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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP
Assistant Minister for Defence
Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Assistant Minister for the Republic
Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275
30 July 2022
It’s a privilege for me to be here with you this morning as Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans Affairs.
Citizen soldiers have sacrificed time and time again for our nation’s defence since federation, and indeed, in times when the colonies maintained their own militias pre-1901.
Across both world wars, so many volunteered to serve from New South Wales.
As this memorial solemnly reminds us, so many didn’t come home.
We remember them.
The units of today’s Royal New South Wales Regiment draw lineage from those sacrifices.
I’m proud to say, both as Assistant Minister for Defence and a New South Welshman, that the tradition of service by citizen soldiers continues strongly in our modern day.
You and your regimental peers embody and uphold that.
Thank you for the commitment you all continue to give to your nation.
And for the invitation to be with you today, I acknowledge and thank the Colonel Commandant of the Royal New South Wales Regiment, Major General the Honourable Justice Paul Brereton.
As an aside, General Brereton… on behalf of the government, let me publicly thank you for the distinguished service you have given our nation in inquiring into questions of unlawful conduct in Afghanistan.
Such work requires courage; rare moral courage.
We thank you for bringing light to darkness.
The government is absolutely committed to ensuring there is real accountability and real transparency here.
Before turning today’s conference question, let me position the strategic context.
Australia is facing its toughest strategic environment in over 75 years.
Our security challenges are intensifying.
Major power competition is accelerating.
The risk of military miscalculation is rising.
And, as Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is showing, the prospect of high-intensity state-on-state conflict is no longer remote possibility.
Within our Indo-Pacific region, uncertainty is growing:
…China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious we have seen by any country since the end of the Second World War.
…And grey-zone coercion is blurring the line between peace and conflict and threatens the sovereignty of our regional friends.
In all, we no can longer assume ten years of strategic warning time for major conflict.
And we must think harder about the security of our strategic geography… and that includes our homeland.
The Albanese Government is deeply conscious of the profound responsibility which these strategic circumstances invoke.
We are committed to a generational reinvestment in the capability, structure and size of the ADF.
But we want new options for deterrence and grey-zone to be ready faster than current plans envisage, well before 2030.
That’s why the government has initiated an independent force structure and posture review.
This will help inform tough prioritisation decisions and it will report to government early next year, alongside the work informing the nuclear-powered submarine decision.
AUKUS will be pivotal to our approach, making Australia a more potent and capable partner.
Labor, in government, strongly supports AUKUS, just as we did in opposition.
So friends, let me assure you: the Albanese Government is seized of the strategic challenges our nation faces – and we are not wasting a moment in working hard to make up for lost time.
In Army speak then, ‘so what?’
What does this bigger context mean for your role and mission – and what influence will homeland security challenges have upon the Royal New South Wales Regiment’s future and the broader Army Reserve?
Let me offer you five observations towards your deliberations today.
Firstly, Australia’s distance from the world no longer guarantees sanctuary.
Our geography can’t deliver resilient supply chains and it can’t stop cyber-attacks. And it can’t arrest the erosion of global rules-based order.
Advances in technology and new longer-range weapons can now place parts of our mainland at direct risk.
The idea of a so-called ‘safe rear area’ can no longer be assumed in our planning.
As the ADF becomes more capable, it may become more attractive for an adversary to target our advanced capabilities here at home, perceiving this is where our guard may be more relaxed or vulnerable.
Secondly, in terms of ADF and broader Defence involvement, Australia’s approach to homeland preparedness needs a new mindset.
Our established procedures for ‘defence force aid to the civil authority’ and ‘defence assistance to the civil community’ may need to be contemporised for the strategic context I outlined earlier.
How well does the existing Defence Act account for new grey-zone and hybrid threats?
Does the ADF possess the right legal authorities to operate at home and defend against emerging trends?
How will the ADF work together with police, emergency, utility and other private-sector essential services in an extreme crisis?
