While Labor leader Anthony Albanese attacked the government over the $2.4 billion spent on the dumped plan for conventional submarines, he did not endorse Mr Keating’s criticism and instead backed the stronger ties with the US.
“That was forged under John Curtin during World War II. It’s something that’s an important relationship. That important relationship has stood the test of time, including under Labor prime ministers, including under Paul Keating,” he said.
With the Chinese government calling the Australian decision “extremely irresponsible” because it would increase instability in the region, Greens leader Adam Bandt prepared for an election campaign on nuclear power and the US alliance by saying the government should ease rather than exacerbate tensions.
“The Prime Minister is putting floating Chernobyls near people in Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney and Perth and he needs to explain how many people will die if there’s a nuclear accident in one of our major cities,” he said.
In a series of assurances aimed at calming concerns over the change in policy, Mr Morrison said the sudden cancellation of the $90 billion attack-class submarine deal would only lead to greater spending and stronger job creation in building the new fleet.
The government has not set a percentage on the amount of local construction with each of the submarines and will consider whether the first vessels could be built overseas in order to deploy some of the fleet as soon as possible in the 2030s.
Those decisions will be part of a consultation phase over the next 18 months with the US and United Kingdom under the new military alliance, although the fundamental decision is to make the bulk of the fleet in South Australia.
With US company General Dynamics reporting a $40 billion backlog in work at its Electric Boat division, which makes the Virginia-class nuclear submarines, options to fast-track overseas construction could be limited.
A central claim in the government plan is Australia will gain access to US and UK technology including nuclear reactors made overseas and fitted to the submarines with enough fuel to last for the life of the vessel, limiting the handling of the fuel in Australia.
“We have built a world-class nuclear safety and regulatory capability, and we possess decades of experience of safely operating and sustaining submarines in addition,” Mr Morrison said on Thursday.
“This is not about acquiring nuclear weapons. Australia has no interest in that. No plans for it, no policy for it, no contemplation of it. It’s not on our agenda.”
Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty said the taskforce to be set up with the US and UK over the next 18 months would develop the “highest standards of safety” for the project including the management and disposal of nuclear waste from the vessels.
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan lashed out at the decision to build the new fleet in South Australia and drop plans for maintenance in Perth, saying this let WA down.
“Today’s decision by the Liberals and Nationals is not a decision in the national interest,” he said.
Mr Morrison argued that “Western Australians are Australians” and the project was in the national interest.
“All Australians benefit from the national interest decisions to protect Australians and to keep Australians safe, and the decision that is necessary to keep Australians best safe is for the full cycle docking to be undertaken in South Australia,” he said.
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