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The Hon Richard Marles MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Defence
21 September 2022
SUBJECTS: Australia-China relationship; MRH-90 Helicopters; Assistance to Ukraine; Defence capability.
JOURNALIST: On China, the likelihood of a meeting. Penny Wong says it's been finalised - the details with her Chinese counterpart - what will that symbolise if we do see this? This will be the second meeting in the space of 12 weeks.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Well, what we're trying to do is stabilise the relationship with China, and we have tried to put in place a different tone since coming to office. Our national interest hasn't changed from before the election until now, so we will always advocate very strongly in respect of our national interest, and particularly when that differs from the actions of other countries, and that includes China. But advancing our national interest is done by making sure that we are engaging with the world in a professional, sober, diplomatic way, and that means stabilising our relationship with China. Now, I met with my counterpart in Singapore early on, the Foreign Minister has already met with the Chinese Foreign Minister once. I think we can see this as part of the process of seeking to stabilise the relationship with China.
JOURNALIST: Will you bow to Emmanuel Macron's bid to keep the Taipan helicopters even though they're troubled, to say the least?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, the review of the Taipans is continuing, no decision has been made in relation to that. But we have made clear that we are reviewing that capability, and we're looking at other options that could fulfill that capability, particularly Blackhawks, in the future. But no decision has been made in relation to this. The Taipans is what the Defence Force operates right now. I mean, I would completely expect the French President to advocate on behalf of French defence industry, that that's perfectly appropriate. When I was in France recently, I spoke with my counterpart, Sébastien Lecornu, about this program as well. We will be very honest and very open with France, that's really how we're seeking to do a reset with France, and that was one of the commitments that Anthony Albanese made when he visited France was to make sure that we have a very straight, open and honest relationship because France matters. At the end of the day, we need to make this decision in Australia's national interest.
JOURNALIST: On those discussions, what were the concerns raised by your counterpart, and how are you working to address them with regards to the helicopters?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're reviewing the program and the capability. There is a question in respect of the cost of operating the Taipans, and we're looking at ways in which that can be done in a more cost effective way, and that's what you would expect us to do and what we must do. We need to be making sure we have the best capability possible, but it needs to provide value for money, so that's what's being looked at. The French, in a completely respectful way, are advocating on behalf of their defence industry, and you would expect that. It's totally appropriate. We in turn have been very clear about the process we're going through. We've not made a decision in respect of this yet. But we are having a review, and, at the end of the day, we will make that decision in Australia's national interest.
JOURNALIST: Ukraine's Foreign Minister directly lobbied Penny Wong for more Bushmasters. I know you've said you're considering more military assistance. Is this not a question of if we provide more Bushmasters, but when?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We're working with Ukraine around how we can continue to support Ukraine, and we're doing that on the basis of an understanding that we see this as a protracted conflict. And it's really important that we stand with Ukraine, along with NATO and other countries, so that Ukraine is in a position to determine its own future, to resolve this conflict on its own terms. That's what we must do. To do that we know that we have to be there for the long term. Now exactly what that support looks like, the form it takes, that's a matter that we will continue to work through with the Ukrainian Government.
JOURNALIST: Is the Taipan currently offering value for money, though, when it's been grounded a heap of times and it's costing so much to actually just keep these choppers running?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: There have been issues with the Taipan fleet, there's been no secret about that, and that's why there is a review that's being undertaken right now about it and what options we have going forward. So we've been really clear about the issues that we faced with the Taipans and we're looking at ways in which we can make sure that we continue a troop carrying capability going forward in a way which delivers a value for money capability for the Australian Defence Force.
JOURNALIST: Did you set expectations in your conversations with your French counterpart that perhaps this program would be junked?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We're reviewing the program. We've been completely clear and upfront and honest with the French, and they know that too, and I think they appreciate that – honesty we see as being what needs to be injected into this relationship from the Australian point of view. Now obviously there's been difficulties that we acknowledge in the past and, in respect of that, the way forward has to be paved by us being completely straight with France, and very respectful, and we're doing that.
JOURNALIST: The Russian Alexander Abramov has been relisted on the sanctions list after taking the Foreign Minister to court a couple of months ago, so does this mean that the court case is over and the sanctions are being upheld against him?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Look I'm not familiar with the details of that. Obviously we maintain a sanctions regime in respect of those in the Russian administration who we see as being responsible for what's happened in relation to Ukraine and we'll continue that.
JOURNALIST: Just on defence acquisitions more generally, the budget's under pressure, there's a timetable, you need to get this equipment in faster. What's your philosophy as Defence Minister about buying off the shelf from overseas, which is often faster and more effective, versus local build?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We need to make sure that we have all the capabilities for the most potent and effective Defence Force, and that we are doing that in a way which keeps our sailors, our soldiers, our aviators safe in the really important work that they do. Australian defence industry matters. It really matters. It matters in terms of Australia's projection to the world. Having an exporting defence industry allows Australia to be engaged at the very core of the interests of other countries, and that helps build our strategic space, which is exactly what the Defence Force does itself. So defence industry in this country has a really important role to play. We obviously work with Australian defence industry, and indeed defence industry around the world to make sure that we have the most cost effective capabilities for our country, and it's a matter of balancing all of that.
JOURNALIST: When will a decision be made on the Taipans, and will honesty be enough to prevent a decision of junking the fleet from re-damaging the relationship with the French?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We are really confident about the way in which the relationship with France is moving forward. France matters. Our relationship with France was dealt a heavy blow last year, and we - the incoming Labor Government - have been really committed to rebuilding the relationship with France, and that's happening. There was a highly successful meeting between the Prime Minister and the President in France. I've met with my counterpart now a couple of times, and, again, had a really productive, warm meeting with him in France a couple of weeks ago. We hope that we obviously have the meeting with the President of France here in Australia. So we feel really confident about being able to put this relationship into the place that it should be, because France, in many ways is our nearest neighbour, is a country which matters greatly to Australia and our strategic interests have great alignment. I am confident that we will be able to navigate this issue in the context of building our relationship with France.