Doorstop interview, Lavarack Barracks, Townsville

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

Media contact

02 6277 7800

The Hon Matt Keogh MP

Minister for Defence Personnel

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

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Stephanie Mathews on 0407 034 485

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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2 November 2022

SENATOR NITA GREEN, SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: Well can I welcome everyone here to Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, the home of the Australian Army's 3rd Brigade and on the lands of the Bindal people. I'm Senator Nita Green, and it's a real pleasure to be here in Townsville, again, a place that I love to visit. But today, I'm joined by the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Veterans Affairs, and of course, our Assistant Minister for Defence as well, Matt Thistlethwaite.

The three men behind me are no strangers to Townsville, and to North Queensland. But it really is a show of strength, I think, to have all three here today to talk about the importance of Townsville and the importance of North Queensland more broadly, in the defence of our country. We know that from a geography point of view, North Queensland and Far North Queensland are the gateway to the Pacific. And this is something that we talk about as a government, but also as a community, in terms of how we respond to the threats that we see throughout the world. It's incredibly important that North Queensland is part of the conversation about our defence community, and how we deal with not only threats throughout the world, but also how we build up communities throughout North Queensland. I'm really, really proud to be here today with the Deputy Prime Minister. We are an important part of the defence of our country, not just from geography, but also because of our people. We are tough, and we are resilient. And I want to thank the troops that we've met today, the people we've had the opportunity to talk to, and I want to thank them for their service. And I'll hand over to Richard Marles.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Well, can I thank Nita for the introduction and say how well our government is served by Senator Nita Green in North Queensland. She is completely dedicated to this region and dedicated to Townsville. And it's great here to be also with Matt Keogh and Matt Thistlethwaite, my ministerial colleagues, as we're here today to talk about the announcements that were made in respect of defence in the Albanese Government's first Budget last Tuesday week. It is great to be back in Townsville again, it's great to be back at Lavarack Barracks. Townsville is one of the great garrison cities of our nation. This is very much a defence town and we're very conscious of the role that defence has here, and how important Townsville is in terms of Australia's defence capability.

Last Tuesday week’s Budget saw an increase in defence spending, an increase through every year of the forward estimates, an increase this financial year relative to last financial year and indeed, an increase in this financial year's budget relative to what was budgeted for under the last budget of the former Coalition government in March. And significantly, North Queensland is a beneficiary of that increase. Central to that is the North Queensland simulation Park. NQ Spark is going to be a fantastic initiative that we are doing jointly with local council, which will create a state of the art simulation facility right here in Townsville. Now, this morning, we've been using simulation and watching it as a form of training for our defence personnel. And increasingly, we are seeing the role that simulation can play in helping to train our soldiers in a way which is obviously safe but which is cost effective. And it's not just our military, it's also emergency service personnel, and this will be a project which is done in cooperation with them. But this is going to not only provide that simulation, but actually be a place of research around how we can do simulation better, because we understand the significance of simulation as a method of training our personnel. So this will be a really important initiative and $32.2 million that we're committing to this is a really important boost for the Townsville economy.

We've also committed $5.1 [million] to develop biofuels in this region. And that's really significant as the beginning of a process by which we start thinking of biofuels as part of our strategic fuel reserve. The former Coalition government provided fuel reserves in America, which doesn't do much in terms of building our sovereign capability. But this starts to shift our thinking where we actually see fuel reserves in the crops that exist around our country. And if we can solve the biofuel commercial question, then there is a huge opportunity to build sovereign capability in terms of fuel reserves right here on our continent, through looking at our crops in a different way, which is why the biofuels initiative that is being done in the Burdekin is so profoundly important for our defence forces and our strategic fuel reserves. They're just two parts of the budget that we announced last Tuesday week in respect of defence, but there are other areas where significant commitments have been made, and I will hand over to my colleague Matt Keogh to announce the next.

MATT KEOGH, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL & MINISTER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS: Thanks, Richard. And thanks, Nita. It's great to be back here in Townsville, Australia's largest garrison city with over 14,000 current and former serving personnel, plus families and the budget that the Albanese Government delivered last week is about delivering on our promise of a better future for our serving personnel, veterans and families. And we've done that through delivering on a number of the commitments that we took to the election, including funding for 10 new veterans’ and families’ hubs around the country, building on the success of those sorts of hubs, like we see right here in Townsville with the Oasis Centre. Investing in a Veterans’ Employment Program, $24 million so that we can see a great pathway for our veterans into employment. And we know that veterans have such great skills to give to our businesses around Australia. And that's why we want to be able to promote that to the business community. The soft skills that they develop, as well as the trade skills that they may develop, while serving our nation, those leadership qualities, that teamwork skill, that ability to be agile and work under pressure.

The budget also responds to our commitment to delivering in respect of the recommendations that have been made by the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans’ Suicide. Obviously, as a large veteran town, as Townsville is, that is something that has been has been experienced by the community here. Part of that is making sure that we are able to get through the backlog of claims that we've seen build up in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. So we're employing 500 additional staff in the Department so we can process those claims quicker. We're investing in new IT systems so that we can process claims more efficiently and have a system that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. And we're also looking through now how we can simplify and harmonise legislation that supports our veterans, so it's an easier to access system for veterans, and families.

