Press Conference with Minister Linda Reynolds and Minister Melissa Price - F35 Industry Event

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Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds CSC

Minister for Defence

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Nicky Hamer (Minister Reynolds’ Office): +61 437 989 927

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9 December 2020

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09 December 2020


LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, good morning, everyone. Today is a truly wonderful day for the Royal Australian Air Force and for our Joint Strike Fighter capability. We’re here today to celebrate several significant milestones in this very successful program, which is on time, which is on budget and which is already providing superior air combat capability for the Royal Australian Air Force.

But not only are we providing a fifth-generation jet fighter for the Royal Australian Air Force, we are also providing significant long-term job opportunities for many thousands of Australians right here in Australia.

Today we have 30 Joint Strike Fighters in service at RAAF Williamtown. We’ve got another three on the way from the United States to make to a total of 72 all up. This is a remarkable capability, and there are several milestones.

So today I was delighted to announce four new initiatives in this program. We’ve now reached over 50 Australian companies who are now providing parts and systems into the global Joint Strike Fighter Program, and these contracts for these 50 companies are now worth an incredible $2.7 billion. And that is a remarkable achievement. So that means that in over 600 global Joint Strike Fighters each and every one of them have parts that were made right here in Australia. And as you saw earlier in the demonstration, they are some of the most important and critically important parts that were manufactured here in Australia.

Secondly, today the Morrison government has launched a new industry support grants program, the Joint Strike Fighter Industry Support Program to further maximise Australian industry opportunities. And there is no question in our mind that there are many more companies who will not only see opportunities in this global program, but they will also seize these opportunities for many decades to come.

The third announcement today is that we’ve signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin Australia for a contract valued at $100 million to deliver sovereign training capability right here in Australia at RAAF Williamtown. That will employ permanently 70 ADF personnel to deliver this critically important training, again right here in Australia.

And the fourth and I think the most wonderful announcement today was that BAE Systems Australia has employed 25 former Jetstar staff, and two of whom, Colin and Ben, join us here today. And I was delighted to meet them a bit earlier on and hear about their new careers. They were, sadly, made redundant during the COVID crisis in the aviation industry, but, pleasingly and quite wonderfully for them and their families they’ve been able to stay living at Port Stephens, I understand, and keeping their families in place for these jobs, because not only will they be career jobs for the workers themselves but these programs will now provide opportunities for not only their children, their grandchildren and also their great grandchildren.

And I’ll now hand over to the Minister for Defence Industry, Melissa Price, to talk a bit further about not only about Ben and Colin but also about the other opportunities for Australian Defence Industry. Thank you.

MELISSA PRICE: Thank you, Minister Reynolds. And today is a celebration with respect to the Joint Strike Fighter Program but I think more broadly with respect to Australian Defence Industry. We know that there’s more than 70,000 Australians working in our Australian Defence Industry with some 15,000 businesses, and this is growing by the day.

With respect to the Joint Strike Fighter Program, we know that there are,- we’ve already met a few new of our recruits into the Joint Strike Fighter Program. Wonderful opportunities. Only yesterday I had the opportunity to talk about at least 150 new employees for defence industry working across the range of defence Industry companies – ex-Qantas, ex-Virgin workers and here we have ex-Jetstar workers. It’s a great tribute to the civil airline industry that they have got highly skilled people, and we’re just so proud that we’ve been able to have these opportunities where the Australian government is growing our Defence Industry, and well done to BAE with respect to their employment of 25 ex-Jetstar workers.

It’s a great celebration today for the Joint Strike Fighter Program. I was asked today what was my highlight of being in this job for nearly 18 months, and I reflected on it for a minute and I decided it was when I was in Texas over a year ago at the Lockheed Martin assembly plant and the most exciting thing for me was seeing those two Marand vertical tails on every single Joint Strike Fighter. Australian defence industry is incredibly resilient, and we have seen that over COVID. But I know I can speak for myself and the Minister for Defence that we’re just incredibly proud of just how capable we are, and our capability is growing every day. Thank you.

LINDA REYNOLDS: Thank you. We’ll take questions now. First of all, questions on this program that we’re talking about here today. So, any questions?

