats are all matters a rolling technical analysis, I accept that. What I do not accept is the sudden dramatic attempted political wow factor by this particular announcement when the only explanation for secrecy about the unilateral cancellation of the French contract is that Morrison was seeking a wow factor in relation to Australian domestic politics, and possibly a broader wow factor in the international community. As a point however, when a wow factor becomes an oops factor, which if you read Biden’s statement this morning, wow has really become oops, from an American perspective,

Fran Kelly
Is it possible, though, that the French reaction the reaction from President Macron is also you know, being exaggerated in a domestic political sense because of an impending election? I mean, is it really I suppose, what I’m really asking, is it really likely in your view that such a deep and long standing relationship that there is between Australia and the French will be permanently damaged by an action like this, you yourself referenced the 50,000 Australian sons buried in French soil from the First World War. Won’t that continue to mean something in fact, something very significant to the French.

Kevin Rudd
The damage caused by this unilateral decision to cancel this project, this $90 billion project will be long standing and will last certainly as long as this incompetent Australian government lasts. The bottom line is a decision to change the nature of the project specification is one thing, botching the diplomatic and political handling of it with the French, a long trusted strategic partner and friend, is something which creates its own set of additional problems. That’s where we find ourselves at present. For the long term, obviously, the French will be playing their own domestic politics on this, I understand that fully. But if you read the text, and you speak with the French government, about the significance which Macron and the French Armed Forces attached to this $90 billion project for French industry in partnership with the Australian Submarine Corporation in Adelaide, plus the fact that from Macron’s own statement that underpinned the entire French engagement and support for a wider Indo Pacific strategy in dealing with China’s rise. Frankly, what I would have wanted to have argued in the cabinet room when Morrison came up with his bright idea about how to handle a change in the boat specification with the French was simply to say, “understand that the French now have every possibility of working against our wider strategic interests, not just in Brussels, but a broader sense of alliance solidarity in dealing with China’s rise”. That’s where the cost to Australia has yet to be fully calculated.

Fran Kelly
Okay, what about the cost in the relationship with the United States you’ve referenced several times already. US President Joe Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, overnight. He’s acknowledged, Biden has acknowledged, quote, “there could have been greater consultation”, the White House press secretary says the president, quote “holds himself responsible”. You clearly hold Scott Morrison responsible. But do you think Joe Biden also might somewhere, privately be holding Scott Morrison responsible?

Kevin Rudd
I would judge that what has happened here is that somehow the Americans at some level got suckered into what was supposed to be a wow factor for Scott Morrison’s interests in Australian domestic politics, and therefore, the normal approval processes for major decisions of this nature in the US administration somehow, were not deployed. Where were the NATO departments? Where were the European departments? Where were those concerned with nuclear non proliferation? Where were those who had asked this basic question, Fran, can these boats be built in time for Australia? Or is Australia going to end up being lift strategically naked given the massive new build times for nuclear boats assuming they can be delivered and or serviced in Australia? So that seems to be that within the US administration, it was simply not handled properly because Morrison, it seems, insisted on all this secrecy.

Fran Kelly
Just one final question as Scott Morrison calls AUKUS a forever partnership, Paul Keating calls it a backward step to a quote “jaded and faded Anglosphere”, and he’s criticized labour for what he describes as complicity in agreeing to the subs deal which will quote “neuter Australia’s right to strategic autonomy”. Did Anthony Albanese make the wrong call or the right call in your view in backing in the nuclear subs.

Kevin Rudd
Well I certainly have read what Paul Keating has said, but my overall position is simply this, both Albo, Anthony Albanese plus Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong have made absolutely the right call, because they’ve provided highly conditional support for this project proceeding. Impact on nonproliferation, impact on Australia’s ability to service these boats, as well as posing questions in the public debate about the future operational sovereignty which Australia would have over the submarine fleet in the future. These are the right national interest questions to raise and conditions to attach for an Australian Labor government to move in full support of this project. So I think they’ve acted appropriately and conditionally.

Fran Kelly
Kevin Rudd, thank you very much for joining us again on breakfast.

Kevin Rudd
Good to be with you.