And critically here, in Townsville, we're working with the Oasis Centre, we've committed $4.7 million towards the development of the Op Navigator app, a portal to support veterans and personnel as they're transitioning out of defence, looking towards how they find that employment opportunity in civilian life. We know that employment is one of the best ways to secure a successful transition to civilian life for our personnel as they transition out of the ADF. And so having a portal opportunity like Op Navigator app is really important for that, navigating those employment opportunities and other services that will support our defence personnel as they leave the Defence Force, making sure they're able to get the best opportunity to succeed when they come back into civilian life, making sure that we see them succeed through employment and accessing the services that they may need so they get the support that they deserve. And that's what all of our commitments in the veterans’ space, the Defence Personnel space are about: delivering on that better future for our serving personnel, veterans and families. And in respect to a few other items on that, I'll turn now to the Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans’ Affairs, Matt Thistlethwaite.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE & VETERANS’ AFFAIRS: I’d firstly, like to thank the members of 3rd Brigade for welcoming us here to Lavarack Barracks and for explaining and demonstrating the important capability that's being developed here in the defence of our nation. We know moving forward that if Australia is going to maintain a defence capability edge, that we're going to need to recruit thousands of new members of the Australian Defence Force over the next 20 years. And that's why I was proud to introduce into the parliament last week, a Bill to amend the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme to upgrade that scheme and provide greater support for members of the Australian Defence Force and indeed veterans, to purchase their own home, and particularly to live closer to their places of work. We all know that Australians are struggling with the cost of housing and Defence Force personnel are not immune from that. And this scheme is aimed at ensuring that we can support our ADF personnel and veterans so that they can own their own home and live in it with their families. We've upgraded the scheme by making access to it much more accessible. We're reducing the qualifying period for serving personnel to two years, and for reservists to four years. And importantly, we're removing the post service cap that existed for veterans, so veterans will be able to access this scheme beyond their five years of service. It's another demonstration of the Albanese Labor Government's commitment to the Australian Defence Force. And part of that commitment is of course, growing the Defence Force budget, it's now above 2 per cent of GDP the highest that it's been in a decade. And this scheme is an important part of that.

JOURNALIST: Just on the Blackhawks here in Townsville, that capability upgrade that was promised by the previous government, is that still on the cards for 5th Aviation?

MARLES: Look, there's a process underway in relation to this, and we hope to be able to make an announcement in relation to that relatively shortly. I mean, as people would be aware, the MRH-90s that we've been operating for a considerable amount of time have had issues associated with them. We've been trying to work through with industry about those for many years now, and we are looking at other alternatives and the Blackhawks are clearly one of them. But the process is underway and we hope that we're able to make a decision pretty quickly.

JOURNALIST: And you're also considering replacing those M113 armoured personnel carrier fleets here as well to the Land 400 Phase 3?

MARLES: Yeah. So Land 400 Phase 3 is a process which is underway, and has been ongoing for some time now. And so, again, that is a matter which has been considered and the process as it is, is underway as we speak, and is happening in conjunction with the Defence Strategic Review.

JOURNALIST: Local MP here, Philip Thompson says that the capability review means cuts to defence funding. Is that correct?

MARLES: It's not correct. We are living in an increasingly strategically complex and precarious world. In a rational world defence spending is a function of strategic threat and strategic complexity, and I can tell you that we are rational people. What you're actually seeing in the Budget that we announced last Tuesday week was an increase in defence spending. Labor's committed- as we did prior to the election- and maintain the commitment to spend on Defence, the equivalent of two per cent of GDP. We've committed to the funding envelope which underpins the Integrated Investment Plan; the 10 year procurement schedule for the Australian Defence Force. The Defence Strategic Review is looking at how we can best shape our defence force for the strategic circumstances that we face going forward- and that's a really important step to take. The Defence Strategic Update in 2020, under the former government rightly observed that for the first time Australia is moving within the 10 year threat window; that's a big observation to make- the correct observation to make- but having done that, it has left a question begging, which is; what are we going to do about that? Now the former government did precious little. The Defence Strategic Review is actually trying to answer exactly that question and looking about how we can shape our defence force to deal with the situations that we find going forward.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)… being made public, Deputy PM, given the government's commitment to transparency?

MARLES: The Defence Strategic Review will absolutely be made public. We've announced that it will hand down its final position in the first part of next year and it will absolutely be made public. Now, I'm having an interim report handed to me by the reviewers later this week- that's not a public document because it's very much about the direction they’re heading in right now. But this is all being done in a short timeframe and in the fullness of that short timeframe. All of this will be made public.

JOURNALIST: Do you accept that inflation is out of control with seven consecutive rate rises? And an inflation rate above the government's forecast?

