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Former US navy secretary now Scott Morrison’s Aukus middleman on submarine plan

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Dcns Group/PR IMAGE</span>
Photograph: Dcns Group/PR IMAGE

A former US navy secretary who advised the Australian government on the scrapping of the French submarine deal will now act as a go-between with American defence officials in a $US6,000 a day role.

Prof Donald Winter revealed details of his expanded role in a filing to the US Department of Justice, as Australia embarks on an 18-month study into how to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the US and the UK.

According to the filing – which was required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the US equivalent to Australia’s foreign influence register – Winter received the request during Scott Morrison’s visit to Washington DC last week.

Related: The nuclear option: why has Australia ditched the French submarine plan for the Aukus pact?

Australia sparked a rift with Paris, and caused unease in some south-east Asian nations, when it announced in mid-September that it was dumping its $A90bn deal with France’s Naval Group in favour of a defence partnership with the UK and the UK to be known as Aukus.

Winter has been serving as the prime minister’s special adviser on naval shipbuilding since January, with officials saying his contract was worth up to $A1.5m over three years.

In the new filing (pdf), Winter said the Australian government had asked him to engage with US personnel “to further Aukus implementation”. That would involve coordinating with the US Department of Defense leadership, “principally Navy”.

Winter – who served as US navy secretary from 2006 to 2009 under the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations – has long been involved in oversight of Australia’s future submarine program, including scrutinising the original bidding process.

When approached for comment, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) confirmed that Winter was “supporting the work of the US, UK and Australia to explore the optimum pathway for Australia to acquire conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines”.

“As a trusted adviser to the prime minister and a former United States Secretary of the Navy, Prof Winter is uniquely placed to engage within the US system on behalf of Australia in the implementation of the Aukus partnership,” a spokesperson for PM&C said.

At the beginning of this year, Morrison made a series of personnel changes that would allow him to make a U-turn on the submarine project, amid growing concerns about China’s assertiveness and whether the project would provide the capability the Australian government believed it needed.

That included appointing Winter as the prime minister’s special adviser on naval shipbuilding. Winter is paid through his firm Burdeshaw Associates.

Winter’s filing to the US Department of Justice – which revealed his rate of pay in the role was $US6,000 a day plus expenses – was first noticed by a Twitter user on Monday. Guardian Australia subsequently confirmed the information, which was published on the US Department of Justice website, and obtained comment from the Australian government.

On Tuesday the PM&C spokesperson told Guardian Australia Winter’s fees were “commensurate with commercial rates for managing directors” and were “considered appropriate for the highly specialised skills and experience required”.

Related: Essential poll: majority of Australians back Aukus submarine pact, but fear it will inflame tensions with China

This month’s cancellation of Australia’s $90bn deal with France’s Naval Group for 12 conventional submarines prompted the French government to recall its ambassador to Australia, amid claims it had been kept in the dark and “stabbed in the back”.

In October 2016 the Turnbull government appointed Winter as chair of Australia’s Naval Shipbuilding Advisory Board, which would eventually raise concerns about the how the submarine project was progressing.

In 2018, the Winter-chaired board suggested that the Australian government consider whether proceeding with the French submarine program was in the national interest.

The board “commented that Defence should assess whether program risks outweighed the benefits of proceeding even if negotiations succeeded on the Strategic Partnering Agreement”, according to deliberations revealed in a later report by the auditor general.

At Senate estimates in March this year, PM&C officials revealed the Attack-class submarines and the Hunter-class frigates were “a particular focus” of Winter’s new advisory role.

PM&C officials said Winter had “extensive experience” and was “able to provide some really invaluable advice”. They said a lot of Winter’s work had been done remotely from the Australian embassy in Washington DC, because of Covid-related travel limitations.

In June, the Defence Department left the door open to changing course on the submarine program, saying in a public hearing that “prudent contingency planning” was under way.

The resulting Aukus arrangement – announced on 16 September with much fanfare – commits Australia, the UK and the US to deepen cooperation on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and undersea capabilities.

Its first project is an 18-month study to identify “the optimal pathway to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia”.

The Australian government has attempted to allay concerns from countries including Indonesia and Malaysia, by saying it remains committed to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and that it will work cooperatively to support “regional stability and security”.

Naval Group is now drawing up a bill for the cancelled contract, but has yet to publicly disclose how much it is seeking from the Australian government.

Morrison’s requests to speak directly with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, have so far been rebuffed, and it is unclear when the French ambassador will return to Canberra.

•This story was amended on 29 September, 2021, to include information that the filing on the US department’s website was first highlighted on social media.

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