CHRIS KENNY: I caught up earlier with the Assistant Minister for Defence, Andrew Hastie, and I started off by wishing him a happy Australia Day and asking him how he’d spent it.
THE HON ANDREW HASTIE MP, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Happy Australia Day to you, too, Chris. It's been a great day thus far, I got up early and went for a ride around town, and then spent two hours with the local council and with new Australian citizens, watching them take their oaths of allegiance to this country. I'm going to head after this interview down to the beach and have a few sausages and enjoy the occasion with family, friends, and the community.
CHRIS KENNY: Fantastic. That's what the day is all about, enjoying this great country, celebrating it, and striving, I suppose committing to improving it as we go along. Do you think that the activists who want to change the date have already lost? We seem to have the debate each year but to me, it's lost a bit of gusto and with some prominent and respected indigenous leaders like Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price and others saying that, hey, they love Australia day too, it seems to have been more broadly accepted now by just about everybody?
ANDREW HASTIE: That's right, and we've had so many new migrants over the last 30 years. They're part of our story now and they've embraced Australia Day. If you walk a couple of hundred metres from my office right here you'll see a sea of Australian flags, lots of people celebrating, lots of boats out on the water. I think the general population, mainstream Australia, love Australia Day and the flag says it all: liberty under law, our beautiful geography, and our federal character as a country. That's why they love flying it. That's why my kids are asking for flag tattoos. And that's why we celebrate together as a country on January 26.
CHRIS KENNY: Of course, as Assistant Defence Minister, you will be very focused on the Australian Defence Force personnel on duty today, and none more important at the moment than the crew of the HMAS Adelaide on its way to Tonga to help out that country after the tsunami and volcano eruption. They're suffering some cases of COVID on the ship. Can you give us the latest, where the ship is, what it's up to, and how that COVID infection situation is going?
ANDREW HASTIE: Sure, Chris – 23 cases of COVID on board, the crew are isolating, there is no one with a severe case of COVID at this point in time. We're there to help the Tongan government and people and so we have to take as many health precautions as possible. We're working very closely with the Tongan government to make sure that we respect their sovereignty, and we provide the aid that they desperately need. So I think we're coming alongside soon, or if not already, and we'll be unloading those ships very, very carefully to make sure that we maintain the health of the Tongan people who have just been through a really, really tough time. But we're doing that in partnership with the US, the UK, Japan, and other countries. This is all part of Australia being a regional power and a good neighbour, looking after our close friends.
CHRIS KENNY: Yes, fantastic stuff. We are a giant in the Pacific, we've got to do - we do a lot for the Pacific, we've got to keep doing a lot more, especially when you have this strategic competition from China trying to move in to that sphere of influence. I just wanted to ask you when we think about China and its role in the region, whether we ought to be especially careful at the moment, there's a huge focus on Russia and the Ukraine understandably, but when you think about the way international strategies and geopolitics plays out would you be concerned that perhaps Beijing might be looking at getting a little bit progressive in our region, while all the eyes are focused on Ukraine? I'm thinking particularly about intimidating Taiwan and the like. Is it a particularly dangerous time in our region, when there's so much happening in Eastern Europe?
ANDREW HASTIE: It's a very dangerous time. I've said many times before, that the US has underwritten world security since the Second World War with their naval power principally, and at the moment they're under immense pressure. They have the challenge of Russia massing troops on the border of Ukraine in Eastern Europe, and, of course, China continues to normalize aggressive behaviour around Taiwan and in the South China Sea. And so, for the US, this is a big challenge: a dilemma, really. They've got to keep their eyes focused both on Europe and also the Indo-Pacific region. We have an important role to play here, and that is to uphold the rules-based global order right here in the Indo-Pacific. We partner very closely with Japan, India, the US and other countries. Our focus must be here in the Indo-Pacific and particularly in times of natural disaster, helping our Pacific neighbours, because the last thing we want is the Chinese government moving in and supplanting some of those relationships which are critical, they are long-standing, they are historic, they are rooted in deep affection for each other. That's why we need to be a good neighbour and help people out, like Tonga, in times of crisis.
CHRIS KENNY: Yeah, look, I think it's important to that we keep reminding Beijing and Washington that while there's a lot of trouble in Eastern Europe that we need to keep focused on East Asia, as well, as you outlined. Now, I want to ask you, to bring you back to the domestic situation, now, of course, we're speaking to you in Western Australia, that state is still having a hard border with the rest of the country. Do you think that the premier, the Labor premier Mark McGowan, has done the wrong thing pushing back that border opening from 5 February? And do you believe there could be any electoral politics in this? Do you think that he's trying to make it hard for the Coalition to campaign in Western Australia in the lead up to the federal election?
ANDREW HASTIE: It's a great question, Chris. I've had a lot of feedback from people over the last week since the premier reneged on opening the border. A lot of people support the hard border. For people on the east coast, for the last two years, our lives have pretty much been uninterrupted: schools have continued, business has continued, civil society has continued, without interruption from the pandemic and Western Australians have enjoyed that and they don't want to let that go too quickly. So, there's still support for the border. People are frustrated though with the premier, the lack of planning, they don't know when the border will open now, a lot of them didn't want to necessarily get vaccinated or had a problem with him using coercive executive power to force them to get vaccinated, but they did so because they thought it was in the best interests of the state to open up – and now that that's not happening, there's a lot of frustration from people. So I'm not sure what exactly is the plan, but people don't like living from press conference to press conference. And that's the feeling in the community at the moment. But Chris, you know, people want to live healthily, they want to get on with their lives. Small businesses particularly have had a really tough time of it on the east coast, and west coast small businesses are looking across the Nullarbor and thinking we don't want that. So there's still residual support for the hard border.
CHRIS KENNY: Well, Andrew Hastie thanks for joining us on Australia Day. We look forward to catching up with you throughout the year.
ANDREW HASTIE: Good on you, Chris. Thanks for your time.