Doorstop interview, Brisbane

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The Hon Peter Dutton MP

Minister for Defence

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25 January 2022


Just a question for the Minister, just to elaborate on the first test flight for us.


As I said in my speech before, Australia takes very seriously the situation in the Indo-Pacific at the moment. We're seeing potentially dire circumstances play out in the Ukraine. So we are with the reality in the modern world, there's no sense closing your eyes to the threat, but with countries like Russia and North Korea and China and others who may be aggressive in different circumstances, Australia needs to be at the forefront of that technological advance.

So the ability for us to test a flight goes not only to our offensive capabilities, but also importantly to our defensive capabilities. We want to be able to use the research here and the collaboration to look at ways in which this technology could provide a defensive capability for us against this technology. There's also obviously a collaboration which allows us to move to the next phase, to the next iteration of the research and development.

So the flight was successful, as Tanya has pointed out, and it will be encouraging for the researchers here to go to that next level. But I wouldn't underestimate the depth of engagement with the United States and with the University of Queensland, the other academic partners, research partners, all of those within industry as well – some very significant companies involved in this collaboration here – and we'll see further test flights which we’ll comment on at an appropriate time.

We need to be, as I say, realistic about the environment, about the potential threat over the course of the next couple of decades and where Australia is positioned in the use of that technology and the protections against the use of that technology. 

There are many people who are wearing uniform here today in the audience, and I want to acknowledge all of those and many that have worn uniform and are now in civies today. Ryan Shaw is one of those people and Ryan is our local LNP candidate in the local seat here of Lilly, so he's joined with me today as well. So I'm happy to take any questions that you might have on other issues.


Minister, earlier today you mentioned 23 people on board HMAS Adelaide have tested positive for COVID-19 en-route to Tonga. Do you have any updates on what will be done to prevent spread of the virus into Tonga? And isn't there a chance a significant chunk of the 600 person crew have now been compromised?


I can report to you that 23 personnel on HMAS Adelaide, which departed Brisbane only a matter of days ago, have tested positive with COVID-19. There are those people, obviously, and others on board who are in isolation at the moment. The most important priority, of course, is the health and well-being of our crew on board and I'm advised that the cases, as they presented so far, have been at the lower end, as most people are experiencing with Omicron. So that doesn't present a health risk for us. If somebody deteriorated and we needed to provide additional support for them, of course, we would do whatever was required to give that medical attention to the individual.

So I think it's reflecting what's happening in every other workplace across the country at the moment. We have a vessel, obviously, that we're very keen as quickly as possible to dock in Tonga so that we can get those supplies off and provide the support to people post the tsunami there, but we've also, in the interim, being able to cycle through a number of C-17s and to offload that aid and assistance.

But ultimately, we're in the hands of the Tongan Government. We're working very closely with them and they have a 21 day quarantine period. So our ship will either stand off or it can port, offload the equipment that's there. We can do that in a contactless way, spray the equipment so that the chance of passing on the virus is obviously negligible. So there are different options that we're working through at the moment.

But I think the main points; one, the crew are safe, but nonetheless, there are 23 who have tested a positive on the latest advice that I have and will deliver the aid as quickly as possible. Under no circumstance will we compromise the health and well-being of those Tongans who have already had a concerted effort against or concerted effort against the virus by protecting themselves and the virus is not present on the island.

Don't forget there are other partners, the Japanese, the United States, United Kingdom and many more who are providing aid and providing support to Tonga and we've just got to get that balance right. We're in the process of doing that now.


What sort of assistance is Australia going to give to Ukraine? And can we expect boots on the ground there?


We don't expect any request for troops. We've been clear about that and as Marise Payne has pointed out, she's spoken to her counterpart from the Ukraine and if there is assistance that we can provide or we can look at providing in terms of the cyber element – obviously, the Ukraine is under a significant cyber-attack from Russia at the moment – then we'll consider that request; but the Ambassador for that area is in contact with the Ukraine Government and we'll look at any of those requests and consider them from there.


Do you know how many Australians are over there at all?


