‘Appalling episode’: Former PM puts AUKUS deal in firing line

By Jackson Graham

Thursday September 30, 2021

Malcolm Turnbull questions why Australia is entering a new submarine deal without its own nuclear industry
Malcolm Turnbull questions why Australia is entering a new submarine deal without its own nuclear industry. (AP Photo/Andrew Taylor)

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull questions why Australia is entering a new submarine deal without its own nuclear industry and claims broken trust has hurt national security.

The Australian government this month scrapped a contract, which Turnbull’s government agreed to in 2016, with France to build 12 diesel-powered submarines. 

Turnbull said the the Morrison government’s pivot to source nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK created an impression of a superior replacement but only promised a review of possibilities.

“Australia now has no new submarine program at all,” he told the National Press Club on Wednesday.

“Nothing is agreed, there’s no design, no costing, no contract. The only certainty is that we won’t have new submarines for 20 years.” 

Turnbull revealed he had in 2018 tasked the defence department to investigate nuclear-powered submarine options as technologies evolved and risks escalated. 

“I was concerned that conventionally powered boats would not be good enough in the future,” he said. 

The advice then was that Australia could not maintain a nuclear-powered navy without its own civil nuclear industry, he said.

But updated advice this month that highly enriched uranium reactors in the UK and US vessels would not require replacement during their 35-year life has not convinced Turnbull the new deal will make Australia better off. 

“This is very different advice to that given to the government as recently as three years ago, and it sounds too good to be true,” he said. 

“The new AUKUS submarines will still be built in Adelaide but if there are no nuclear facilities there that must mean the submarine hulls will have to be transported to the US or the UK to have the reactor installed.

“You don’t have to be especially cynical to see that it won’t be long before someone argues ‘it looks much simpler to have the first submarine built in the US or the UK’ and then the second, third and so on.” 

He highlighted that Australia would be the first country without any civil nuclear industry to operate a nuclear submarine and the first non-nuclear weapons state to use highly enriched uranium in a naval reactor. 

“If we are not going to develop nuclear facilities of our own then we will be no more sharing nuclear technology with the United States than the owner of an iPhone sharing smartphone technology with Apple,” Turnbull said. 

He said the French vessels were originally designed for nuclear propulsion. “If we decided to switch to nuclear we had a partner who had the expertise to do it with us,” he said. 

Turnbull also revealed he spoke with French president Emmanuel Macron following France’s outrage over the broken deal, finding anger expressed in the French government to be widespread. 

The former Liberal leader took aim at prime minister Scott Morrison, claiming scrapping the French deal had damaged Australia’s reputation and by extension its security. 

“What seems to have been overlooked is one of our national security assets is trust,” Turnbull said. 

“This is an appalling episode in Australia’s international affairs and the consequences will endure to our disadvantage for a very long time.”

He conceded having the first of a nuclear fleet by 2040 would be a “good development” but claimed the route Australia had taken was “clumsy, deceitful and costly”.

“Despite this awkward birth, I hope that AUKUS turns out to be a great success, it should be,” Turnbull said. 

“We must be seen to have an independent foreign policy, and sovereign defence capabilities. We need to have, develop, and retain relations with other nations in our region and beyond.”


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