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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02 6277 7800

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3 August 2022

SUBJECTS: Defence Strategic Review announcement, Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles joins us now in the studio. Welcome, Minister. I might cast your mind back to your recent trip to Washington DC, where you were asked the ‘what keeps me awake at night?’ question, and you spoke about seeing what was a blank canvas before you became Minister, and being somewhat worried about what you saw in full picture once you were sworn in. You spoke about military build-ups - the biggest since the end of World War II - and they haven't always ended with happy endings. So, what will this review do to improve the chances of a happy ending for Australia?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it's about making sure that, in view of the strategic circumstances that I was describing there and you quoted Angus Houston in that brief just then, which is a very significant thing for somebody of his standing to say. The question is, given all of that, what do we need to do to make sure that we have a Defence Force which keeps the nation safe, which best advances us in terms of building our strategic space. And that's really what the review seeks to do. And I think you can go back to the 2020 Defence Strategic Update which observed, for the first time, that we are within that 10-year window, which we've always assumed has existed, in terms of if anybody wanting to do us harm, we'd have 10 years' notice. We are within that window now. The question is - what are we doing about it? That's what this review will do.

JENNETT: Sure, just on that 10-year window of vulnerability. That was written about two years ago. Will you ask this review to consider whether that has shrink even further? I mean, could we measure it as within a 7- or 5-year window?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I think there's an element in terms of assessing our strategic circumstances, but a lot of that work has been done, and we all do understand the complexity of it - the difficulty of it, in the way Sir Angus Houston described it. The real question which now needs to be answered given that is what are we going to do? What we have from the Defence Strategic Update back in 2020 was a very important observation that was made. But the question was left hanging. If we don't alter our behaviour as a result of making that observation, well then what are we doing? Really, that's why this review will be so important, it’s why the timeline is actually pretty short - we want a report early next year. And we really see this as being as significant an assessment of what our Defence Force needs to do as we've had in decades.

JENNETT: OK. A quick one about structure and process. I know there's been a bit of criticism at the margins about the individuals running it, which I don't want to get into. But around the question of their status as independent reviewers, why did you deem it necessary to go with independent reviewers to run this? Is it an admission that Defence is somehow incapable of making abrupt switches or hard alterations in course itself?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I don't think it's that. Defence is a fantastic organisation and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity of working with them. They're charged with obviously managing our affairs day to day. I think it is important to have an independent set of eyes, a fresh set of eyes, if I can put it that way, looking from the outside who obviously have the experience - both individuals have had experience of being on the inside, both at a political level and in terms of the CDF of our Armed Forces. But right now, they're outside. They can have a look in. And they can give that fresh perspective. And actually, I think both the existing ADF and the Department really welcome that, and are looking forward to getting that perspective provided to them.

JENNETT: Alright. This is the first such review - force posture review – done by this country for about 10 years. Last time it was done in 2012. Among many recommendations, one was that there was no need, in their view then, for new permanent bases in Australia - just more capable ones. At the outset, is it conceivable that we do need more permanent bases in this country?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the circumstances that we face in 2022 are dramatically different than what they were in 2012. That's the first point to make. The strategic environment has deteriorated significantly. And we really do face a much more difficult world. And the second point to make is that, whilst this will assess force posture - which you're right, the 2012 review did - we want this to be a bigger piece of work. Not just to look at posture, but to look at the structure of the force, to look at what capabilities we need - really, I think, to ask the most foundational questions, which is, ‘what do we need our Defence Force to do in the context of the situation that we face in order to keep Australians safe?’