These questions are complex, especially when Australia – with great fortune – has never had to consider a total defence model like Finland or Switzerland have for decades.
But they demand new thinking – not a just at the federal level, but in equal partnership with the states and territories as well.
Thirdly, our military conception of the ‘homeland’ needs refreshing.
Legally, the answers are very clear about what Australia’s territory, sovereign waters and exclusive economic zones are.
But the word ‘homeland’ perhaps conjures a narrow idea of the continental land mass and Tasmania only.
Our remote offshore territories – like Cocos, Christmas or Norfolk Islands – could offer decisive military advantage to an adversary in a future crisis.
Their runways and terrain offer means for force projection and basing of longer-range strike systems.
And they would be easy to seize.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the ADF raised three Regional Force Surveillance Units as irregular units to provide early warning in the event of incursions onto northern Australian territory.
The RFSU example perhaps offer inspiration for the defence of our remote territories in the 2020s given current trends.
Fourthly, what capabilities do we need the Army Reserve to generate?
How do we contemporise existing capabilities held by the reserve?
I know Army has been thinking deeply recently about its future design.
And let me congratulate General Thomae for the 2nd Division’s recent move to become a functional command in Army.
But friends, your lived experience knows this perhaps too well… the reserve has struggled for clear purpose and resourcing in past decades.
Many reasons for that are understandable.
Our nation hasn’t needed to generate, maintain or deploy large reserve, territorial or national guard type forces for combat.
Strategic trends, however, beg deeper reflection.
The role, function and potential of the reserve will undoubtedly be a key part of the independent force structure and posture review.
I’m sure you have worthy ideas of your own.
Conventional reserve deployments to the Solomon Islands and East Timor in the 2000s, as well reserve Commando tasks in Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea in the 2010s, have well proven the Army Reserve has much to offer… when enabled.
Lastly, when thinking of the Army Reserve’s future proposition – is it for civil defence type roles, …or is it for maintaining latent capabilities as a ‘warm-start’ for high-intensity scenarios?
Clearly, this is a question we are continuing to grapple with as a nation.
The ADF, full-time and reserve alike, has worked so hard in recent years helping the community and local authorities address floods, fires and the pandemic.
I know governments at levels, of all political persuasions, are deeply thankful for this.
We fundamentally generate a navy, an army and an air force for the worst-case scenario – conflict and war – and that needs to be remembered.
We know these challenges will continue.
The impacts of climate change are becoming all too acute and all too frequent – not just here at home, but also for our Pacific friends who we owe a moral responsibility to.
These five observations I’ve shared aren’t the only issues to consider, but they offer a good starting point for today’s discussions.
Before you consider the future of Australia’s homeland defence, please let me digress and offer thanks for the amazing efforts of your Regiment in recent years.
The four battalions of your Regiment have been exemplars for the idea of an ‘Army for the Nation, an Army in the Community.’
Your dedication has offered powerful reassurance to affected communities that the nation is with them in their time of need.
I’ve seen this myself first-hand at Windsor during the latest Sydney floods last month.
On behalf of the government, I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the immense contribution made by your soldiers in very difficult circumstances, …and for the great span of tasks which you’ve undertaken.
Four different flood emergencies.
I’d particularly like to celebrate the work of your northern most Battalion, 41 Royal New South Wales Regiment.
41 Battalion proved itself to truly be a pillar of the community when its members – despite some losing their own homes to flood – went out the door at a moment’s notice, putting their lives on the line to save others.
Let me again acknowledge and thank the Colonel Commandant, Major General Brereton, for his work in driving this Conference.
Our strategic circumstances demand new thinking.
This conference makes a worthy contribution towards that need; not every answer or good idea is born from the top.
And I say that humbly as a new minister!
I hope that you leave today with a deeper understanding of the history of Australia’s homeland defence.
And I hope you are inspired to imagine new futures for the Royal New South Wales Regiment, and the broader Army Reserve, amidst the toughest strategic environment Australia has faced in over 75 years.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.
I declare this Conference officially open.
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