STEVE PRICE, HOST: Joel Fitzgibbon, the benefits of being an outgoing MP, you can say things that you might not necessarily have been able to say previously. And he has been involved in the choice of submarines over the time. He worked on a White Paper in 2009 that looked at the building of a new submarine fleet. And he's on the line, good to talk to you again.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: G'day, Steve.
PRICE: It seems to have been a very tortured process, this. I mean, just even with the Coalition. I mean, we had Tony Abbott wanted to buy them off the Japanese and then that got thrown out the door, Malcolm Turnbull decided to then go on this expensive South Australian build with the French, now that's gone. Now we've done a deal with the Americans and with the UK, but not for an actual submarine, but to build something maybe within the next 20 years. Why can't we just get on with it?
FITZGIBBON: Yes, Steve. It's been a terrible process. And the collins-submarines were ready for retirement when I became Minister in 2007. And here we are now being told that we won't have a new submarine until maybe 2040. That leaves a very, very large capability gap. The problem all along, of course, is that Australia loves reinventing the world with military kit. We're always trying to adapt something else for our own purposes, not without justification. Our submarines have always been viewed by the Americans as something that supplements or enhances their own fleet, that is something that does a little bit more or something different than their own underwater boats. And that's what we've strived to do in the past. But in doing so, we've tried to transform other people's submarines into something that does what we want it to do, and what the Americans want it to do. We are a small country. We have limited scope to do these things. Submarines, by the way, Steve, are more technical, more sophisticated than fighter jets, believe it or not.
FITZGIBBON: So, trying to reinvent the wheel was always going to, I think, end in tears. That's exactly what's happened. I think Malcolm Turnbull made a terrible decision on the attack class, with that contract with the French and you know, it's history now. But we know now, where that's taken us.
PRICE: Well, that was about saving seats in South Australia, incredibly, wasn't it? I mean, that's a simplistic view, but that was part of it.
FITZGIBBON: It's always about saving seats in South Australia, Steve, when it comes to Defence Industry. You know, we should pay a premium for the capacity to build, repair and maintain military kit here when we can, but there's no point paying over the odds. You can create the same jobs, or the same number of jobs, spending the same money on roads, bridges or something else. These are very, very high risk projects. I'm not advocating we don't do everything we can here. But I think we need to be smarter, particularly with respect to the risk involved.
PRICE: I guess, when you were in government, the mere mention of the word nuclear would have sent people in a nuclear panic, particularly the left of the party and the Greens. So, were they ever an option when you were in government, that you might go down the nuclear path?
FITZGIBBON: When we announced in our 2009 White Paper, that there would be a big focus on enhancing our underwater capability, we immediately ruled out nuclear. I've said publicly before, I think that was a mistake. We did so, really, for two reasons. I think we were very conscious of the lack of support in the community, so we didn't want to waste political capital having that argument. But more particularly, I was convinced by the argument that we just didn't have the civil nuclear industry or capability in Australia, to service and maintain nuclear submarines. And in hindsight, that was actually correct. But that has changed now. These new subs don't really need repairing or maintaining, at least not their power pack, not their nuclear reactors, so it lasts for the life of the boat. So that changes the dynamic. You don't need to be able to repair the nuclear component or maintain the reactor here in Australia. That's a big difference. Something else has changed, Steve. Our submarines, historically, have been more about intelligence than fighting. In other words, they go to sneak in little places in relatively shallow water and listen. It's not a secret. I'm not breaching the secrecy act. But that has changed. What we're looking from our submarines now is, really, a deterrence capability. Something that can fight. Therefore, we don't really need a smaller boat or any of the things that collins-types boats provided, in contrast to what the Americans have. So, that dynamic has changed as well.
PRICE: Peter Dutton, the Defence minister seems to let the cat out of the bag. I mean, the government is, I think, was trying to perhaps get through the next election with the belief that all these things would be built in Adelaide and keep all those jobs. Whereas Peter Dutton has revealed that, well, the option of, you know, borrowing one, as I think was his term, off the Americans might be an option. That's clearly probably going to happen, isn't it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, this is political masterclass, isn't it, Steve. Every question that government gets on submarines after the initial announcement now is responded with: well, the next 18 months, over the next 18 months, we're looking at all these things...
PRICE: ... Funny timing.
FITZGIBBON: We'll tell you then after the election. But look, I don't have any problem with leasing American nuclear-powered submarines. Why not? If it fills the capability gap, I mean, what is more important here, all those questions that emerge from that or the defence of the country? So, I've actually amused many years ago that, you know, when I was dealing with the complexities of submarine builds, maybe we would be better off just leasing American submarines and allowing them to maintain and fix them. But of course, that wouldn't be very popular in defence industry terms.
PRICE: The friends in the Greens, of course, very measured. Adam Bandt warning about floating Chernobyls being docked in Australian ports.
FITZGIBBON: Well, this is both offensive and irresponsible, isn't it, Steve. I mean, what are they going on about, the Greens? We have a nuclear reactor within stone throw of the Sydney CBD. We've had it for many decades, it is safe and proven to be so. What sort of messages does Adam Bandt send though, to those people who live in those suburbs around that nuclear reactor? And it's a funny thing, isn't it, Steve, there seems to be broad community acceptance of having reactors sitting in our ports and floating up and down our heavy populated coastlines, but we can't have a nuclear powered generator in Australia. There's a warped sort of logic in all of that, isn't there?
PRICE: Yeah, it is. And I'm not sure we're going to advance that anytime soon. Always a pleasure to catch up, mate. Thanks a lot. Talk again soon.
FITZGIBBON: Thanks, Steve.