Officials have remained tight-lipped over a submarine deal that caused an international rift with the French.
Taxpayers are no closer to finding out any further details about the AUKUS alliance, as officials were coy about the submarine deal during a parliamentary hearing on Monday.
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong took up the issue in Senate estimates late Monday afternoon, grilling officials over when the decision to scrap the French submarine deal was made.
The decision to partner with the UK and US for the acquisition of eight nuclear powered submarines caused an international rift with the French, who threatened to block critical EU trade talks with Australia over the diplomatic fracas.
Reporting following the announcement of AUKUS indicated Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the first move to push Australia towards nuclear submarines in March 2020.
When asked, First Assistant Secretary Lachlan Colquhoun said Mr Morrison had requested a review into Australia’s internal defence capabilities.
In the review’s findings, the Secretary of Defence and Chief of the Defence force proposed Australia “investigate the feasibility of nuclear power”.
Asked when that review and its findings was handed to the Prime Minister, Mr Colquhoun could not answer.
“I genuinely don’t know. I was only briefed into this material, very small group of people this year,” he told the estimates hearings.
Senate leader Simon Birmingham later told the hearing high-level discussions were held in March 2020, and more specific discussions began in May 2020.
“March was a high level discussion initiated around submarine capability,” he said.
“May was a more specific request in terms of, okay, the strategic advice and outlook is suggesting change environments in relation to submarine capability, therefore, would it be feasible, possible, to actually look at nuclear powered submarines.”
Asked if the Prime Minister had already decided Australia was going to walk away from the French deal by the time Peter Dutton was installed as Defence Minister in March 2021, Mr Colquhoun said: “I don’t believe so, Senator, to the best of my knowledge.”
Mr Birmingham said he was also brought into the loop by the Prime Minister in March 2021, prior to a Cabinet discussion.
“I had a discussion with the Prime Minister – prior to there being a Cabinet committee discussion,” he said.
When that Cabinet discussion was held, officials could not say.
Much of the questioning put by Senator Wong was referred to either the Department of Defence or taken on notice.
Later, officials told the estimates hearing the Memorandum of Understanding signed to create the AUKUS agreement was “classified”.
“It’s all very secret, isn’t it,” Senator Wong quipped.
Originally published as Officials grilled over ‘secret’ nuclear submarine deal