Tuesday, 14 February 2023
I rise to speak about defence minister Marles's ministerial statement on securing Australia's sovereignty. As previous speakers have alluded to, securing our sovereignty is the government's top priority. It is the capacity of our people, through their government, to determine their own circumstances free from coercion. It underpins every other public good that the state delivers, from essential services to our economic growth and from our secure borders to meaningful action on climate change. While it is not the only one, defence capability is a key determinant of sovereignty.
In a world where the threat of armed conflict is less remote and foreign interference is more prevalent than ever, it has never been more important to guard our sovereignty. This is urgent, because we face the most difficult circumstances, strategically, since the Second World War. An example of that is Russia's illegal and immoral war in Ukraine. It gives us daily proof that industrial war, large-scale war, is no longer a thing of the past, as we had all hoped following the carnage of the Second World War. In our region, the Indo-Pacific, we see large military build-ups rivalling any in the post-war period. We are also seeing increasing strategic competition, with a more assertive China seeking to shape the world around it in our region, and grey-zone activities that bring tensions to our shores. So we now live in a less safe and a less stable world.
This is why we must ensure the security of our strategic geography in our region and also the viability of our trading and supply routes. And it is why we must work with like-minded countries and partners, and our United States ally. Our partnerships represent a network of states that reinforce norms, principles and the rules based system to ensure a free, open and, of course, prosperous Indo-Pacific. Our government, the Albanese government, is strengthening our partnerships with not only the US, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and India but also PNG, Indonesia, the ASEAN group and the Quad.
While all these relationships strengthen Australia's sovereignty, by maximising our influence, today I would like to take this opportunity to speak to our US ally, which has been central to our national security since the 1940s. The Labor Party is proud to have led the wartime government that laid the alliance's modern foundations during the Pacific War. Our 1951 alliance with the United States is one of the most important bipartisan achievements of Australian diplomacy and one that enjoys broad public approval. Now our government is committed to building on that record.
A significant step change in our security cooperation with the United States was the establishment of the bilateral Force Posture Initiatives by the Gillard government in 2011. This began with the first rotation of US marines to Darwin, which has ramped up to the full rotation strength of 2,500 troops. I'm sure honourable members will remember when President Obama visited Darwin—we certainly do in my electorate of Solomon. Successive Australian governments have held the view that a strong and active US military presence in the Indo-Pacific is vital for deterring threats to the stability of the region. There is one development in the alliance that is hard to miss—namely, that it is becoming increasingly Australianised. What I mean by that is that the alliance is growing more visible on Australian soil, above all in the north of our country—in Darwin, in the Northern Territory.
I've already mentioned the ongoing deployment of marines to Darwin, which was expanded at the 2022 AUSMIN meeting in Washington DC to include rotations of US Army, US Navy and US Air Force elements, including bombers and fighters, training out of Australian bases over the coming years—Tindal, near Katherine, being foremost among those bases. AUSMIN communiques are worth paying attention to because they function as the shared to-do list, if you like, of our alliance.
The latest one committed the allies to supporting enhanced US Force Posture Initiatives by co-developing northern Australian bare bases and associated infrastructure, including runway improvements, parking aprons, fuel infrastructure, explosive ordnance, storage infrastructure and facilities, to support the workforce. An example of this is the stockpiling of jet fuel at a US owned storage facility in Darwin. These Force Posture Initiatives, which Japan has been invited to participate in, strengthen Australia's security, which in turn increases America's ability to deter blatant challenges to the rules based order of the kind we see in Russia's illegal war of aggression against Ukraine.
As the 2022 communique states, Australia and America are concerned by excessive maritime claims in our region that are inconsistent with international law. As Australia's strategic real estate increases in significance to our great and powerful American allies, so too does our alliance continue to deepen. I see this trend continuing over the next decade for, essentially, geopolitical and geostrategic reasons.
America's Force Posture Initiatives in the region respond to their need to disperse forces and to not over rely on its bases in other nations in our region—South Korea, Japan and Guam being examples that face growing limitations. But Darwin and our other northern and southern Australian bases offer good options, safer options, for our allied forces to consider. It would be wrong to reduce the alliance to this simple arithmetic, but it is undeniably helping to shape its future.
Our trilateral AUKUS partnership with the US and the UK is the next chapter in our strategic co-operation. The strongest deterrent and strategic effect that Australia can hope to contribute to the alliance is, without doubt, the acquisition of a nuclear powered, conventionally armed submarine force. This was not its only promise, which also included long-range strike capabilities, but it was the main thrust of the 2021 AUKUS technology-sharing agreement between Australia, the UK and the US. Obviously, this was not a bilateral deal with our US ally only, but it must inevitably be understood in the context of the alliance. While the UK is an extremely close defence partner and not a treaty ally, these submarines are highly likely to operate in an alliance framework. Far from increasing our dependence, as some argue, AUKUS will strengthen Australia's sovereignty by delivering nuclear powered but conventionally armed submarines.
To update the House: in January 2023, in my capacity as Chair of the Australia-United States Parliamentary Friendship Group, I led a state-department-sponsored visit to the United States by a bipartisan delegation of members and senators. It was clear to me that, in the United States of America, there's increasing fondness and a realisation of the importance of us within the alliance, and it is in good shape.