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Malcolm Turnbull says Labor has failed to answer if Aukus deal compromises Australian sovereignty

Malcolm Turnbull says the Albanese government has failed to answer fundamental questions about the Aukus nuclear submarine pact, including whether the arrangement with the US and Britain compromises Australian sovereignty.

Responding to a new signal from Anthony Albanese that Labor would have pursued the contentious agreement had he been in power at the time Scott Morrison landed the pact, the former prime minister said Australians were entitled to know the answer to basic questions, like whether we could operate our own military assets.

“Australians should reasonably expect that military capabilities acquired by their government should be sovereign capabilities,” Turnbull said on Thursday. “In all my time in government we understood a sovereign capability as being one that can be deployed, sustained and maintained by the Australian government in Australia.

“So the question on US-built nuclear-powered submarines is simply this: can they be operated, sustained and maintained by Australia without the support or supervision of the US Navy?

“If the answer is that US Navy assistance will be required that would mean, in any normal understanding of the term, that they are not Australian sovereign capabilities but rather that sovereignty would be shared with the US.

“If that is the case then this acquisition will be a momentous change which has not been acknowledged let alone debated.”

Turnbull has been raising this risk since the Morrison government reached agreement on the submarine proposal with Joe Biden and the then British prime minister Boris Johnson.

The former Labor prime minister Paul Keating has articulated very similar concerns, which has been an ongoing point of friction between himself and the current government.

Last October Keating said: “Because they’re nuclear submarines, they cannot be fielded without the technical support of the United States.

“If there’s interoperability it means our sovereignty, our freedom of decision and movement, is simply subordinated to the United States. No self-respecting Australian should ever put their hand up for our sovereignty being so wilfully suborned in this way.”

During a separate outing at the National Press Club in 2021, the former PM blasted both major Australian political parties for backing Aukus, arguing the plan was all about hawkish national security advisers who “can’t wait to get the staplers back on to the Americans”.

Keating declined to respond on Thursday to Albanese’s revelation during an interview with Guardian Australia’s politics podcast.

Aukus was championed by Morrison, who had claimed in the run-up to the 2022 election that “only this government would have initiated” it. Labor endorsed the arrangement in opposition despite concern from several neighbours in the region, including Indonesia and Malaysia, that it would help fuel a regional arms race.

Asked this week whether he would have initiated the pact had he been Australia’s prime minister at the time, Albanese said the question was “hypothetical” but there was “nothing terribly surprising” about deepening cooperation given the historical ties.

The prime minister said Aukus was about more than nuclear submarines. “It’s about our defence arrangements, it is about interoperability,” Albanese said. He said it was a pact between nations, not politicians.

Albanese intimated Labor would have landed in the same place as Morrison. “Aukus is an arrangement between nations who are friends [and] whoever was in government would have had similar … defence department, defence personnel and foreign affairs advice and that’s why our relationship with both those nations has been pretty consistent over a considerable period of time, regardless of who has been in office at any particular time.”

Concerns about a diminution of Australian sovereignty were heightened in 2021 when Biden’s top Indo-Pacific adviser, Kurt Campbell, observed that Aukus would lead to “a deeper interconnection and almost a melding in many respects of our services and working together on common purpose that we couldn’t have dreamed about five or 10 years ago”.

Campbell later clarified his remarks. “I fully understand how important sovereignty and independence is for Australia. So I don’t want to leave any sense that somehow that would be lost,” he said during an Australian webinar ahead of the 2022 election.

The deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, told Guardian Australia last week the government had been “very mindful” of the issue of sovereignty throughout the Aukus talks.

“The outcome of this process is one which, in my view, greatly enhances Australian sovereignty. And the fundamental reason for that is that the greater the capability Australia has to defend itself, the greater the sovereignty, and this is a very significant capability that we’re looking at developing.”

source: the guardian