JOURNALIST: Minister, [indistinct], what are we projecting against [indistinct]?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Australia has always needed air combat capability and that is no more so than today. So, it is part of an integrated force – air land and sea force – and we’ve always needed a combat air capability. And what we’re doing with this program is we’re making sure that we will remain regionally superior with our air combat capability, strike capability, into the foreseeable future. We currently have one and we’re introducing the fleet for the future, and it is a brilliant capability.

JOURNALIST: We saw one of the [indistinct], the Super Hornets, yesterday have an issue at Amberley. Are you able to provide an update on that or maybe [indistinct]?

LINDA REYNOLDS: So, what I’ll say first of all when I heard about the incident my first thoughts obviously was for the two crew who fortunately I’m happy to report are doing well. But we have grounded the Growler and also the Super Hornet fleet for an abundance of caution while investigations occur into the incident yesterday.

Chief of Air Force, have you got any further comments on that one?

MEL HUPFELD: Thank you, minister. Thank you, obviously as the minister said, the first issue for us was the safety and wellbeing of our air crew. They were assessed by medical immediately after the incident and are now reported as being well.

This is a sophisticated piece of machinery and it’s an incident that’s occurred at one of the most critical points or phases of flight. We have an investigation team that will arrive in Amberley this morning and they’ll commence an investigation to find out what the cause of the ejection was, and we’ll report through that in good time.

JOURNALIST: How many planes have been grounded as a result?

MEL HUPFELD: So, we’ve got the fleet of 24 Super Hornets and 11 EA-18G Growlers. So, what we call we’ve ceased our flying operations while we review the circumstances of this incident.

JOURNALIST: Any time frame on how long they’ll be out of action?

MEL HUPFELD: Uncertain until we find out the details of the incidents and start to identify the cause.

JOURNALIST: Does that require checks on those other grounded planes as well as part of the investigation?

MEL HUPFELD: It’s too early for me to surmise on those things. I was discussing this with my wife last night. I’ll give you the same answer: this is sophisticated machinery. I’ve got thousands of hours on the classic Hornet and I’m not going to surmise on the cause of this incident. There’s many things that we pull together to operate an aeroplane like this. This needs to undergo a suitable level of investigation to get the right answers so that we can provide the right solutions.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct]. Do you see global ramifications… [Indistinct].

MEL HUPFELD: That will be a matter for other nations to determine. We will share the information with the other nations that operate these aircraft types. And obviously the investigation outcomes we’ll share very closely with those that operate these systems.

JOURNALIST: Minister, can I ask you, last night defence secretary, Greg Moriarty, said that the issues in the South China Sea, the militarisation of those islands –

LINDA REYNOLDS: Just before we get on to other topics, can I just see if there’s any other questions on the Joint Strike Fighter or any of the announcements from today?

JOURNALIST: Just on the F-35, do you think the money, you know, could be spent on more modern sort of combat weapons like cyber security, space warfare? Are we sort of falling behind here?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, not at all. And this year the government updated our strategic assessments in the Defence Strategic Update, and we made it very clear what we see in terms of the challenges in our region and globally. And to fund our ability to deal with those changes we introduced the Force Structure Plan and we have fully-funded that over the next decade to $270 billion; $65 billion alone for air capability and the rest sort of not only throughout army, air force and naval capabilities but we have created a new cyber and information warfare domain which we’re funding to the tune of $15 billion, and also a new space domain as well so that we can ensure that we not only understand what’s happening in space but we have our own sovereign satellite constellation and better space situational awareness with ourselves and our allies. So, it’s not a choice of one or the other – we need to make sure that we deal with all of these capabilities as an entire defence capability system.

JOURNALIST: Minister, are you flexing the F-35 for China’s benefit or [indistinct]?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, none of our Defence – you’ll see quite clearly in our Defence strategic update that the capability we currently have acquired and maintain and also our future capability is not directed at any one nation. It never has and, you know, we don’t foresee that it is about one nation. However, it is true to say that our strategic circumstances have been deteriorating for some time, particularly here in the Indo-Pacific. There are a number of nations who are increasing their military capabilities who are adopting new technologies in their military capability. For example, we’ll have over 300 submarines operating in the broader Indo-Pacific in the 2030s.

