Battle lines: Political enemies take aim at ‘high-risk’ subs deal

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines comes with a “very high risk” of failure and faces huge challenges of recruiting and training enough skilled workers.

Mar 16, 2023, updated Mar 16, 2023
Former Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull (left) and Paul Keating have both come out strongly against Australia's massive new $368 billion AUKUS submarine contract. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Former Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull (left) and Paul Keating have both come out strongly against Australia's massive new $368 billion AUKUS submarine contract. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

It follows Labor’s most revered living leader Paul Keating launching a scathing attack on the landmark military deal, which he described as Australia’s worst international decision since the conscription policy during World War I.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced details of Australia’s submarine pact with the US and UK – part of the AUKUS security alliance – on Tuesday.

As part of the arrangement, Australia will command a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines within the next three decades.

Turnbull said Australia would need to train thousands of skilled workers, who then faced a challenge of finding work in a relevant field after the project finished.

“The human resources challenges of this are really considerable, because we don’t have a nuclear industry in Australia,” he told ABC RN.

The former Liberal leader said the deal came with a “very high risk” of failing to deliver because the British submarines were yet to be designed.

Turnbull also questioned whether Britain was going to be “financially strong enough” to be Australia’s partner in delivering the boats, with the country’s economy forecast to be the worst-performing large advanced economy this year.

He said unlike the UK, France – which Australia tore up a $90 billion submarine deal with for AUKUS – was already in the Indo-Pacific and had millions of citizens located there.

Turnbull said all of these issues should have been publicly debated.

“We’ve been caught up in this hoopla where anyone that expresses any concerns about it is accused of being or implied that they’re lacking in patriotism,” he said.

Keating condemned the $368 billion price tag and questioned Australia’s sovereignty within the arrangement.

Minister for Defence and Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles said Keating remained a revered figure within the Labor Party.

He told ABC 7.30 that no matter what the former prime minister said about him, Albanese or Foreign Minister Penny Wong, the government would not say a bad word about Keating.

“The Hawke-Keating government was the great peacetime, reformist, long-term government in our history,” Marles said.

He said the government had worked hard to stabilise Australia’s diplomatic relations with China.

“We want to have a productive relationship with China, but we do observe that we are seeing the biggest conventional military build-up in the world today since the end of the Second World War,” Marles said.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said Keating’s comments showed there was division within the Labor Party over AUKUS.

“I think it is incumbent upon Richard Marles and others … to rebuke the unhinged comments of Mr Keating,” he told reporters in Melbourne.

“(The government) should be taking the advice of the military and intelligence chiefs as opposed to Paul Keating.”

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