Doorstop interview with Chief of Navy Michael Noonan Henderson, Western Australia

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The Hon Peter Dutton MP

Minister for Defence

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25 March 2022


Everyone, thank you for being here today. Look, this is a very significant undertaking by the Navy, by the Government, in partnership with Austal.

We know that the people smuggling threat hasn't gone away. We know that people smugglers are still trying to put people on to boats and that Operation Sovereign Borders will need to remain in place.

These vessels are at the frontline of defending our nation's borders, but also making sure that we can keep our Indo-Pacific safe working with our near partners and deterring any aggression.

This is a best in class. There'll be six of these vessels delivered, and it will come at a cost of about $340 million. That's a big investment into WA where it's creating about 550 jobs.

It's one of three undertakings that we've got at the moment. It's in addition to the announcement the Prime Minister made with an upgrade to Henderson.

This is a multi-billion dollar commitment that we're making over a long period of time to WA and to jobs here and Austal has been a very reliable partner with us. We're very pleased that we're able to take delivery today of the first of the Evolved Cape Class vessels.

So, I might ask the Chief of Navy to say a few words and then if you have some questions, I'll answer some questions.


Thanks. Good morning, we're extremely proud today to accept to the Commonwealth Australian Defence Vessel Cape Otway, the first of six Evolved Cape Class patrol boats that will operate in our Navy conducting maritime protection and border protection tasks.

This particular boat will shortly leave Western Australia and will conduct a series of trials with its new ship's company and will be home ported in Cairns.

The subsequent five other boats will be home ported in Cairns and Darwin. So, it's a tremendous day for the men and women who will serve in this boat and those that follow.

I'd like to thank the men and the team here at the Austal and the wider defence industry who have contributed to the building of this magnificent ship.


I'll just touch on the upgrades and, I guess, what this boat helps bring in terms of what's on board to the naval force?


So this boat is an evolution of the previous Cape-Class boats. We've got two of them in service in the Navy currently, and the Australian Border Force also operates the previous Cape-Class.

This boat has got improved sensing systems, surveillance systems, but also it’s technical systems in terms of its propulsion and monitoring systems are also more reliable and has a better sea-keeping capability than those that's provided. So, this allows for men and women to stay at sea longer and go further.


How will the ship help us protect our borders?


This ship, along with the Armidale Class patrol boats currently in service, provide 24/7, 365-day coverage of the northern approaches of Australia.

They are specifically tasked to operate in our maritime domain looking at illegal entry, illegal fishing, issues that could go to smuggling or even just assisting with pollution or other dangers to the marine environment.

So, the capability that this ship provides is a tremendous step up from what we've previously had in the Navy.


Will these vessels head up to the Ashmore Reef where we've seen some incidents lately and, tragically, the other day with the deaths?


I'd expect that these vessels will operate across the entire northern domain of Australia. So, as we see, we've got a large area for which we're responsible in northern Australia, and I would expect that this vessel will operate in that domain and beyond.


Could there be a bigger presence in that area to stop boats coming from the likes of Indonesia and more lives being lost in that area?


The tasking of our Navy and of our partner forces is very much dictated by the nature of the activity or the threats that we see at the time.

What we saw last week in the loss of the foreign fishing vessel was, indeed, tragic, and the ability of our people to respond and render assistance is a reflection of not just the capability of the ships, but the training and responsiveness of our people.


Thank you very much.


Okay, any other questions?


You sort of touched on it before, but does more need to be done to protect that Ashmore Reef area?


Sorry, should more be done, did you say?




Well, obviously as the Chief of Navy pointed out, the Government has many assets deployed across the northern approaches to our country, not just these vessels, but obviously surveillance aircraft as well as satellite technology and a collection of intelligence otherwise. Regularly they will receive intelligence about a vessel that might be approaching and they're able to dispatch some of the Border Force or the Navy assets to greet or to deal with that approach.

So there is an enormous capability on these vessels. It's a huge investment and, as Mike pointed out, a big investment in the people as well.