So, it is all about making sure that we not only understand what is happening militarily in our region but we have the capability to protect our sovereign interests but also to work with many other partners in the region.

JOURNALIST: If I could just, minister, go to the issue raised before, defence secretary, Greg Moriarty, said last night he was deeply worried by the militarisation by China of the South China Sea and the act of the handing over of 14 grievances from the Chinese embassy also deeply worried him. Does it deeply worry you?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, look, I think it is very – it is fair to say that our strategic circumstances, as I’ve said, are deteriorating. It is not just about one country, but we continue to exercise our international rights for freedom of navigation through the South China Sea region and globally and including overflights.

So, the militarisation of disputed features is not helpful, and we’ve certainly spoken out about that. So, it is not – as I said, it’s not about one nation, but we will continue to exercise our international rights. We’ve done more transits through the region this year than we have in previous years. We had our regional deployment force, a task group of five vessels, which exercised for several months not only in the region but through to the RIMPAC, and we will continue to do that. And we did that with 11 regional partners, and that’s what’s important for us – is working with our regional parties to make sure that rules-based order is respected and also the sovereign rights not only of our own nation but also of our friends in the region to make sure that their sovereignty is also respected.

JOURNALIST: Minister, there’s reports this morning that the government is having some difficulty finding a suitably experienced and qualified person to take up the role as Special Investigator in the wake of the Brereton inquiry. First of all, is that, indeed, the case, and secondly, considering the angst that the defence community is feeling about this report and allegations that some people are being pre-judged before a criminal investigation can get underway, how quickly are you hoping that office can be set up and start its work?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, look, they’re all very good questions, and they’re all really important questions for our nation. And they are all questions that the Prime Minister and I have been reflecting on very deeply for some time. So, it’s important to remember a couple of things: first of all, that these allegations are – these are not fog of war allegations, these are allegations made loudly by our own Defence personnel about conduct they saw, they witnessed and some of them participated in.

So, these allegations, not only allegations of war crimes but they are also clear observations about failure of leadership and command in how this circumstance actually was able to happen and happen for so long.

So for me, two main priorities: the first one is to make sure that we do not tarnish the reputation of the vast, vast majority of our amazing service men and women, not only those who have done an extraordinary job this year on Operation Bushfire Assist, on COVID Assist, operating overseas during COVID and doing all of the amazing things that they continue to do, but it’s also the service of those who’ve gone before them.

They have served our nation with great, with great passion, commitment and they’ve served our nation extraordinarily well. So, it is important not only for me as minister and the Prime Minister but also for all Australians to ensure that we do not in any way tarnish the majority with the behaviours of the few.

But that behaviour, the alleged behaviour, and also the cultural issues and the breakdown of leadership and command are not issues that as Australians we will ever ignore and that we don’t need to deal with. The stark fact is that we have – and Justice Brereton has found credible evidence, credible evidence, of alleged 39 incidents of war crimes, of straight-out murder. That cannot be swept under the carpet, and the Prime Minister and I are both acutely aware – and when I read the report, I have a full copy of the report and I read it on the day the CDF received it, and it made me – and I have said this publicly – it made me physically ill because it didn’t represent my service and it does not represent the service of tens of thousands of men and women.

But you cannot look away. You cannot – I cannot unsee what I’ve read and the implications of that. So that is why the Prime Minister and I before the CDF released the report publicly, why we released the government’s response. Two main processes to deal with what we saw as the two biggest long-term issues. Because we realised there is no quick fix to this. This is unprecedented. There is no – so there is no precedent to follow in how to deal with this.

So, in our response we set up two long-term processes. The first is the Office of the Special Investigator, which you referred to, which is currently being set up and it will be in place early in the new year. And we certainly are identifying the right people for the jobs, and the Prime Minister will announce, you know, who they are in due course.

But that process is under Australian law, under AFP – under the auspices of the AFP. But given the size and the amount of allegations that now need to be investigated and taken through the criminal justice program with the presumption of innocence, that will take many years. So, we understood and we still understand that that process had to be stood up and we had to get that process right for all the reasons that I’ve discussed.

