Interview with Jess Naunton, ABC North Queensland

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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31 October 2022

JESS NAUNTON, HOST: Last week's Budget may have been termed restrained. But when it comes to our defence spending, the Federal Labor Government is expected to spend tens of billions of dollars. A slice of that multibillion-dollar pie will go towards rebuilding relationships and security within the Pacific, more staff within DVA and the North Queensland Spark training facility right here in Townsville. Assistant Minister for Defence, Veterans’ Affairs and the Republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, is here and will be in the north tomorrow, I believe. Good morning, Minister.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning, Jess. Thanks for having me on your show.

NAUNTON: Now, we have heard in the news this morning, Minister, that there has been a ransomware attack on communications platforms used by military personnel and the Defence Department. Before we get into our discussion, I just wanted to see if you had a bit of an update that you can share with us this morning?

THISTLETHWAITE: Yeah, that's right, Jess. Defence have notified all ADF personnel this morning that a Defence ICT provider, so I want to stress that this isn't an attack or a breach on Defence ICT systems and entities, it's on one of the external providers that Defence contracts to run one of their websites. And all ADF personnel have been notified. At this stage, there is no evidence that the data set has been breached, that's the data that this company holds on behalf of Defence. So there's no evidence of a data set being breached at this stage. However, of course, Defence is taking this very seriously and that's why they've taken the prudent approach to notify all ADF personnel and they're suggesting considering changing passwords and moving to two factor authentications and the like. But importantly, the aim will be to support ADF personnel, and they're partnered with a company called IDCARE, which is an identity and cyber support service, to support anyone that believes that they may be affected. And ADF personnel can contact that company on 1800-595-160.

NAUNTON: Now, Matt Thistlethwaite, you are travelling north this week, I believe to Townsville. What's the visit for?

THISTLETHWAITE: Well, we're up there and I'm coming up with the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister and my fellow Minister, Matt Keogh, the Minister for Defence Personnel. We're basically up there, Jess, to show appreciation for the many ADF personnel that work out of Lavarack Barracks and surrounding Townsville. You know that Townsville has the highest concentration of ADF personnel and veterans, and we know this from the Census last year. So we're up there basically to show our appreciation for the work that goes on and how important it is to Australia's defence. But as you mentioned, we're also up there to launch the North Queensland Spark training facility. And this is a $32.2 million investment by the Albanese Government in a new simulated training centre and opportunities for the ADF. And I've visited some of these new A-I and innovative training opportunities that are being developed in the ADF. And I can tell you that it's wonderful. And it basically provides ADF personnel with as close to possible training in the different theatres that they train in. So that's principally what they're up there to do. But we're also highlighting the fact that the Government has increased defence spending, will now move to over 2% of GDP. That's the highest that it's been in a decade. And it represents the Government's commitment to supporting the ADF and veterans in the Townsville area.

NAUNTON: And as you mentioned, Townsville is the largest garrison city, not only because of Lavarack Barracks, but because we have a large veteran and ex-serving community. With the Royal Commission underway, how does the new Labor Government intend to address some of the recommendations that have already been handed down by the Interim Report?

THISTLETHWAITE: Well, the first thing, Jess, you would have noticed is that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Matt Keogh, apologised to veterans in his response to the Royal Commission in Parliament a couple of weeks ago. We don't believe that veterans have been given the support that they deserve, and the new Government is adopting all of the recommendations of the Royal Commission interim report so far, bar two which relates to some procedural things in the Parliament. But that will include, importantly, and we've already done this, removing the staffing cap on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The previous Government had a staff cap on which led to a huge backlog in processing claims. We're removing that and we're employing an additional 500 staff to work through that backlog. Last week, I introduced in Parliament new legislation to strengthen the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme. This is a scheme that provides a subsidy for ADF and veterans personnel to ensure that they get a subsidy on their home loan, and we're improving access to that and, importantly, removing the cap on veteran service for them to get access to it. As well as investing in veterans’ hubs throughout the country. And one of those veterans’ hubs that we'll be visiting tomorrow is the wonderful Oasis centre to see the great work of the staff there and just how important these veterans’ hubs have been to the welfare of veterans throughout the country.

NAUNTON: The Oasis being the first one in Australia, I believe, Assistant Minister, leading the way here from Townsville. But we heard last week that the Government was going to send about 70 ADF personnel to join the British contingent from January to train Ukrainian soldiers in the fight against Russia. Do we know where these personnel are going to come from?

THISTLETHWAITE: Yeah, that's right, Jess. The Government has announced that Australia will join other partners in providing critical training to Ukrainian troops. It's still to be determined where those personnel will come from, but we're looking at 70 ADF personnel and they'll be from across the country. They'll deploy to the United Kingdom in January 2023. It's part of the UK's Operation Interflex, which is providing training to Ukrainian troops, and I want to stress that no ADF personnel will be entering Ukraine. But I think it's testament to the skill and competence of the Australian Defence Force that we're being asked to be involved in this. That comes on top of what's now a total of $655 million in support for the war effort in Ukraine, including what's now 90 Bushmasters that have been gifted by the Australian Defence Force to Ukraine. And we all know the importance of that conflict.

NAUNTON: And that's part of some relationship building, I guess, with our allies. But the Budget also focused heavily, it would seem, on rebuilding ties and security in the Pacific. What role do you think, or do you envision, Townsville based personnel playing as part of those commitments that have been announced?

THISTLETHWAITE: Townsville personnel will play a very important part of that commitment, particularly given Townsville's proximity to many of our neighbours in the region. And unfortunately, over recent years we've seen that relationship with a number of our important partners in the Pacific sour and we want to, as a government, rebuild that relationship. It's our neighbourhood. And Australia has been a trusted partner of many Pacific countries and we've had a number of programmes where we've been involved in working with defence forces within the Pacific, providing training and competence, strengthening some of their defence forces and importantly providing hardware as well. And most notably, the Pacific patrol boat programme has been a great success, ensuring that those Pacific communities can counter activities such as illegal fishing, which can have a detrimental impact on the livelihoods of the Pacific population and their economy. So we want to make sure that the Pacific is Australia's natural partner of choice and bolstering those relations once again as part of our strategy to improve relations with Pacific nations.

NAUNTON: Well, for now, we look forward to seeing you in the north. We are in the midst of a heat wave, Assistant Minister Matt Thistlethwaite, so look after yourself in travelling north here tomorrow and the week.

THISTLETHWAITE: Well, that might have something to do with the fact just that we're going for a run at 6:00 am in the morning on Wednesday with some of the Defence Force personnel. So I'm looking forward to that, but I'm not looking forward to the hot weather.

NAUNTON: Stay hydrated, Assistant Minister. Thanks so much for joining us here on the program this morning.

THISTLETHWAITE: Thanks for having me, Jess.


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