Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC News

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
dpm.media@defence.gov.au
02 6277 7800

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7 June 2022

GREG JENNETT:

Now, in Anthony Albanese absence, his deputy, Richard Marles, becomes acting Prime Minister. And on top of that responsibility, he's also the new Defence Minister, taking briefings on a large complex and expensive organisation to run between nuclear submarines and Chinese jets buzzing Australia's P8 surveillance planes over the South China Sea. There is a bit for Richard Marles to get across at present. We covered those issues and more during a break in the Minister's schedule at Defence Department head officers here in Canberra just a little earlier.

GREG JENNETT:

Richard Marles, you are in deep immersion on Defence briefings here at headquarters. Congratulations. Can I take you back to the incident above the South China Sea involving the P8 surveillance plane? I know you're saying you're limited in the amount of public information you put on the record and that it won't deter future operations by military assets there. Will it, however, encourage more escorts and protection of planes or ships that the Australian Defence Force sends there?

RICHARD MARLES:

 I think the important point to make is that what occurred was an Australian aircraft that was engaged in routine maritime surveillance activity in the South China Sea. It's the sort of activity we've been doing for decades, the sort of activity which other countries do, and that we will be continuing to do it. And obviously, we will do those activities in a way which protects our servicemen and women.

GREG JENNETT:

That's the question, because if it put in danger that aircraft, wouldn't that necessitate, logically, even bigger deployments on patrol operations through the South China Sea?

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, the work that our servicemen and women do carries danger with it, but we will continue to engage in our activities in the South China Sea because it's a body of water that matters to us, it matters to us because most of Australia's trade goes through it, and it matters to us, therefore, that the global rules based order, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, applies to it. That's what enables freedom of navigation. That's what enables the freedom of our trade through that body of water. So that's why we will continue to engage in the activities that we've been engaging in up until now. And it's really important to make the statement that what has happened will not deter us from doing that.

GREG JENNETT:

Roughly coinciding with the P8 incident was the departure of HMAS Parramatta from Sydney, headed also to the South China Sea and surrounding regions. Do you believe there was a link between the aircraft operations and the impending arrival of the Parramatta?

RICHARD MARLES:

Look, I doubt that. Again, all of our activities that have happened in the past and those planned in the immediate future form part of a continuum routine activity that we've really been doing over decades to ensure that the global rules based order applies to this body of water, that there is freedom of navigation, and we'll continue to do that work.

GREG JENNETT:

Now, I think you're heading to the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore. Will that present an opportunity for you to have face to face conversations either with General Wei, as Lloyd Austin plans to do, or some other senior member of the Chinese military delegation?

RICHARD MARLES:

Look, I'm really looking forward to Shangri-La. It's an opportunity to meet a number of colleagues or counterparts in countries in the region and indeed, actually around the world. It's a really important opportunity early on to present our views on a range of issues from the point of view of the new government. We're putting place a number of bilaterals.

GREG JENNETT:

Including the Chinese?

RICHARD MARLES:

No.

GREG JENNETT:

And whose choice is that?

RICHARD MARLES:

We have put in place a number of bilaterals. You can put in place a number of bilaterals, and that's very much our choice, and we're not seeking one with the Chinese.

GREG JENNETT:

With Secretary Austin, if that becomes possible?

RICHARD MARLES:

I'm looking forward to catching up with Secretary Austin, and I understand there will be an opportunity for me to do that.

GREG JENNETT:

All right. Let's move on. Hopefully you've had the opportunity, as we said at the outset, for some briefings. Can we start with submarines here at Defence headquarters? Peter Dutton had said at the National Press Club Defence debate that he had hoped that Australia could acquire capability much sooner than what pundits had been saying. Have you received any information here at Russell offices that suggests that is possible, or that makes sense of that statement?

RICHARD MARLES:

Look, it's early days is the honest answer to that question, and I don't have all the answers to what we need to do in terms of meeting the capability gap that has arisen by virtue of the last nine years of the Abbott Turnbull Morrison government and its handling of submarines. What is clear is that the successor submarine to Collins coming into place in the 2040s, is just too far away. We need to be looking at how we bridge what would evidently be a capability gap, if that's what we're talking about. I am very mindful that this is just about the number one priority for me as an incoming Defence Minister is to look at how we deal with this question. And it's important to state upfront that there is no more important platform that Australia has in terms of shaping its strategic circumstances than having a capable long range submarine. It's why making sure that we have the successor to Collins in place as quickly as possible in a form which is highly capable is critically important. And the situation that we've been left with by the former government is a disgrace.

GREG JENNETT:

That sounds like an argument, tentative though it is for a son of Collins stop gap, third class of platform.

RICHARD MARLES:

I don't want to set the hares running on any of that. What I would say is my mind is really open because it needs to be in order to deal with what is the capability gap that has arisen, we will be very focused on trying to deal with that. One of the issues that we have seen with the former government is that they were big on beating their chest, but when it came to the hard power equation, the actual doing, they completely failed. So we're going to be not so focused on beating our chest. We will be very focused on getting the action here right.

GREG JENNETT:

And yet I'm intrigued by the fact that you are getting advice here from the same CDF, Chief of Navy that the former government did. And we're going to presume that Peter Dutton, when he said we don't want a third class of submarines. The clearest advice I had in relation to our discussions about whether we should go ahead with nuclear, and that is not a shelf, so called shelf to buy submarines off has come from Chief of Navy, Vice Chief of Defence and Defence Chief. I mean, you've got the same people advising you. Is it your sense that they're adhering and administering to the same advice that they gave to Peter Dutton?

RICHARD MARLES:

Those who run our Defence establishment are fantastic people. Part of why I was so keen to do this role is actually to have the opportunity of working with the people I've had the privilege of getting to know in the five years that I was the shadow Minister for Defence, who are really top notch. So the advice that is coming through to government is first class.

