TOM TILLEY: Australia has about 300 personnel in Iraq and in just a few days, HMAS Toowoomba will depart for a monitoring mission in the Straits of Hormuz. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds joins us from Canberra. Minister, thank you so much for joining us. Donald Trump says Iran appears to be standing down. What's your take? Have both countries pulled back from further military conflict?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Good morning Tom. As you would expect, the Government is very closely monitoring the unfolding events in Iraq but Australia does warmly welcome President Trump's statement overnight on the situation in the Middle East. And his confirmation that no military personnel were injured in the attacks. Can I assure all Australians and, in particular, families at home of those who have got loved ones in Iraq and the wider Middle East, that all our military personnel and diplomatic personnel are safe. But we do continue to urge all parties to exercise restraint and de-escalation.
TOM TILLEY: It is good to hear that our military personnel are safe. But were any Australians in those two military bases that were hit by those Iranian missiles?
LINDA REYNOLDS: No, they were not. We did not have any Australians near where those missiles landed.
TOM TILLEY: Could this situation have been very different many Americans were killed were wounded in those missile strikes yesterday?
LINDA REYNOLDS: There is no point in speculating on what may have been. We are working very closely with our allies. I am in close contact with the US Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, and colleagues from other nations. We are all working very hard to ensure all parties exercise restraint and de-escalation, so that we can continue our mission in Iraq in the fight against Daesh, which is incredibly important, not only for the region, but also Australia.
TOM TILLEY: Has this action by the US actually harmed that mission of, I guess, staying on top of Daesh? Iraq have now called for the Americans to leave. Surely that's not good for, I guess, maintaining a strong presence and stopping the spread of militia groups like Daesh?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Our first priority is the safety and security of our personnel in Iraq and we are monitoring that situation very closely. But we do absolutely remain committed to countering the shared threat of Daesh. That is not just an issue for the Middle East. But as we know, Daesh and ISIL tentacles reach all the way to Australia. We have had over 7 successful attacks here in Australia. We have avoided at least 15. As you know, we have the issue of foreign fighters leaving from Australia to the fight overseas and they're looking to return to Australia. We remain absolutely committed to the fight against terrorism here and overseas.
TOM TILLEY: Has Donald Trump's decision to take out the Iranian General made that mission harder?
LINDA REYNOLDS: It is still too early to speculate, we still are assessing the situation. We will make sure that we work closely with our partners, our people are safe. There is still quite a while to play out because as you know, it is a highly volatile and complex region.
TOM TILLEY: The President is urging the other signatories of the Iranian nuclear deal China, Russia, France and Germany to break away from the remnants of that agreement. Is that a mistake? Could it push Iran closer to nuclear weapons, which would be contrary to Donald Trump's pledge that Iran would never have them as long as he's President?
LINDA REYNOLDS: I think it would be a brave person anywhere to speculate about what might happen next. Australia strongly urges Iran to return to the principles of nuclear nonproliferation. While the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action does have its flaws, Australia has consistently said it is currently the best option. But if all parties agree to reengage, it can be improved, and it does have such a clear objective to nonproliferation that, of course, we would support any such dialogue that the United States is encouraging.
TOM TILLEY: Minister, you said earlier that the Australians in Iraq are safe and they were not injured in last night's attacks. Are you considering taking them out?
LINDA REYNOLDS: The force protection of our people, wherever they are deployed - don't forget we have 2,000 people deployed overseas, and a thousand in the Middle East more generally - we always monitor and change our force protection circumstances to meet new threats, and that's what we're doing at the moment in Iraq. We are not taking any sudden decisions because our people are safe and we're monitoring the situation to see what happens over the next couple of days.
TOM TILLEY: The US have 5,000 troops in Iraq. Will we be there as long as America is there, even though the Iraqi Parliament wants everyone out?
LINDA REYNOLDS: We are working and discussing that with the United States, and not just the United States, but all of our other Coalition partners in Iraq. We have an NSC meeting this morning to assess the situation further. We are not at the position, yet, because we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that the defeat of Daesh and ISIL to ensure that it is no longer a threat to Australians here and overseas.
TOM TILLEY: Canada and Germany are pulling their personnel out of Iraq. Should Australians be concerned that we're not?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, I'm not sure that you're correct with that. Germany has certainly relocated some troops and the United Kingdom is also looking at their force protection. We are all having a look at what we do and no decisions have been made. There are still a lot of discussions to be had over coming days and weeks.
TOM TILLEY: And what about HMAS Toowoomba which is preparing to set sail to the Gulf on Monday are you reconsidering deployment of that asset?
LINDA REYNOLDS: We're continuing to monitor the situation in light of these developments. If the Toowoomba does leave on schedule on Monday, it will be the 68th deployment of an Australian frigate to the Middle East. The HMAS Toowoomba crew are well trained, they're professional and they're equipped to deal with a wide range of situations, and they still have an important role to play in the maritime security of the region.
TOM TILLEY: Is there a chance you might not send them?
LINDA REYNOLDS: That's just speculation at this stage. At the moment they are due to sail on Monday from Perth and I will be there to farewell them. They have a longstanding and wide-ranging role for maritime security as part of the combined maritime forces in the region, as well as the International Maritime Construct in the Straits of Hormuz.
TOM TILLEY: Minister Reynolds, you and the Prime Minister announced on Saturday that 3,000 Defence Force reservists could be called-out to help face the bushfire emergency. How many do you have in the field now, and what work are they doing?
LINDA REYNOLDS: I am so proud, particularly as a servicewoman and an Army Reserve member myself, of the work that the Reserves and all of our ADF personnel are doing. In fact, I cannot think of a prouder person in this country today than myself. In four days, more than 1,600 Reservists have heeded the call and are attached to the three Joint Taskforces that are deployed in what is called Operation Bushfire Assist, and this number is growing exponentially every single day.
They are out working with all of the other ADF personnel, both full-time and part-time, who have been out there for the past two months on a wide range of tasks. In Victoria today, the Joint Taskforce 646 has begun clearing operations that has resulted in the reopening of the Great Alpine Road. Our engineers have provided support to Benalla and Ovens. We have engineers continuing route clearances right along the coast. A medical treatment team has been deployed to most of the isolated townships, including places like Gypsy Point.
In NSW, and in the ACT, we've had army engineers move into Eden with a focus on supporting efforts currently being undertaken to deal with a woodchip fire. We have army engineers creating fire breaks in Kangaroo Valley. They are providing tracks around Nowra and providing route clearance in the Wollemi National Park. We have four MRH90 helicopters preparing to move to Nowra to support firefighters. We have 145 Army Reservists from the Royal South Australian Regiment now on Kangaroo Island. I think you would have seen some of the great footage of the Prime Minister with them yesterday - they are doing everything from assisting the koalas, who need significant work, to providing much needed power and water to the island. Our people are everywhere.
This is something that some people think the ADF has just been deployed. The ADF have been out in the field supporting our emergency services for over two months, and this is the largest domestic mobilisation of the Defence Force ever in our nation's history. We have planned for this for many months and we have been out in the field, and we have escalated our contribution as the bushfire disaster has increased. All Australians should be incredibly proud of not only the work that our amazing emergency services are doing, but also the seamless way that the ADF, for two months has been supporting all of those efforts.
TOM TILLEY: Well, it is actually quite incredible to hear the range of tasks that the ADF are involved in and I guess the far flung places you've been able to send them to quite quickly since that escalation on Saturday. A lot of people did feel that escalation came too late but we'll save that debate for another time. Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, thank you so much for joining us on RN Breakfast.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Thank you very much, Tom.
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