Interview with Jess Naunton, ABC North Queensland

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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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2 November 2022

JESS NAUNTON, HOST: The recent federal Budget handed down has delivered record investment into Australia's Defence Force, with part of the pie flowing through to North Queensland. $32.2 million for the North Queensland Spark training facility right here in Townsville, and $5.1 million for research development of liquid biofuel manufacturing capabilities in the Burdekin.

The Minister for Defence and Deputy Prime Minister is in Townsville today and is here to tell you more. Good morning, Deputy Prime Minister.

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

NAUNTON: Yes, really well, thank you. Now, I'm led to believe you have already gone for a run in Townsville this morning. How did it go with our Defence Force personnel?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is a beautiful part of the world and we were running along the Strand, a nice 5km run first thing this morning. And it wasn't too hot, I was a bit nervous about that, but it was absolutely fine. And it is a gorgeous seascape there, looking out at Magnetic Island. It was very magical.

NAUNTON: Now, you haven't come empty handed, you are here to essentially launch the North Queensland Spark facility and the funding announcement. The facility itself combines tech and the expertise of our ADF, but it also involves emergency services, health and disaster management in the one centre. What outcomes are you expecting to see from a training facility like this here in the north?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's a really important facility which is going to provide invaluable training, as you say, across those whole areas, and involves defence, but involves more than that. And also has a high tech component to it, which is very much what the modern military is like now. Simulation Park is really important because simulation enables a whole lot of training to be done through that mechanism and we are increasingly seeing that as a part of how training is done across the military, but, as you say, across emergency services as well, in a way that does give people the training they need, but is also safe and cost effective. And so the whole area of that, the research around that, is really important. And Townsville is going to be the centre of it, which is really exciting.

NAUNTON: And Townsville is home to the first veterans’ hub in Australia, known as the Oasis, which your government has invested $4.7 million, I believe, into the Op Navigator app. What does this provide for our ex serving personnel and how does it help their transition process?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, so Op Navigator is an important measure as well. It's an app which helps people who are transitioning to look at how they can essentially match the skills that they've obtained through their military training with what opportunities there are out there in the general economy. And that's really important in Townsville specifically. Townsville is the place to launch this because this is one of the really big garrison towns in our country, perhaps along with Darwin, it's one of the two big garrison towns. So there's a lot of serving men and women, but there's also a huge veterans community here as well. And getting the transition equation right is as important here as it is anywhere in the country, both for those people who have served, but also for the local economy. And it really matters that the local economy gets the benefit of the skills that have been developed in these people while they've done their time in the military. And this app is about trying to match those skills up with what opportunities are there. And sometimes that's easy based on what path a person has taken within the military. But sometimes it's not. Like if you're an infantry soldier and you've been at Lavarack for how many years, you'll have skills and you'll definitely have skills that you can apply in the general economy. But marrying those up and understanding what direction you should take in the civilian world is not necessarily obvious. And that's where we're really hoping that it can make a big difference.

NAUNTON: The budget revealed funding for the Burdekin. Can you just tell us what you're hoping to achieve with that investment?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Biofuels is a huge opportunity to rethink energy security. That's probably how I would put it. Right now, we've got real challenges around fuel storage in Australia, but maybe one way to rethink this is that in fact, the fuel is being stored in a whole lot of crops that exist around the country. And that if we can actually get the biofuels proposition right, we can do this in a commercial way, then in fact, the fuel that we have imagined we have thought about being stored in huge tanks somewhere, is actually being stored in crops and fields. And that's why working through biofuels is such an important area of research. It's one that other militaries around the world and other countries around the world are looking at. But it's a huge opportunity for Australia and it's a huge opportunity for North Queensland. So we're really excited about working this through because I actually really think that in the long term, this is one of the critical answers to fuel security for our country and seeing that through a national security lens.

NAUNTON: And would it minimise our dependence on other countries around the world and really create opportunity here?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it would, because right now what we've inherited from the former government is a fuel security scenario where we're relying on fuel storage in the United States. That's fine, but at the end of the day, that doesn't give us security here. And if we can get this right, if we get this idea right, well, actually, this gives us genuine sovereign capability here. In a world where we need to make sure that we are developing all our fuel reserves onshore, this becomes absolutely critical.