JENNETT: Yeah. Look, just on location, though, it's clear that we've always had a role offshore in places like Malaysia, I think currently in the Philippines on and off casually over time. Is there a place for offshore, forward-operating bases - a network of them - greater than we currently have?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I don't want to pre-empt the review, and all of that will be looked at. But to make the obvious point - Butterworth, which is in Malaysia, is a really important place for Australia. We work very closely with the Malaysian government, which enables us to have personnel stationed there. So that, as an example, is a really significant forward deployment for Australia. I think those questions absolutely need to be examined. And they need to be examined in the context of a world which is, as I say, very different to what we faced back in 2012. We actually have far fewer people deployed now than we had at that period of time when we were active in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

JENNETT: Would there be an openness now, do you think, if this is where the path took you, with international partners in South-East Asia to enter into those sort of partnerships that might see more ADF in that region?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Again, I don't want to pre-empt it, but it is important that we are looking at our presence within the region and that we're doing that through the lens of obviously working very closely with countries in the region. The reciprocal access agreement, for example, that we've signed with Japan does allow access to both Australian access to Japanese bases and, reciprocally for them in respect of ours. That's a very important agreement which speaks to the issues you raise.

JENNETT: To future intentions. A quick one on domestic facilities, I'm not sure in our discussions on submarines I've asked you before, about the submarine-basing short-list for Australia that the Morrison government came up with - Brisbane, Newcastle, Port Kembla. Do you inherit those, ride with those, scrap those, expand those?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: That's a good question. I think the answer to all of that will be part of the process that we're currently working through with the United States and with the United Kingdom under the banner of AUKUS. The Defence Strategic Review that we've been discussing is really one of two big pieces of work - the other is this - that looks at our future submarine capability, how it is sustained and where it is based is a critical component of that. And we are seeking to have both bodies of work complete in the first part of next year so that they're happening concurrently, they can cross-pollinate each other, but really together they will underpin our defence policy, I think, for years to come.

JENNETT: OK. On kit, or military hardware, obviously submarines is a no-touch or ongoing project. What else is? Hunter-class frigates, I think you've mentioned. What else?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are major platforms that are currently underway, and they will obviously continue. We are wanting to apply a critical eye to the Integrated Investment Plan, which is that 10-year schedule of procurements for the Defence Force. We want to do that to make sure that it is fit for purpose in terms of the challenges that we face. And thinking about that, not just over the context of decades - a lot of these programs are done over a period of decades - but actually thinking about the next decade. Because if we're identifying we're within the window, we need to be thinking about the next 10 years.

JENNETT: Right. But inevitably, that's going to mean dropping some things off the shopping list and adding new things.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Right now, the thought is actually about what are the capabilities we may need? There is an exercise in priority, obviously. What we've committed to is the funding envelope which underpins the Integrated Investment Plan. But again, I think this is work that the review needs to do, and we keenly await it.

JENNETT: Alright. Let's move to Nancy Pelosi's ongoing - as we speak - visit to Taiwan. It is expected, squarely, to result in consequences coming from Beijing. They've vowed that much. Have you sought advice on the safety of any Australian Defence personnel in the region?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are monitoring this issue very closely. And obviously the safety of Australians is paramount. The point that we are making very clearly is that we will obviously engage on this issue, as we will generally, with the world in a very calm and measured way. There's no change to Australia's policy here. What that means is that we don't support any unilateral changes to the status quo on either side of the Taiwan Strait. And in turn, that means that the One China policy which has underpinned the policies, of governments of both persuasions in this country going right back to the '70s, remains unchanged.

JENNETT: But even inadvertently, do you expect potential consequences just by Australia's presence? I don't know - you can tell us if you like - what assets are in the region, but it's not uncommon for naval ships to be sailing through there. Do you expect consequences that Australia at least has to be prepared for?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are monitoring the situation very closely. We engage in activities in places like the South China Sea, which assert the global rules-based order - in that instance, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and Freedom of Navigation. It's a very routine activity that Navies, Defence Forces, do around the world. We are obviously monitoring the situation in respect of Taiwan very closely. Our position on Taiwan, as I say, has not changed.

JENNETT: But it's not unthinkable, is it that Beijing - in wanting to exact some sort of price - might pick off a proxy rather than harassing, say, a US military asset?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't think it serves us well to speculate. We obviously are very careful about making sure that what we are doing is asserting our national interests within the context of international law. In respect of Taiwan specifically, we're making it really clear that our position is not changed, and that we do not support any unilateral change to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

JENNETT: Yep, loud and clear. Plenty more to talk to you about in the remaining five or six months of this review. Richard Marles, thanks for joining me today.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thanks for having me, Greg.


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