KATIE WOOLF: Now earlier this week the Federal Government announced a $270 billion investment for Australia's defence. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, saying the country needs to prepare for a more dangerous post-COVID-19 world and an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region. So what does that mean for the Northern Territory? Well, joining me on the line is the Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price. Good morning, Minister.
MELISSA PRICE: Good morning, Katie, and it's lovely to be talking to Territorians. It's really good. I'm back in Western Australia. I'm just thawing out now after being in Canberra for a couple of days following the launch of that $270 billion plan. So, yes. I'm exceptionally well now.
KATIE WOOLF: Oh, I'm glad to hear. I tell you what, it was a big announcement made. What's slated for the Northern Territory at this point?
MELISSA PRICE: Well, the first point I want to make, Katie, is that people will know that we've been investing heavily in all the bases across the Northern Territory, since I've been in the portfolio but prior to that as well. And that investment in those bases is going to continue. So if we start with the headline which is $8 billion, which will be invested over the next decade, this is going to refresh the redevelopment of Defence facilities. So people will know these facilities but just in case they don't know what I'm referring to, so the Robertson Barracks, the Larrakeyah defence precinct, including HMAS Coonawarra, the Bradshaw Field training area, the RAAF base Tindal, of course, and we've done a lot of work there but we're going to do some more work to support the KC30 and also the US Enhanced Air Corporation initiative, more money being invested together with the US and the upgrade of all of the ranges and the training areas which also supports the US force posture initiatives.
KATIE WOOLF: Okay.
MELISSA PRICE: So that's the headline figure and what I have observed over the last year, since I've been in this role, with all of the work that we've been rolling out and we've spent significant money on our defence bases in the Northern Territory, is just the increase of the local contractors. That, for me, is the good bit of news. It's good news that we're improving our bases in the NT but what I'm thrilled about is the work that we've been doing so far and I know there's construction work we're going to continue into the next decade, I know that there are many, many opportunities for Territorian businesses and I'm really pleased about that.
KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, that's been something that's been a real point of contention, I think, over the years. And it does seem to, well, hopefully, it's being sorted but it is something that's always concerning for our local contractors is that we know then when there's big amounts of money being invested into the Northern Territory we obviously want to make sure that, that flows down to our local contractors.
MELISSA PRICE: Yeah, absolutely. And local industry involvement in the delivery of these projects, it will be maximised through what we call local industry capability plans. But the good news is that the Territorian businesses are already proving that they're capable. So there is no reason why they won't get those opportunities.
KATIE WOOLF: Now, Minister, obviously $270 billion, it sounds like a massive investment, how much of that is actually new money?
MELISSA PRICE: Well, you need to bear in mind that when we announced the original $190 billion back in the 2016 White Paper, that was $190 billion over a decade. So here we are, fast forward to 2020 and this is forecasting what is going to happen over the next decade. So we've already spent some of that $200 billion. So, at the very least, there's an increase from 190 to 270 but there's got to be new money because we've already started spending the money that we announced in the 2016 White Paper. Sorry, which wish I had the spreadsheet with me but –
KATIE WOOLF: That's okay.
MELISSA PRICE: But we're talking about a ten-year period. We had a ten-year period in 2016 and of course we've already had four years of that so now this is the next decade. So, yes, so there's significant new money in there.
KATIE WOOLF: And as we mentioned, obviously there is the $8 billion that's already been announced for the Northern Territory. Has anything been scrapped from the Northern Territory because there has been some commentary this morning, or certainly a report in the paper, that maybe there had been some money that had been scrapped?
MELISSA PRICE: Well, I mean that's not my understanding. Constantly we're reviewing what is the needs of Defence but, you know, $8 billion is still a significant amount of money and, I mean, since March we've spent half a billion on a whole range of issues and I think we need to focus on what are the opportunities for Territorians and, as I said, the $8 billion is going to give many, many local contractors opportunities.
KATIE WOOLF: Now, we hear a lot, obviously, about the Northern Territory being strategically important, specifically when it comes to our geographic location. Do you think that over the next ten years we are going to see an increased presence of Defence personnel in the Territory?
MELISSA PRICE: Well, you will know better than I do that you've already got a significant presence of Defence personnel, some around 6,000 ADF personnel already in the Northern Territory. And there's no doubt that over the years, I'm the member for Durack so I represent the Kimberley. I'm acutely aware, together with northern Queensland, that what I will expect to happen is over the years the resources in the north will increase and, of course, that will, you know, be in the Northern Territory as well.
