There will be no major decisions made on the proposed nuclear submarine program before the upcoming federal election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton on Sunday told the ABC there would be an announcement “within the next couple of months about which boat we are going with [and] what we can do in the interim”.
But Mr Morrison says Australians should not expect the decision to be made before the election, which must be held by late May.
The consultation process was slated to take 18 months from when the trilateral AUKUS security pact with Britain and the US was announced in mid-September 2021.
“The process isn’t just about deciding the technology and boat option we go forward with,” Mr Morrison told the Lowy Institute following a major foreign policy address on Monday.
“There’s a whole series of things that have to take place after that. We don’t anticipate that should be done before the election – it won’t be done in that time frame.”
Caretaker conventions that operate during an election campaign would also severely limit decision making.
Mr Morrison used the speech to confirm that defence officials had been tasked with talking to the NSW and Queensland governments about setting up a multibillion-dollar base for the new nuclear-powered submarines.
Sites at either Newcastle or Port Kembla in NSW or Brisbane are being considered as possible locations. Initial work is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.
The base will also be available for visiting nuclear submarines.
The three potential sites have been chosen because of their proximity to industrial infrastructure, large population centres, deep water, maritime training and weapons storage and loading facilities.
Mr Morrison said a second submarine base on the east coast would enhance strategic deterrent capability and carry significant operational, training, personnel and industrial advantages.
But former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull weighed in on the decision, saying Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines was the worst thing the country could do in the face of rising global tensions.
Mr Turnbull said the deal had undermined Australia’s national security, especially after growing instability seen in Europe, and amounted to an “abandonment of sovereignty” under the AUKUS deal.
“It’s going to result in us having nuclear submarines, if it ever comes to pass, that we not only can’t build, can’t maintain and will not be able to operate on our own,” he told ABC Radio.
“It’s exactly the worst thing that we should be doing in the face of the threats we face.”
But Mr Morrison said tensions across Europe after the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlighted the higher threat environment Australia was operating in.
“It highlights the threat of autocracies … and why we need greater capabilities but I think all of those points were driving the forces of AUKUS before these events took place, and it continues to carry it.”
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said while he supported nuclear-propelled submarines, he was yet to hear how the submarine industry in Adelaide would be affected.
“There were immediate job losses there, and I couldn’t find [Adelaide] anywhere in the announcement … but we have not received the courtesy of a briefing in advance, so therefore, I’m not going to sign off automatically on that detail,” he told Adelaide radio station 5AA.
South Australians will vote in the state election on March 19, with defence jobs a key issue.