NAUNTON: Deputy Prime Minister, the Singapore deal is expected to benefit many communities in North Queensland, including Charters Towers. It is expected that under the MoU agreement, an investment of $2.25 billion will be invested in places like Townsville and Rockhampton. Where do we stand with this initiative right now?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It's something that we're very much working through with the Singaporean Government. Our Prime Minister met with the Singaporean Prime Minister in recent weeks in relation to this. I myself met with the Singaporean Defence Minister in the last couple of months and they see – well, the relationship with Australia generally actually is very unique for us, but also for Singapore in a whole lot of areas, and defence is clearly one of them. But Central and North Queensland is really important for Singapore there. Right now Singapore does a lot of its training and has done so in the last two months. We've had thousands of Singaporean soldiers in Central Queensland doing their training. They actually do a lot of their aviation training in Perth. So Australia is a really important part of how they train their own military. But beyond the question of defence, Singapore is looking to Australia for energy security and a range of other issues which are really central to their future. And so it's a really important agreement. And I mean, there's great spin offs for North Queensland, obviously, but in a larger sense, it really cements a very special relationship between Australia and Singapore, which, as we look forward, is really important in terms of our broader relationship with Southeast Asia and Asia.

NAUNTON: And when it comes to defence strategy, with the Singapore deal, as we are facing, I guess, uncertain geopolitical environments right now, where do you see that initiative playing a role in our defence strategy?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, as I say, I think it's very important in terms of our relationship with Singapore. The way I would frame that is that when we look at the strategic environment that we're in right now, it is as complex and precarious as it's perhaps been at any point since the end of the Second World War. And how we navigate that is actually not obvious. But one thing is really clear that this is a time for us to be close with friends, and what this does is really make the friendship between us and Singapore one that is very unique and very special, and in the context of an uncertain world, very important.

NAUNTON: Deputy Prime Minister, there has been a strategic review of Defence to examine the structure and preparedness of our ADF. The findings are expected to hit your desk this week, I believe. What do you expect will come out of that report?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's an interim report that's been given to me this week. But really, the public announcement coming out of the Defence Strategic Review will be in the first part of next year. This is a really fundamentally important report because what the review is doing is really trying to examine what are Australia's needs in a very different strategic environment. And I think what we are facing right now and what we potentially could be facing over the next decade or two is a really different world to the one that we've lived in through most of the time since Federation. And that requires a rethinking of what our Defence Force does, what its capabilities need to be. We've understood over a long period of time that if any country means to do us harm, we would be given a ten year window – or ten year warning. The 2020 Strategic Update, for the first time said that we're living within that ten year window now. That's a huge observation to make, which the former government did, and rightly did. But it begs the question, given that, what are we going to do? And it's really trying to answer that question, which is what the Defence Strategic Review is doing. So it's going to be a very important document, which I think will underpin defence policy for decades to come. And I look forward to getting the interim report late this week, and obviously we look forward to being able to announce this to the Australian public next year.

NAUNTON: Finally, Townsville has long standing ties with the Blackhawk helicopters and I know the review is looking into the purchase of those choppers right now. Do you have a timeline that you're working towards when it comes to the acquisition of these choppers?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, that will actually be done on a shorter time frame than the Defence Strategic Review, so we'd be anticipating being able to say something about that pretty soon. As people know the MRH-90s, the Taipans, which is currently doing our lift capability, have had their issues, they’ve been expensive helicopters to operate. And so the government has been - under the former government and ourselves - have been looking at it and looking at what alternatives there might be and going through a process in respect of that. And the Blackhawk helicopter is one of the options that's obviously being considered. But we're working through that process, we hope that we'll be able to be in a position to announce the outcome of that very shortly.

NAUNTON: Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles, thanks so much for joining us here on ABC North Queensland this morning and enjoy your trip in the north today.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Will do Jess, thanks for having me.


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