Peter Dutton attacks credibility of Labor’s ‘cost-neutral’ four-year Aukus nuclear submarine plan

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, says Labor’s claim that the Aukus nuclear submarine plan is cost-neutral over four years is “not credible”, and that $3bn of defence cuts to fund the plan means the Albanese government is preparing to “cannibalise” other projects.

Dutton made the criticisms on Tuesday, despite otherwise offering bipartisan support for the plan to spend up to $368bn by the mid-2050s to buy up to five Virginia class submarines and build a next-generation UK-designed nuclear submarine in Australia.

Dutton also offered the Coalition’s support for a plan to select a defence site for nuclear waste, promising “no politics” on that point and urging critics to “grow up”.

The Australian government will spend $9bn over four years on the Aukus submarine program, including $6bn in Australia and $3bn in the UK and US, mostly the latter, to increase industrial capacity to build the Virginia class submarines.

Aukus deal ‘the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in history’ – video

The plan is budget-neutral because the government has booked $6bn of savings from scrapping the French Attack class submarines and $3bn in unidentified other cuts to defence projects.

On Tuesday the deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles, said the defence strategic review had a “good look” at spending and that information about cuts will be released before the budget in two months.

Marles said the defence budget will continue to grow, from 2% to 2.2% of GDP. The Aukus submarine plan will cost 0.15% of GDP on average a year in the long term to 2054-55, which Marles labelled “modest” given the “transformation in the capability and potency of the defence force”.

Marles defended the $3bn cut, arguing that defence must be exposed to “budgetary discipline” and that keeping the Aukus program cost-neutral over four years is an “important down-payment on the part of defence”.

“There is no ring-fencing of defence, [it] needs to justify its expenditure and value for money just as any other part of government must do,” he said.

In January, after receiving the defence strategic review, Marles signalled that the government would scale back some defence projects to fund others, telling Guardian Australia “we don’t have limitless resources”.

On Tuesday Dutton told reporters in Canberra “it’s not credible for the government to say that there’s no net impact even over the forward estimates”.

“We can’t allow Labor to cannibalise the defence force to pay for Aukus – it’s not an either or option,” he said.

Dutton conceded there might be “some savings” to be found in the defence portfolio, but called on the government to detail proposed cuts.

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He warned the government not to strip any of the $10bn invested over 10 years in cybersecurity in the Coalition’s last budget under Operation RedSpice, which he said was an “incredibly important element” of Australia’s defences.

Dutton doubled down on his comments of Monday evening, nominating the national disability insurance scheme as an area where the Coalition could offer bipartisan support to Labor for budget savings to pay for Aukus submarines.

Dutton said the program, which is “crucial to provide dignity and support to people with disabilities” may become “financially unviable” without changes.

“If they [the government] need to pass legislation – I’ve said nothing different to what I said in October last year … we’re willing to support that through the Senate.”

The Greens disability rights and peace spokesperson, Senator Jordon Steele-John, said the “NDIS is an essential service for all Australians to live a happy and healthy life, yet the Coalition has been targeting the disabled community for years to try and dismantle it.

“The disabled community have defended the NDIS against independent assessments, the participant service guarantee and funding cut after funding cut,” he said.

“I’d hope [government services minister] Bill Shorten and Labor will call out Dutton for his disgraceful comments”.

The Albanese government will initiate a process within 12 months to identify or acquire defence land for a nuclear waste facility, remote from the Australian population. It will not be required to store waste from the Aukus submarines until the 2050s.

Dutton called for a “sensible, mature debate” about nuclear energy, waste and its disposal.

“We dispose of nuclear waste now in our country … we dispose of it safely.

“We’ve got … an incredibly stable environment to store nuclear waste.”

Dutton said the US had demanded “nuclear stewardship” as part of the deal and the Coalition “won’t be playing politics … we will support the government in its decision to deal with the waste”.