Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said a decision on Australia’s preferred nuclear-powered submarine will not be made before the upcoming federal election, directly contradicting his Defence Minister Peter Dutton, who on Sunday said a decision was expected in the “next couple of months”.
The federal Opposition has slammed the government for not providing briefings on progress on the submarines program, despite it being set to span many terms of government, and Mr Morrison providing updates to state and local governments in recent days.
Mr Dutton stirred controversy on Sunday by saying the government would make a decision about whether to purchase British or American nuclear submarines in the next two months, before the federal election.
This was despite the government taskforce set up to investigate and advise on this issue only being about six months into its 18 month investigation.
As part of a virtual Lowy Institute address on Monday afternoon, Mr Morrison contradicted Mr Dutton, saying a decision would not be made before the election.
“We don’t anticipate that decision will be made before the election. That would involve a whole other process particularly during a caretaker period leading up to the election. But I can confirm what Peter has said: that we have made a lot of progress,” Mr Morrison said.
Mr Morrison did announce that a $10 billion submarine base would be established somewhere on Australia’s east coast, either in Brisbane, Newcastle or Port Kembla. The final decision on this location is not expected until next year.
The nuclear-powered submarine program is the first initiative from the new AUKUS partnership with the UK and US, signed in September last year. On the same day as this signing, a taskforce was established to scope options for the acquisition of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
This taskforce, led by Vice-Admiral Jonathan Mead, now has 200 members from a range of federal departments, and 10 contractors who the Defence department has declined to name.
The taskforce had a “defining month” in February after it gained access to a nuclear information sharing agreement with the US and UK as part of a “treaty-like” agreement.
With significant decisions now to be made following the likely May federal election, the federal Opposition has criticised the government for not briefing them on the submarine planning.
“Given the timeframes for the proposed naval base span several terms of government, and the fact we are on the eve of the next election, it is disappointing the current government has not yet chosen to brief Labor on developments on strategic decisions,” shadow defence minister Brendan O’Connor said.
“Despite claiming they would keep Labor updated, we haven’t had a single update from the Morrison-Joyce government on this strategically important decision, which is, quite frankly, appalling. Given we are so close to an election, it’s in Australia’s national interests that the alternative government is kept fully briefed.”
While the government hasn’t yet briefed Labor on the submarines, Mr Morrison did confirm that he had spoken with the Queensland and New South Wales premiers on Sunday night about the issues and the shortlist for the naval base, and had also updated the relevant local governments on this issue.
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