Interview with Greg Jennett, Afternoon Briefing, ABC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, nuclear-powered submarines, AUKUS, New York Austrade Office.

Greg Jennett: Now, on a day when the New South Wales Government found itself ever more deeply embroiled in those matters surrounding the now abandoned appointment of John Barilaro to that trade job in New York, Australia's Assistant Trade Minister, Tim Ayres, finds himself in the Big Apple representing the Government at a major international conference on the worldwide deal to limit the spread and number of nuclear weapons. We spoke to Tim Ayres from Manhattan not long ago.

Tim Ayres, welcome back to the program. Good evening your time there in New York. You've already addressed and, in fact, yesterday our time we played a portion of your speech to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review. Now in that, amongst other things, you invited delegations with any concerns about Australia's position to approach you. Have any?

Assistant Minister for Trade: We've had innumerable discussions here with delegates to the NPT Conference. I should say, Greg, that it is a real honour to be here at the Non-Proliferation Review Conference. Labor and Australia have got such a proud tradition of contributions to non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. We are regarded as, you know, having a leading role in these talks, but, our history and our future, there is no safe world while nuclear weapons are present, and it's a real honour to make a small contribution to this process today along with a very skilled and very experienced DFAT team.

Now, plenty of delegates have been engaging with the Australian team. There have been really good discussions. I can tell you that there's very strong support amongst the conference for the notion that Australia's making a very strong contribution on proliferation, and then in relation to the AUKUS program, delegates to the conference, other state parties, understand what it is that Australia is doing, understand that the IAEA process is independent and that Australia has set a very high bar for itself and for our UK and US partners, and we are very confident that we're going to move through that in an orderly and effective way.

Greg Jennett: You say they understand it, would it be fair to say they accept it, though, because we know in our own region, Indonesia and other South‑East Asian nations as a matter of record harbour concerns and to place those on the record? So can you say that above understanding, they accept?

Assistant Minister for Trade: Oh, yeah, there's a very strong acceptance of Australia's position in relation to these issues. The contribution of Dr Grossi the IAEA head at the beginning of the conference set this out very clearly for the delegates. It's natural of course that some states in the region will have questions. We are, as Australia, expecting there to be questions. We're welcoming questions and engagement. I'm very, very confident that as we work our way through this process over the coming months and years that the task that we've set ourselves with this project is fully compliant with all of the NPT and IAEA requirements and more than fully compliant will set a very high standard for the rest of the world

Greg Jennett: Without getting too technical, correct me if I'm wrong, but would one question be: who is going to be custodian of the highly enriched nuclear reactors on board these submarines? At any point in time is it, in fact, Australia, or would it nominally and notionally be the providing nation, either the UK or US? If that question's been asked, what's the answer?

Assistant Minister for Trade: Well, the question hasn't been asked the way that you've asked it, Greg. But if I was asked it by one of the other states, I would just say this: that the first phase of this project is the optimal pathway process and that's where Australia's working with the United Kingdom and the United States over which nuclear‑powered submarine platform that we will purchase and build. The IAEA has been engaged thoroughly with Australia during this process, including Dr Grossi's recent visit to Australia and indeed a visit to Fiji that Australia facilitated. He will provide a report later on this year.

The second phase, of course, in this is when Australia makes a decision about which platform and some of those issues about IP ownership and the questions that you've raised, I expect would be dealt with in that second phase. 

Greg Jennett: Okay. And do you feel like the IAEA is collaborating and cooperating thus far?

Assistant Minister for Trade: I'm very encouraged by the approach the IAEA has taken. It underscores their independence, but also Australia and our AUKUS partners' commitment to non-proliferation, our commitment to getting this absolutely right. This is the right decision for Australia in terms of our national interest. But it's also the right decision for our non-proliferation obligations and for continuing to raise the standard. Now, these issues have been raised, you're right, on the fringes of the conference, but we're not going to let that deter us or distract us from what is the simple purpose much this conference.

Greg Jennett: One final one, because I'm sure you will interact with the local DFAT post there, being from New South Wales, we've seen the whole New South Wales Trade Commissioner furore has now cost a Minister in Stuart Ayres his job. John Barilaro walked away from that offer. As Assistant Trade Minister, do you think that position is merited at all or is DFAT doing a fine enough job representing Australia's trade interests in New York?

Assistant Minister for Trade: Oh, DFAT and the Austrade capability here is absolutely terrific. There is such a strong team representing the country. I think what we've seen here is an unfolding scandal in New South Wales. I hope that the investigation that's occurring in New South Wales gets to the bottom of these questions. But I can tell you I'll be meeting with the Austrade team tomorrow in the New York mission. They're doing a fine job in the national interest, promoting Australia's trade and commercial interests in the United States and more broadly, and I look forward to talking to them about the excellent work they're doing in the future to broaden and extend that work.

Greg Jennett: Yep, let's keep an eye on that one. Tim Ayres, thanks so much for your valuable time there in New York. We'll see you back in Australia before too long.

Assistant Minister for Trade: It's a pleasure, Greg, see you in a week.

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