KATIE WOOLF: And I do know that there's plenty of discussion about whether there is going to be or where is going to have a new military base and northern Australia is the area that's been slated. I know that Townsville politicians are pushing for the city to become the home of a new military base as part of that $270 billion investment. It is being reported that obviously a base will be built in northern Australia and it is about consolidating all army watercraft, enhancing amphibious ship loading capacity, and also allowing the docking of patrol vessels and mine hunters. The Defence Department hasn't confirmed where the new base is going to be established and I'm assuming, as I said, that it is going to be northern Australia. Has there been sort of any decision or much discussion about where a new base will be?
MELISSA PRICE: There hasn't been a decision on where that new army watercraft base will be and, you know, there will be some time, I believe, before we get to that position. A decision on a proposed location will be considered by the Government at a later date. Of course, this is going to be informed by the best advice that we can get from Army and from the Australian Defence Force more broadly, and as you pointed out, this new watercraft base will enable greater operational flexibility and resilience of the ADF and, as you said, you know, the expectations will be somewhere in the north.
KATIE WOOLF: Now I know that former Deputy Defence Department Secretary turned academic Professor Paul Dibb, he's described the Northern Territory as the focal military point for the whole of north Australia in a Northern Territory news report today. He said that the RAAF base Tindal, once upgraded, will become the most important military base south of Guam for the US military. Is that the view of the Federal Government?
MELISSA PRICE: Well, all RAAF bases are important, Katie. But, you know, of course all of our Defence presence in the north is important and that includes Tindal and it includes all of the bases around the Northern Territory.
KATIE WOOLF: And we do talk a lot about our Defence spending, I guess, as a positive thing in terms of investment and that in-flow or the on-flow, I should say, to the economy. But does our strategic location here in the Territory, and specifically, I guess, northern Australia make us vulnerable?
MELISSA PRICE: I don't believe so but, you know, this is why we as a government have sat down with our plans and our force structure plan to determine what is it that we need to do right across Australia and that's what that $270 billion represents. You know, I think facts matter here and when we look back at the 2016 Defence White Paper, you know, we put Australia on a very, very important path to increasing our nation's defence capability. Since then we've made many decisions and we've commenced many capability programs, you know, submarines, frigates and military vehicles and obviously we've started to upgrade many of the bases as well.
I think Australia would expect the Government to be able to review that white paper, what were the assumptions that we made, you know, to make sure that it's fit for purpose and that's what this new plan represents and it's not just looking at what's happening in the north but you will see it's right across Australia. What bases do we need to improve and what is the capability that we need to improve? As I said, the current plan, of course, still includes the investment of the submarines and the frigates and other programs that we agreed to in the white paper but it also has money for more space investment, more cyber investment, investment in autonomous systems. So, you know, you've got to say what were the assumptions back in 2016 and say were they correct? We've now refreshed that document and now this is the result of that review.
KATIE WOOLF: There's no denying, I suppose, at the moment the relationship with China is certainly an interesting one. I mean how big a part does that play when it does come to this type of investment into our Defence Force?
MELISSA PRICE: Well, you know, we've got to look at the region and that's exactly what we’ve done. I think this is - when I talk about assumptions you need to ensure that the assumptions that helped to produce the 2016 Defence White Paper that they are still relevant and what we've seen since 2016, of course, our strategic environment is changing, you know, we've seen activities in the South China Sea, confidence in the rules-based order is being undermined and what they call the grey zone, there's been increased conduct there, forms of economic coercion, disinformation, so, you know, we've just got to make sure that Australia is up for whatever the challenges are and that's what this document represents.
KATIE WOOLF: And, Minister, was the announcement also about really flexing our muscle to China?
MELISSA PRICE: The announcement is about having a look at what happened in the 2016 White Paper and that, you know, that's looking at the whole region, I say not just looking at one particular country. So I think what we've got reflects the best view of our neighbourhood and it also prepares us for the future.
KATIE WOOLF: Minister for Defence Industry, Melissa Price, we really appreciate your time this morning. Thanks so very much for having a chat with us.
MELISSA PRICE: Good on you, Katie. Thanks a lot.
KATIE WOOLF: Thank you