We have I think the most highly trained naval personnel in the world, and that's an ongoing process, and they have the ability to respond to dangerous situations, to life-at-sea risks, tragedies that occur. They work with the police to intercept drug importations. There are many elements to why this is a necessary investment.

The technology now, the utilisation of that cutting edge technology, the satellite communications available to it, makes it a very formidable asset within the Royal Australian Navy.


Would a vessel like this be deployed on the frontline in Ukraine?


No, no. We've got obviously a lot of assistance we've provided to Ukraine.

I can advise you today that we've had the fourth aircraft that's provided a drop of military aid and support otherwise to our Ukrainian friends, and I spoke last week with the Ukrainian Defence Minister; he’s incredibly grateful for the support that Australia's providing. If there's more that we can do we will and I spoke with him about their needs and requirements, and we've been able to fulfil some of that through the latest arrival of the Globemaster into Europe.


Minister, China has accused the Morrison Government of talking up security threats and backing increased defence spending to win voter support. What do you make of that?


Well, I just say look at China's actions, not at the propaganda. Every 18 months on a tonnage rate the Chinese Navy is producing more than what we have in the entire Royal Australian Navy. They are amassing nuclear weapons. They're amassing missiles. They have hypersonic capability, and they're involved in coercion, in paying off government officials in different countries around the world. They've been in land disputes on the border with – between China and India. They're butting up against the Japanese in the East China Sea. There are now 20 points of military presence in the South China Sea - even though they gave a commitment to President Obama at the time that they wouldn't be militarised.

So, I would just say look at the actions of China and the most concerning action of China at the moment is that they've entered into this unbreakable relationship with Russia.

There's one country in the world, there's one leader, one person in the world who can deter President Putin from his current actions in the Ukraine, and that's President Xi from China.

Let's be very clear about it. If we want an end to that war now, then President Xi is the one person who can pick the phone up to President Putin and tell him to turn around and leave the carnage behind, to stop killing innocent men, women and children, shelling schools and hospitals and residential areas and that’s what the world expects of China, but it seems that China is providing comfort, not words of rebuke to Russia, and I think they stand condemned for that.

So the Morrison Government isn't strengthening its military presence in the Asian-Pacific region to win more votes at the upcoming election?


No, we're strengthening our military position because for the first time since the Second World War we have plans to defend our country against adversaries.

China has been very deliberate in their language. There's no ambiguity in their language in terms of their aggression within the Indo-Pacific and we need to be realistic about that.

What the Morrison Government has invested in is making sure that our capability is as best as it can be to provide the support to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force.

We're investing to keep our country safe, but we're only partway through that job. I think Australians realise that going to Labor at the next election is putting all of that at risk - exactly as they did with the border protection policies of John Howard that they trashed in 2007 and innocent women and children drowned at sea, and they ended up putting thousands of people into detention.

Now, we've cleaned up that mess and we can't go back to it.

We have to invest more into the Navy, more into our Air Force and more into the Army and we'll do that over the course of the next few years and decade and beyond that, but all of that is at risk if a Labor government is elected.

Anthony Albanese is a huge risk to national security, and I think Australians get that sense because when they were last in government, they reduced spending in Defence down to the lowest level as a percentage of GDP since 1938.

Had that continued over the course of the last eight or nine years, there'd be $55 billion less having been spent in defence than what we've been able to spend, including procuring assets like this over the course of the last almost decade.

So, there's a huge difference between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese when it comes to defence of our country and investment into our Defence Forces and that is a huge decision for people to make at the upcoming election.


Will WA be receiving anymore Defence contracts in the near future?


I think they will. I think you can be assured that under the Morrison Government there will be more investment into naval ship building, into Defence procurement, into men and women in the Australian Defence Force, but all of that is at risk for WA if Anthony Albanese is elected at the next election.

Labor ripped money out of Defence because they lose control of our borders, as they did last time when they spent $16 billion on trying to patch up a problem of their own making, including obviously the facilities at Christmas Island and putting the men and women of the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Border Force under unbelievable stress to deal with those incidents at sea and we don't ever want to go back to that.

But I think the people smugglers and many others know of Labor's weakness when it comes to these national security issues.

Thank you very much.


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