Interview with Patricia Karvelas, RN Breakfast

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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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21 October 2022

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: There's been diplomatic race across the Pacific between the West and China. The new Labor Government has made Pacific relations a key priority, announcing $900 million in the Budget over the next four years. Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister. He's currently in Fiji.

Deputy Prime Minister, welcome to RN Breakfast.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, Patricia. How are you?

KARVELAS: Good. We have to begin with the news out of Britain this morning. Prime Minister Liz Truss has resigned after just one and a half months in power. What do you make of the chaos coming out of the UK?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, ultimately, this is obviously a matter for the United Kingdom. I think the point I would make is that our systems of government are similar. They're designed that when there's a lot of politics going on, government can still function. And in the case of Britain, I can attest to that, because we have a lot that we're doing with the UK right now, with the AUKUS agreement. And I can tell you that over the last few months, where there have been changes in Prime Minister, we've still seen our work with Great Britain continue at a pace. Britain will work this through, they'll sort this out. It actually doesn't, in my view, have an impact on our relationship with Britain and our ability to engage on the really critical issues which we have with Britain in a timely way.

KARVELAS: Richard Marles, there are reports this morning that Boris Johnson could return. He's certainly putting his hand up in the Tory leadership race. One of his last acts in the top job was actually a surprise visit to Northern England to meet with you at the commissioning of Britain's newest submarine class. Would you welcome his return to office?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, I think it's not for me to offer an opinion about the future of the British Prime Ministership. Again, whoever ultimately is the Prime Minister of Britain going forward, I'm sure we will have a very constructive relationship with Great Britain. I mentioned AUKUS, we're obviously working with Britain on a free trade agreement. We are doing a lot with the UK, but we're able to do that notwithstanding the politics which has been unfolding in the UK over the last few months.

KARVELAS: Let's turn to your efforts in the Pacific this morning. The $900 million is nearly double what you promised during the election campaign. What are you offering to our neighbours in the Pacific?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think the starting point is we are making clear how important the Pacific is in terms of our engagement with the world. Right now, both myself and the Foreign Minister are in the Pacific. The Pacific is so central to Australia's national interest, to our national security. And we've long felt that if we are present in the Pacific, if we turn up and engage, that we will be the natural partner of choice. I've long had that view, and having been in the Pacific over the last week and a half, in all the countries in the Pacific which have defence forces, that sense has been completely reaffirmed. The Pacific wants to work with Australia. It's a question of being here and engaging. We've had a lost decade with the former Coalition government. But Australia is back now and we really hope that this very substantive commitment backs up a lot of our rhetoric with real action.

KARVELAS: Are you offering this money to Pacific nations on the proviso they don't engage with Beijing?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No, this is actually about our relationship with the Pacific. It's about making sure that we make the Pacific more resilient and more secure from the perspective of a country that is of the Pacific, and the Pacific certainly sees Australia as part of the Pacific family. And that's our focus. It's not by reference to other countries in other parts of the world, it's really about being a part of the Pacific and building the Pacific's own resilience and security. That's the spirit in which it's being offered and that's the spirit in which the Pacific see it.

KARVELAS: Kiribati left the Pacific Islands Forum in July and the country's president met with China's Foreign Minister at the UN General Assembly last month. Is there a concern that Kiribati could sign a security deal with China like the Solomons did in May?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think there's a lot of work which is being undertaken by the Pacific Island Forum with Kiribati. The point I'd make is that Kiribati is an integral part of the Pacific. It's a part of the world where, again, if Australia plays a role, I genuinely believe we will be the natural partner of choice, and we want that relationship very much to continue. And that is about being there and engaging and making sure that we are backing up those visits with substantive action, and we're doing that.

KARVELAS: Richard Marles, this week, Kiribati’s president publicly praised Beijing’s dealings in the Pacific as very culturally sensitive. Have you discussed Kiribati and are you trying to bring that country back to the Forum? And what do you make of that language? Do you take that as a slight that, perhaps, we haven't operated in a culturally sensitive way?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, from Australia's point of view, we highly value our relationship with Kiribati. I know from the Pacific Island Forums point of view, they are deeply engaged with Kiribati, and on a basis where Kiribati knows how important they are regarded as a member of the Pacific family. We understand that the countries in the Pacific have choices. What we need to be focusing on is Australia's place and our engagement with the Pacific on our own terms, and making sure that we are present, that we are there providing support, and that our focus and intent is on the development of the countries of the Pacific. And that very much includes Kiribati. But what we've seen over the last decade is a former Australian Government which was not doing the work, and that's part of the issue here. There's a lot of catch up that we need to do but we are intent on doing it and we are here in a very present way, and that very much includes Kiribati.

KARVELAS: You've announced an investigation into allegations China hired former western Air Force pilots to train its military. Is there any evidence Australians have been involved?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're very concerned by the reports, which is why I've asked for the Department to come back to me as quickly as possible with a report about whether this is an issue which presents a material danger to Australia or not. The point I would make really quickly to people who have obviously read these reports is that Australians who work for the government in any capacity, but that very much includes the military and it would include someone flying a fighter jet, who come into possession of the nation's secrets, have an obligation to maintain those secrets beyond their employment with, or their engagement with, the Commonwealth. That's an enduring obligation and to reveal any of those secrets is a crime. It's very clear and unambiguous –

KARVELAS: So when will you know?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I've asked the Department to come back to me as soon as possible and we want to understand whether this is a genuine concern for the country or not. We've obviously read the reports and they are very concerning reports in the media. But I want to assure people that there is an obligation to maintain our nation's secrets for those who possess them beyond their engagement, their employment with Australia and to reveal them is a crime, unambiguously, very clear. And we want to understand whether this is a real issue and obviously if there is an issue out there we will deal with it.

KARVELAS: You're yet to announce what further assistance Australia will offer Ukraine. We were hearing that it was imminent and hasn't happened yet. When will the announcement happen, Deputy Prime Minister, and what are you now considering? Is it still about training?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Again, I'm not going to make the announcement now –

KARVELAS: No, but can you give me an indication? Because it was imminent, what delayed it?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: We will make the announcement very soon. But I think the point I want to make about this is that the previous commitments that we've made in relation to Ukraine, we are still in the process of delivering and that's as it was expected and intended when those announcements were made. Getting the Bushmasters over to Ukraine involves a schedule of delivery, there's a logistical task here and it was always understood that it would take some time to get all those Bushmasters over there and that is still happening. So in that sense the next tranche of support that we provide to Ukraine will come into place when all of that has been delivered. We will make that announcement very soon. We see that it is critically important.

KARVELAS: Richard Marles, thanks for joining us.




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