But I also recommended to the Prime Minister that I set up an independent implementation oversight panel, one to have a look at all of the other issues that come out of that report, and issues will keep arising out of this report, and they should. You know, these are some of the most serious issues that go to the heart of the moral authority of our Defence Force and of Australia’s confidence in our Defence Force.

So the panel, a very distinguished and experienced panel, they will be working and reporting directly to me. They have access to everything. And they will be reporting very regularly to me on how Defence, how the CDF and how Defence is implementing the recommendations.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you said you read the full report. You saw China last week weaponised the findings of that report, well the [indistinct] report, about specific allegations about soldiers [indistinct] children in Afghanistan. Did that happen? Is that allegation contained in the report, in the Brereton report? Is it among the 39 murders or is it not true?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, I can’t – I certainly can’t answer that question, and I don’t think any Australian would expect me to answer the detailed information on any of the specific allegations that are moving forward. So, just to clarify, I have the full report, but I don’t have the names. I asked for the names to be redacted so I can’t prejudice any future actions. But there are 39 incidents of credible evidence of murder. Not fog of war, of murder.

So, I am certainly not going to be speculating on individual cases, individual allegations. They are all matters now for the Office of the Special Investigator to examine under our normal investigative processes and laws here in Australia, and they will be – all of those allegations will be dealt with through that process.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you used the term fog of war [indistinct], obviously yesterday [indistinct] press conference. I won’t ask you to quote the dictionary definition. What do you understand fog of war to mean? It seems quite a key, I guess, point of conflict among people or [indistinct].

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, fog of war to me means that when we put people in harm’s way in combat situations there will be situations where people have a split second to make a decision about what they do next in that circumstance. Justice Brereton has been incredibly clear – incredibly clear – that all of the matters in his report are not those fog of war, split-second decisions about what I do next. These are all – all – incidents of alleged cold-blooded murder – war crimes.

JOURNALIST: In your mind, are any-, you’ve seen the report, are any of these fog of war incidents in your personal opinion?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, my person opinion is entirely irrelevant. That is an issue for the Australian criminal justice system to work through. All of the people who have been named in that report have – will be provided with legal assistance and they will go through the normal Australian justice process.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just on the future submarine program, can the government guarantee that the construction costs of those boats won’t end up higher than $80 billion?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, I’ve got to say I am constantly dismayed at the mischief, behaviour in which some of my parliamentary colleagues, particularly in the Labor Party, are playing politics with this program and with the figures. Let me be incredibly clear: we went into this contract at $50 billion in 2016 dollars. It is still $50 billion in constant dollars.

Now to conflate outturn dollars, which are dollars that include exchange rate variations over the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years and inflationary increases as well – as those who criticise this program know – is completely and utterly duplicitous. We entered into contract at $50 billion today. It is still $50 billion.

JOURNALIST: But is it going to cost more than $50 billion?


JOURNALIST: Minister, when –

LINDA REYNOLDS: No, not in constant – see, this is the thing. Here’s the thing. We went into contract, and anybody who buys a house knows that with inflation and interest payments and other things it actually goes up. But we went into contract at $50 billion in 2016 and it is still today $50 billion. It is not a cent over what we went into contract with. It is on budget and it is on time. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Minister, when will a final decision be made on the Meritorious Unit Citation? Will that be before the full legal process?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, in relation to the Meritorious Unit Citation and also the issue of potential stripping of other honours and awards, that is something that the CDF has been very clear. No final decision has been made and all of the decisions on the 143 recommendations in the Brereton report, the Chief of Defence Force is doing the exact right thing. He is now working through how he implements and deals with all of these incredibly complex and quite challenging recommendations.

So, when he has got his implementation plan approved, sort of through Defence’s senior leadership, he will come to me with the implementation plan. I will consult, of course, with the Prime Minister and then the implementation plan will be announced I would expect some time in the new year. And that will be a multi, multi-year implementation program, and decisions on all of those matters will be considered as part of the calm, rational and well-planned implementation plan the CDF is currently preparing. So, thank you.


 ** End of transcript **

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