GREG JENNETT:

But if it's consistent, it would be against a third stop gap submarine class.

RICHARD MARLES:

Governments are elected to govern, and that's what we intend to do. I think one of the advantages I have coming into this role is in spending five years as the shadow Minister of Defence, there's something of an apprenticeship there. I have a sense of what I want to do, of what the challenges are that are facing the nation in respect of Defence, strategic policy, national security, and how we can act to improve them and to shape them in a positive way for the country. What you'll see in me is a Defence Minister who's activist, who seeks to have an agenda and be proactive. We haven't had that in any of the Defence Ministers that served under the Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison government.

GREG JENNETT:

You don't think Peter Dutton, the last of them, was, to use your phrase, activist?.

RICHARD MARLES:

I think what we saw in the litany of Defence Ministers in what was a revolving door over nine years was a lack of continuity and a sense of total drift when it came to the question of Defence, which saw a situation where an agreement was signed with the French worth tens of billions of dollars, which was then ripped up with nothing to show for it. It is perhaps the worst failure of Defence procurement that we've seen in our nation's history. And that revolving door is at the heart of it. What we want to do is have continuity in this position and have an activist agenda. And in that sense, I take as my inspiration, Kim Beasley, who really stands, I think, as the great Defence Minister of  modern times.

GREG JENNETT:

Sure. Last one on submarines. Is it your sense that within the 18 month scoping period that came with AUKUS, you can make substantive decisions? We're almost at the midway point or twelve month point. We will be soon. Where do you think you can make the next most substantive announcement out of this process?

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, I feel confident that within that period we can make substantive decisions which advance the whole question of where we go with submarines, how we get our capability sooner and how we deal with the capability gap.

GREG JENNETT:

Darwin Port. We know that the previous government had various agencies, Defence was one of them, review the status of that lease. Have you been able to glean where ultimately that landed?

RICHARD MARLES:

 I've not as yet. Again, they are briefings that I'll seek to have.

GREG JENNETT:

From a national security point of view, I think there was some public reporting late last year that the review threw up no difficulties. Has that basic question been answered for you?

RICHARD MARLES:

 Look, I haven't had advice in respect to that, but we made it really clear that that decision was a mistake and that we think selling the Port of Darwin to China was a mistake of the former government. Now, how we address that mistake, given that it's happened, is something that will be under active consideration.

GREG JENNETT:

Standing up a rival Port at $1.5 billion at Middle Arm. Is that part of the equation?

RICHARD MARLES:

Look, we will have actively consider all the options in relation to that.

GREG JENNETT:

Now, I know you say the $270 billion Defence capability plan is thoroughly bipartisan, all aspects of it, though? I mean, we are without any form of drone capability. Sky Guardian was cancelled. Are you actively revisiting that one?

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, I won't go into the specifics of a particular programme, but in terms of the thrust of your question, it's a good question. We support the programmes and the expenditure associated with them, and really, that's the fundamental point here. We will apply a critical item to the exact nature of the pipeline. And we'll do that because we need to make sure that the pipeline of acquisitions that are being planned meet the strategic circumstances that the country faces.

GREG JENNETT:

Is there a vulnerability around the lack of drones?

RICHARD MARLES:

Again, I don't want to go into the specifics of that, but we will be applying a critical eye to the integrated investment plan.

GREG JENNETT:

Okay. Defence Force posture review, a wholesale look at where our military members are and how prepared they are. Is that underway? Who's going to run it?

RICHARD MARLES:

Again, it's not underway yet, but that's a review that we intend to undertake. I think it's an important review in terms of looking at the focus and the direction of our Defence force, as you say, where our people and where our equipment is located. I think it will also throw up the really critical strategic questions that we face going forward and enable us to interrogate them and answer them.

GREG JENNETT:

In what way, a big footprint across the north, I mean, what do you mean by that?

RICHARD MARLES:

I don't want to preempt the review. We need to go through the process of the review and so that it does actually ask the question of where are our people and our equipment best located to advance Australia's national interest in the context of the strategic circumstances that we face. That's what the review will do and I don't want to preempt the outcome of that but I think the important point about engaging in that kind of review, which has not been done for a long time, is that it will ensure that we are asking and answering the key foundational questions which will enable us to best orientate our Defence force going forward.

GREG JENNETT:

Will you have any independent perspective on that or will it be advised solely by top brass?

RICHARD MARLES:

Look, we're still considering that. Again, it's a reasonable question that's a question which is under consideration.

GREG JENNETT:

Okay, final one, as acting Prime Minister, we are in an energy crisis. Do you envisage any interim measures on cost of living support before we get to the October budget that may be necessary to help people and businesses that are struggling?

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, there are obviously a number of interim measures that were put in place by the former government.

GREG JENNETT:

 Anything additional?

RICHARD MARLES:

But we're not making any announcements in relation to that. In terms of gas specifically, the Energy Minister has convened a meeting of Energy Ministers from around the country that's an important step forward. AEMO has put in place the energy supply guarantee mechanism which hopefully should see more supply in the southeastern corner of the country, which will make a difference. We will leave no stone unturned in looking at ways in which we can deal with and improve the situation.

GREG JENNETT:

Should the gas companies voluntarily source or supply more, particularly to the East Coast?

RICHARD MARLES:

Again, we'll be working with the gas companies around the question of supply but the guarantee mechanism that AEMO has instituted really goes to that question of speaking with the gas companies to make sure there is as much supply as possible for the East Coast and we're already seeing more supply come through as a result,

GREG JENNETT:

All right, Richard Marles, I'm sure you've got many more important meetings to get to here at Defence headquarters, thanks for spending some time with us.

RICHARD MARLES:

Thanks Greg.

 

 END

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