There's a small number, but I think the advice has been very clear; that is that people who are in the Ukraine at the moment need to leave. That's the DFAT advice, and that's been updated only overnight and also, very importantly, people who are thinking of travelling to the Ukraine should cancel those plans. There are a number of reasons as to why people, Australian citizens or permanent residents might want to go to the Ukraine, but it is highly ill-conceived at the moment, and our strongest possible advice would be not to go to the Ukraine. And I hope that people heed that advice.


Ukrainian officials have criticised Australia for withdrawing the families of diplomats there. Is the move premature, as they suggest?


Well we have to strike a balance and we've got, I think, the right balance. We work with our partners. We look at the intelligence that's available to us, and we don't want our people being stuck in the middle of a potential war zone.

Now, like every Western nation, we impress upon the Russians to desist from their current activities; the massing of troops, a likely incursion will result in the loss of lives in the tens of thousands. Let's be very frank about it. The world's been concentrating on COVID understandably for the last couple of years, but it's not that long ago where we've seen bloody conflicts in that part of the world, and we don't want to repeat of it. We want there to be peace and stability in Ukraine and the surrounding region and President Putin has a particular responsibility here. Amassing troops on borders and positioning assets to go into the Ukraine is not part of a responsible leader in the region.

I think the work that the Brits and others have been doing, particularly in the EU and across NATO, is very important and I hope that that message is heeded, and negotiations should continue so that we cannot see a conflict in the Ukraine.

I think our steps have been prudent to date, and we'll take whatever other steps are in our national interests or in the interests of our own nationals.


With Australia providing assistance to Ukraine on the cyber front, are we expecting any retaliation on the cyber front because of that and also still connected to cyber with China's foreign Ministry spokesman hitting back at Senator Patterson's claims about the CCP involved in blocking the Prime Minister's WeChat access, are we, regardless of whether that connection is correct, if whether we can expect some retaliation on the cyber front?


Well, just go back to my comments because the way you've presented them there is not what I've said. We've had an approach during a discussion between the two Ministers, and our Ambassador for Cyber is in a conversation with the Ukraine Government. So we'll assess requests as they're made, if they're made, and we'll make a decision as to what we do.

Look, I'll just make this broader point, and it's incredibly important in defence industry and working with our partners right through the supply chain; Australia is already under attack when it comes to cyber. The attacks by the Chinese Government, by the Russians, by all sorts of countries like North Korea, that is happening every day. The theft of IP, the compromise of systems, the working with partners who are parts of crime groups that some of these countries work with to extract information on individuals or companies; that is underway and that's why the Government has taken a number of steps and made a very significant investment in our defensive capability when it comes to cyber-attacks.

So already we've seen a presence of Russian authorities within, you know, attack vectors, and we would expect that to pick up. Yes, I mean, that's a reality, and we would have to weigh all of that up, but in the end we want to do whatever we can to deter conflict in the Ukraine, and we'll work with international partners to do that.

It's a reality. I mean it's not a fight that people can see on the television screens each night, but the attacks on critical infrastructure, even during the course of COVID, the attacks on health facilities, aged care facilities by many operatives, has been at a record level and we need to be realistic about all of that.


Just quickly on another matter, Anthony Albanese says wages and standard of living will be higher under Labor. Can either side confidently say that, given that it's expected inflation will rise and perhaps interest rates?


You know, I’m 50 – 51 actually, I look much older of course – but I've been around for a long time and I've seen Labor governments run up debt and they spend as they did during the GFC.

We've had to spend during the course of COVID, but we didn't spend on pink bats, didn't spend on school halls that were ten times the price of what they should have been. We didn't see Cash for Clunkers and all of these programs that Labor implements because they splash money and when they splash money, they go into debt and the government's rating goes down and the cost of money goes up and ultimately they contribute to inflation.

So if you look back over history, interest rates have been higher under Labor, and from our Government's perspective, we have dealt with the expenditure of public money – a lot of it over COVID – in a responsible way. There are hundreds of thousands of Australians at the moment who are in jobs because of JobKeeper, who would have lost those jobs were it not for the Government assistance. We're further down the track, and I hope we an end in sight, to COVID, but we're not there yet and there are a lot of businesses and families who are still suffering now, but there would have been literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of workers in our country who would have lost their jobs, and subsequently lost their houses if they didn't have that income without the assistance that the Government's provided.