MARLES: Well, we are seeing a difficult economic environment around the world. And we're not immune from that. That's a point that the Treasurer has been making consistently for months now. And obviously, it was reiterated in the Budget that we just had. But we're seeing this play out in North America, in Western Europe, and it impacts Australia. And that's why our Budget was completely focused on easing the cost of living pressures, on making sure that housing is more affordable, that we get cheaper medicines and make childcare more affordable, we get wages going again. And that's been one of the real issues that has been facing Australians over the last decade, that under the former Coalition Government, we had record wage stagnation, it was really the standout feature of the economy over the last decade; that's what this country experienced. We're dealing with that in the short term, in terms of the measures that we announced in the Budget, we're dealing with it in the medium and long-term, looking at ways in which we can get productivity going around fee-free TAFE, for example, which gets skills into the economy. They are the sorts of steps that we need to take in order to get productivity going, which will get wages going again. But we are very focused on that and that's what we need to be doing given the difficult economic headwinds which are being felt right around the world.

JOURNALIST: In regards to the ForceNet hack, has Defence been able to confirm whether personal data of any personnel has been compromised?

MARLES: I might hand that to others.

KEOGH: In respect to the notification to defence personnel about ForceNet being wrapped up in a ransomware attack on a third party contractor, we still have not seen any evidence of that information being made available anywhere. So, whilst the third party contractor that was involved in supporting defence with ForceNet, we've notified Defence personnel to be aware of that, as we've also been notifying them over recent weeks to be aware about other cyber-attacks that we've seen publicly talked about with other companies in Australia; people need to protect their personal information, be aware that it can sometimes be vulnerable. But we haven't been made aware of any of that ForceNet data being made available to the public in any format –

JOURNALIST: What's being done to strengthen Defence’s IT systems in regards to those?

KEOGH: I want to be very clear that in respect of the ForceNet system that none of this ransomware attack, or any of these attacks have been about Defence systems themselves. There's been no attack on Defence systems here. This is about a ransomware attack on a third party contractor.

JOURNALIST: Just another question for Minister Marles. Just with troops going to the UK to help with training Ukrainians, is there any chance that Townsville troops might be called up to go help with that as well?

MARLES: Well, in terms of who provides that, that will be looked across the entire of Defence to see which personnel are in the best position to provide that training. But this is a very important step that we're taking because what we're seeing play out in Ukraine is a conflict which has all the hallmarks of being a protracted conflict. Now, Ukraine's a long way from Australia but the principles at stake there engage our national interest. These go to the upholding of the global rules based order which are profoundly important in Eastern Europe. But they're profoundly important in the Indo-Pacific and indeed, around the world. Which is why it matters that we stand with Ukraine. We cannot allow a situation where a large country imposes itself on a smaller neighbour, not by reference to the rule of law, but by reference to power and might. And that's exactly what Russia has done in respect of Ukraine. And that's why we need to be supporting Ukraine over the long term, so that we are putting them in a position where they can determine the end of this conflict on their own terms. To do that, you know, we've got to have an ongoing commitment to Ukraine, which is why we're very pleased to make the announcement that we have in respect of the trainers that we will be sending to the UK as part of the UK-led initiative in respect of training personnel in Ukraine - and obviously, the 30 additional Bushmasters, which takes the total contribution 90 Bushmasters. In total, what this is now is a $655 million commitment to supporting Ukraine. It's one of the largest non-NATO contributions that's been made to support Ukraine and we're very proud of that. But this is something which is very important that we continue to stand with Ukraine.

JOURNALIST: Mr Marles, are you worried about having nuclear capable bombers like B-52s in Darwin and how that might be (inaudible) they might be a bit too provocative for the fragile region?

MARLES: I think everyone needs to take a deep breath here. What we're talking about is a US investment in the infrastructure at Tindal, which will help make that infrastructure more capable for Australia as well. In terms of US bombers, they've been coming to Australia since the 1980s. They've been training in Australia since 2005. All of this is part of an initiative which was established in 2017. We do defence exercises with the United States, and we do them with their bombers. And we do them they with Air Force. And this is an important investment in the Tindal Air Base for which Australia will be a significant beneficiary.

JOURNALIST: Just on veteran wellbeing centres, as we've seen claimed today, that funding for eight of those veterans wellbeing centres was cut in the recent budget, is that true?

KEOGH: So I think it's important to address some big misconceptions that the Liberal-Nationals are putting out about the veterans’ hubs – veterans’ and families’ hubs commitment in the Budget. We took a commitment to 10 additional veterans’ hubs to the election, and we're delivering on that, through the Budget. We've seen a number of local Liberal and National MPs stand up and say that they think that there's things that have been cut through in terms of funding. The reality is, the previous government did not commit any specific funding to any specific sites for veterans’ and families’ hubs. We took those to the election and we’re now delivering on what we took the election and have a mandate to deliver on as the new government that's been elected, and that's what we're doing. And there was no previously tied funding to any particular sites that some MPs from the Liberal-National Party are now trying to take away from an excellent commitment that we're now delivering on, and that are focused on the localities that have the most significant communities of veterans and families that we need to support through these veterans and families hubs.

MARLES: Thank you.


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