16 April 2023

Laura Jayes: In case you missed it, Paul Keating has accused Labor of making its worst decision in the century by signing a $368 billion AUKUS agreement. The former Prime Minister and Labor luminary also denied that there's any imminent threat from China. There's been plenty of reaction to this, but we can't get enough. So, let's bring in the Assistant Trade Minister, Tim Ayres. He joins me here at the desk. Good to see you.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: G'day, Laura. Yes.

Laura Jayes: As that was unfolding yesterday, what did you think?

Assistant Minister: Well, I think the idea that Australia could undertake the biggest military procurement in our history, replacing the Collins-class submarines without there being any debate in the community or any debate in particular in the Labor Party, I think that's unrealistic expectations.

Laura Jayes: So, you welcome Paul Keating's interventions?

Assistant Minister: Well, I just think there's going to be debate, there's going to be criticism. When Anthony Albanese first learnt of the AUKUS submarine and broader AUKUS arrangements and convened the Caucus together, he set out the Labor position and it included an important commitment that the then government made that this arrangement would not be in breach of our NPT obligations, our disarmament obligations. Now, that commitment has been met unequivocally, but it's correct for people to be sceptical, to ask questions, to get - like there is going to be a lot of community debate about this. The last of these submarines will be delivered in 2050. We are replacing six diesel submarines that are coming to the end of their lifespan over the course of the next - over the course of the 2030s, with eight new submarines. The plan deals with the capability gap, the gap that had emerged over the last ten years. When does the new submarine programme deliver its first submarine?

Laura Jayes: But this wasn't Keating's problem, really. He was talking about the optics of doing this big song and dance with the US. What does it say about where Labor, or how Labor values Paul Keating when he wrote to the Prime Minister about this and apparently, he was ignored by Anthony Albanese, does that say it all?

Assistant Minister: Can I say maybe two things? I mean, the first thing is our responsibility in government now is to see the world as it is, actually as it is, not how it looked in 1995, through the prism of people you know, who'd been engaged in politics in the last half of the 20th Century. We have to view the world as it is. This is a sensible, cautious - it is the right judgement. There are decisions that governments make, Labor governments make, that make people from previous generations uncomfortable. We have to do this with a national interest in mind, with the right values, and we have to protect the national interest in the process and I think we’ve done that -

Laura Jayes: Yeah, but, isn't the problem with the Labor Party is that Paul Keating is such a big figure, he's a luminary, he talks still to many of the current leadership in Cabinet. So where does he fit in in the Labor story as a values proposition? Is he an old man ranting at the Press Club? Is he just being dismissed by every single current sitting Labor politician? Or are some of these comments being taken seriously?

Assistant Minister: I think Richard Marles was right last night. We in the Labor movement and the Labor Party, of course, absolutely respect the legacy of the Hawke and Keating governments. You won't hear a word of criticism of Keating or any of those other luminaries who led that period of government. But our responsibility is to work carefully through the issues now.

Laura Jayes: So, he has no - his input is not valuable now? Are you saying that?

Assistant Minister: Now, it's the Labor Party, right? There are differences. Yeah. It's not a news flash, really, that there are differences of views.

Laura Jayes: Well, who shares Keating's view, though?

Assistant Minister: Well, there is, I think, a very strong understanding across the Federal parliamentary Labor Party that this is the right approach.

Laura Jayes: So, no one really shares Keating's view?

Assistant Minister: We supported the proposition in the lead up to the last election. Richard Marles, the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and other ministers have been engaged in this ominously titled critical path program, trying to make sure that we're matching both the defence requirements but our workforce requirements, our industrial capability, and we're getting all that right, that's been a very careful exercise, it's been done well and the result is there for all to see.

Laura Jayes: We spoke to Dai Le before. She's the Independent Member for Fowler. She actually agreed with Keating on a lot of the points that he made, but also quickly pivoted to this cost of living issue. How do you say to the Australian public, or explain why you're spending $368 billion, it's about $12 billion a year to 2050, when people are starting to put food on the table, pay their mortgages? How are you going to pay for that, and it not hurt them?

Assistant Minister: Well, it's going to have to be budgeted for. It comes at some expense and the rest of the force -

Laura Jayes: An expense to whom, though? Because it's not just the budget, taxpayer's pay. So how are they going to pay for this?

Assistant Minister: Well, we have a series of competing responsibilities here. We have to get the balance right, here is that program. There is the Force Structure Review, which will require some re-evaluation and recommitment of defence spending priorities. There's what the government does more broadly in terms of Commonwealth expenditure, but there's also keeping cost of living down by being fiscally prudent, by building Australian industrial capability and productivity. There's a series of levers that we have to engage with and get right and what you could say about this government pretty confidently is we're focussed on all of those issues and determined to act in the national interest, not in a sort of hyper-partisan sort of way like the last government.

Laura Jayes: Well, to be fair, the last government is pretty bang on with this bit, of an issue around the cost, but it's largely bipartisan. Just quickly, gas, it is a problem. There is a shortage on the East Coast. Big providers actually have uncontracted gas, but they're not supplying it to the local or not committing it to the local market yet. What are you going to do about that?

Assistant Minister: Well, we've just come from the end of last year where we moved with the cooperation of the states to put price caps on coal and gas. Earlier we dealt with the supply questions for this year and next year -

Laura Jayes: Well then, [indistinct] with the shortage?

Assistant Minister: I can tell you the government will be watching this very closely. So, I'd just say we have acted. We have acted with real determination and in a way that I'm very confident has had a very positive effect on prices and supply. We will continue to focus on these issues. It's absolutely in the interests of households, but also for our manufacturing businesses to make sure -

Laura Jayes: Can you force these companies to commit that uncontracted gas to the East Coast market?

Assistant Minister: Well, the ACCC has got some very strong tools here and we're also reviewing the mechanism -

Laura Jayes: Is that yes?

Assistant Minister: - and I am, this government will do what is required and we've shown our determination and our capacity to do it. We'll do what is required on supply and price.

Laura Jayes: So, you're trying to use carrot but you might need a stick.

Assistant Minister: I'll just say we'll do what's required, Laura. I'm not engaged right now in this question. So, we will have to have - continue to carefully monitor this and the government has been doing that all the way through.

Laura Jayes: All right, we'll keep a close eye on that. Good to see you.

Assistant Minister: Good on you, Laura.