Prime Minister and Defence Minister - Joint Transcript - Press conference

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The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Prime Minister

Senator the Hon David Johnston

Minister for Defence

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4 April 2014


Well, it’s a real honour to be flanked by the service chiefs this morning and obviously today’s announcement is about the transition to new leadership in the Australian Defence Force. As of July, General Hurley will be retiring. Air Marshal Binskin will be taking over as the Chief of Defence Force. Admiral Griggs will be stepping up as the Vice Chief. Admiral Barrett will become Chief of Navy. General Morrison will continue for 12 months as Chief of Army and Air Marshal Brown will continue for 12 months as Chief of Air Force.

I've only been the Prime Minister for a little over six months. In that time, it's been a great honour and a privilege to work very closely with the senior leadership of the Australian Defence Force. We have a small but very capable, extremely professional and internationally respected Defence Force which, as all of you know, is constantly busy. At the moment we're obviously very deeply involved in the extraordinary search for ill-fated flight MH370 but we have ongoing major commitments to Operation Sovereign Borders. We have ongoing significant commitments In Afghanistan and elsewhere and I have to say that our Defence Force is discharging its duties with extraordinary diligence and professionalism.

So I am incredibly proud of our men and women in uniform. I do believe that they represent the best of our country and I am confident that in the years ahead our Defence Force will become more capable, more effective and more influential around the world. So with that, I just want to say congratulations to Air Chief Marshal-to-be Binskin on this very important promotion and thank you to General David Hurley for the work that he has done over the last three years as the Chief but over the last 40 years as a member of our military.

General Hurley has done extraordinary work overseeing our operations in Afghanistan, in East Timor, in the Pacific but he was also on active service in Somalia as our Force Commander there. David, I hope you feel incredibly proud of the work you've done because you have served our country. You’ve served our country -you've served Queen and country with extraordinary distinction and certainly I'm very proud to have had six months to work with you as Prime Minister.



Thank you, Prime Minister. May I say how delighted I am to congratulate Air Marshal Binskin, soon to be Air Chief Marshal Binskin, as the successor to General Hurley. In my time in the Senate, I've come to know Mark Binskin as someone who I not only deeply respect but I also admire and I do sincerely congratulate him on achieving the culmination of his obviously lifetime ambitions. To lead the Australian Defence Force I think is a wonderful achievement in one's life and I pause to again say congratulations, Mark.

There will be many opportunities into the future for us to thank and celebrate the contribution that General David Hurley has made to the Australian Defence Force and all of the good things he has done during his tenure as chief of the Defence Force. He should rest assured that there will be many, many occasions when I will get up and extol his virtues and thank him profusely for the work that he's done.

And the first thing I should say, as a new Minister for Defence of some seven or eight months, I thank him for guiding me through what is always a difficult time transitioning from government to government, minister to minister. He has made the job a lot easier than it otherwise would have been.

But ladies and gentlemen, all the service chiefs, the continuing ones and their successors, I want to congratulate and say that I am very, very proud of them. They are doing a fabulous job for us. One only needs to see the esteem within which we are held by the Malaysian Prime Minister and all of the service personnel that have come from the five or six different countries that are in Pearce Air Base today in the work we're doing trying to recover MH370. The Australian Defence Force is held in high esteem around our region and across the world and the people who bear responsibility for that are standing before you here today. And I congratulate all of them and may I say I congratulate the Prime Minister on these appointments.

Thank you very much.


General Hurley.


Prime Minister, thank you. First of all, thank you very much for your kind remarks about and the support for the Australian Defence Force and its men and women. We really value that and we take it to heart. Can I also congratulate the new team that's been selected to take over the leadership of the Australian Defence Force into the future. I think you will note there's a mixture here of repositioned experience, new blood and continuity, particularly important at this time as we continue the challenges of addressing ADF cultural issues that need to be pursued, through the Pathway to Change. I think this team and this line-up gives everybody assurance that we are deadly serious about taking on that issue and driving it forward.

I'd like to congratulate Mark in particular. He knows what he's taking on so he does not go into this job being blindsided at all. I think he's represented me on so many occasions sometimes you'd think he owns my seat already. But Mark, congratulations and I wish you well into the future.

And to Tim, congratulations as well as the new member of the team taking over from Ray. With the Navy today deployed very widely across the Indian Ocean into the Gulf, really in all four corners of the globe at a very high tempo, Ray has driven the Navy very hard in terms of both the cultural issues it needed to address but, more importantly, there's a statement of maintenance issues. He hands over the Navy heading in a good direction and Tim, as being the Fleet Commander for the last year or so, you're well across those issues so I look forward to you taking that on.

I wish you all well in the job. I do not intend to be a Nellie Melba so, Minister, one farewell would be sufficient, thank you.




Thank you, Prime Minister, Minister for Defence, CDF. Hopefully my voice will stay with me this morning for this.

I have to say I'm extremely honoured and very proud to have been selected to take over as Chief of Defence Force in July this year. I know that I'll take command of the ADF at a time of military significance as we go into the centenary of Anzac commemorations. It's a time of transformation for the ADF and it’s a time for continued reform for the ADF. But I'm comfortable I will be able to meet the challenges head-on and be able to face those challenges with the team that I've got supporting.