If you contrast that to the way in which the Labor Party responded to the GFC, I think Australians get a sense and a taste of the difference between the economic management capabilities of the Coalition v. the Labor Party.

If Mr Albanese is elected at the next election, it's only in concert with the Greens and that is a disaster for our country on very many levels. So I think that's the reality.

I just want to pick up on a point before in relation to the Prime Minister's WeChat account. The reality is, and let's be very frank about it; the Chinese Government heavily influences and editorialises on WeChat. It is a platform of choice and their involvement in WeChat is well known and open source, as well as other material that we read.

So if not WeChat, who has closed down the Prime Minister's WeChat account? It's a legitimate account and the fact that a leader of a democratic country can't have an uninterrupted presence on a major media platform, social media platform, I think says a lot about the approach of the Chinese Government and it's unacceptable and we should call it out.

We want a peaceful, pleasant relationship with the Chinese Government. They are very important to us as a trading partner. I want to see millions more lifted from poverty in China. I want to celebrate the amazing achievement of the diaspora community here in Australia, but at the same time, I'm not going to ignore the attributes of the Communist regime, which is involved in dissemination of disinformation and ultimately, in this case, interfering with the Prime Minister's WeChat account. It's unacceptable and we should call it out.

A few weeks ago, as I said, I find it inconceivable that in the year 2021, and now into 2022, that an international female tennis star can claim that she has been raped and sexually assaulted, and her social media account has been wiped; she's not permitted to leave the country. She's trotted out with rehearsed lines over a couple of times to try and appease the world and it's a farse and it's unacceptable and the human rights abuses need to be called out.

We want to do whatever we can to keep peace and stability within our region and being weak and not talking up on these things is not a solution to having resolution. I think there are many issues that we need to deal with and we need to be honest with the Australian public about where we are. It's why the Germans have just sent a frigate to the Indo-Pacific. It's why the Brits are stepping up their presence in the Indo-Pacific. It's why NATO has called out China in terms of their actions in our region. It's why China is in conflict with India, with the Philippines, with Vietnam and many other border countries at the moment as well. We need to be honest about that because if we just close our eyes in our mouth and pretend it's not happening, the problem will compound and it won't go away. It will become worse.


And just quickly back to domestic politics. How concerned are you the cost of living will be going up at the time of the election?


Well I think for all Australian families, they want stability in their budgets and they want the ability to predict where their income is going to come from and if there are rising petrol prices or grocery prices, they want the ability to be able to budget for that; and they can do that if the Governments providing tax cuts, not taking more money from them, as the Labor Party always does.

The Labor Party blocks tax cuts and the Labor Party put up taxes. That's what they do when they're in government – as we know here in Queensland – I mean the Queensland Government has run out of money, contrasted to even Victoria or New South Wales where there's a massive road project underway across most parts of the state. In Queensland we haven't got the money because the state government has decided to spend that on their [inaudible] wage budget and that makes it very difficult for you to invest in these sorts of projects and from a federal perspective, the Government that Scott Morrison leads will always provide more support to families. That's just a fact.


You touched previously on the saga with Peng Shuai and tennis, but what do you think of tennis Australia's handling of concerns about her and the ones that have been raised by fans at the Aust Open?


I think tennis Australia is in a difficult position. I know Craig Tiley well. I think he's one of the best administrators in Australian sport. Similarly with the board, they have a lot of issues to weigh up, but this is a human rights issue. It's not a political issue. This is not a political statement. It's a human rights issue about a woman who's claimed to have been raped. She's had to withdraw those complaints, but nobody has been able to test that circumstance because she's not permitted to leave Beijing.

So I think it's a significant issue, but it's not an issue for Tennis Australia, this is a broader issue for the world at large and I made my comments a few weeks ago because I think it's wrong that we just sit in silence when we know somebody who's making serious claims like that, isn't allowed to answer those claims or questions about those claims or elaborate on those. She made a statement on her social media and I think we owe it to her and to many others to step up and I think that's where we are in the world at the moment and I think we're best to be very honest about that. Thank you very much.


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