And the senior command team that's been announced this morning is a great team. Ray Griggs as the new Vice Chief brings a lot of experience to the job. It's good to see Tim Barrett, the second birdy in Navy to be promoted to the Chief of Navy position - as an ex-birdy I can say that - but he brings a lot of experience to Navy. And also David Morrison and Geoff Brown, the experience they will carry on in their two roles as Chief of Army and Chief of Air Force means we've got that new blood in, as General Hurley said, and we've got that experience in the wise hands as we continue to transition through.

So it will be a big challenge. I understand that, but I’m ready for it. And I too would just like the chance – -I know General Hurley will leave in July this year and there will be plenty of chances to say goodbye and farewell in that one big function he wants, rather than those thousands of functions, but his leadership and dedication over the last couple of years as Vice Chief and then as CDF has been fundamental to where the ADF is today and I want to thank him for that. They're big shoes to fill but I’m also cognisant of the fact that there are two feet in those shoes between now and July so I will start talking a bit more about where I see the ADF going in July. So thank you very much.


Okay, I should also let you know that the White Paper process has begun. There's an expert group headed by Peter Jennings to assist the production of the White Paper, but the White Paper is all about trying to ensure that we have more and more capable armed forces as we move over the next decade to increase defence spending to two per cent of gross domestic product. Australia has small but outstanding defence forces. They are extremely professional, they are extremely well-led, and what you've seen this morning is change but continuity in the leadership of our Australian Defence Force.

Are there any questions?


Prime Minister, you’re going to Japan shortly. Your Government and members of the Defence Force have looked at Japanese technology that you might use or might help with our new submarine project. Is that something you will discuss while you’re there this time?


We want to enhance defence cooperation with Japan. We’ve had defence cooperation, with Japan for quite a long period of time. Most recently, of course, we worked together in Iraq, and I'm looking to enhance and develop that. And I'm very conscious of the fact that Japan has the largest and most capable conventional submarines in the world and we want to learn, wherever possible, from their experience as we develop the next generation of our own submarines.


Prime Minister, how is returning defence spending to two per cent of GDP compatible with everything else we're hearing about the state of the budget?


Well, the objective that the Government is pursuing is to develop a stronger and more robust and more prosperous economy. We aren't trying to get the budget under control because we are budget fetishists. We are trying to get the budget under control because a stronger budget means a stronger economy, and a stronger economy means that we will be able to increase defence spending so that our nation is as secure as it possibly can be.

So yes, in the short term we are facing very, very significant budget challenges, but if we handle them the way I am sure we will, over time we will have a significantly stronger economy and significantly greater opportunities to spend on the real priorities of our nation.


Prime Minister, what's the thinking behind extending the Chief's role to four years? What's wrong with three?


Look, three years is a relatively short period of time. For instance, in government they say it takes 12 months to learn the ropes and then you’ve got 12 months to do something and then you've got 12 months thinking at the next election, and I guess with a three-year term at the top of the Defence Force there are similar problems of short-term-ism. It's a modest extension, but I think it will help to promote good management and good governance inside our military.


Two per cent Increase, it's still a very big ask, isn't it? On today's figures it's about $5 billion more. One, can Defence absorb money, the increases that that's going to imply? And is it possible in a decade?


Well, yes to both. We have small but highly capable defence forces, but there are many, many challenges. We live in an uncertain and at times dangerous world, and while Australia is always looking for more friends rather than for new adversaries, you just never know what's around the corner. In 1990, who would have predicted the East Timor operation? In 2000, who would have predicted the Afghanistan operation? In 1995, who would have predicted the Iraq campaigns?

Now, you just never know what is around the corner and we have to be ready for a wide range of contingencies in all sorts of different parts of the world, and that's why it's important that over time we move to two per cent of GDP as our defence spend.


Prime Minister, something that's worked its way through the last two White Papers the previous Government produced, very comprehensive re•equipment program, and it was never fully funded and this created a serious problem and it was possibly a crisis of expectations. Are there any of those things that were locked in those two White Papers, such as 100 Joint Strike Fighters and 12 submarines, a fairly massive re-equipment program for the Army in terms of vehicles - are they all locked in? Do you remain committed to those things, or might those numbers shift?


Look, in terms of the Joint Strike Fighters yes, we are committed. In terms of a significantly more capable submarine forte, yes we are committed. I don't want to pre-empt the White Paper progress, but nevertheless we want more capable, not less capable armed forces going forward and we need to get out of this White Paper a new Defence Capability Plan which is affordable but also funded. And this was the big problem with the last two Defence White Papers; it was basically an equipment wish list rather than something that was affordable and funded.


Are you close to a decision on JSF yet (indistinct)..?


Look, the short answer is we're on track to be making decisions and ultimately acquiring aircraft at the right time.


Prime Minister the Chief of the Defence Force's role is supposed to be politically neutral but obviously General Hurley hit the front page of the paper a lot for doing those joint press conferences on asylum seekers. Do you think it was a mistake to make the Chief of the Defence Force do something like that that's so politically sensitive?


I think it’s very important that we respect the professionalism of the defence forces. I think it's very important that we don't drag men and women in uniform into party political controversy. But it's also very important that, at the right time and in the right place, senior Defence chiefs are there to provide information and that's what's happened under this Government.

From time to time, we've had General Campbell there to provide information. His role in those Operation Sovereign Borders announcements has evolved but nevertheless I think it's perfectly appropriate for a senior Defence chief to be offering information and at times explanations as to exactly what's happening.


Thank you, Prime Minister.

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