Interview with Greg Jennet, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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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14 November 2022

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Time for our political panel and with us today Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite, he joins us from Maroubra in Sydney, and Shadow Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert finds himself in Sydney today and as a former army officer has maintained a strong interest in defence-related matters too. Welcome to both of you. We have a little bit of ground to cover today. But following the cue given by the Japanese ambassador and some remarks by Kim Beazley why don't we start on Defence. Matt Thistlethwaite, clearly Japan is not a member of AUKUS arrangements, but do you see a role for bolt-on nations to assist this trilateral or try nation endeavour over time?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good afternoon, Greg, thanks for having us on. It is understandable that the Japanese ambassador is seeking the strength and relations with Australia through AUKUS. You've seen in recent times a willingness by all governments in our region to engage multilaterally around defence and I think the Quad is a classic example of this. We have always had the Five Eyes partnership as well as ANZUS and so it is understandable that Japan is seeking to reach out to Australia in that nature. Look, we'll seek to continue that relationship with Japan and other nations through the Quad. We've got a process in place at the moment. It was put in place by the Defence Minister to work towards decisions regarding AUKUS and those decisions will be made early next year but we certainly respect the role that Japan is playing within the region and they will be an important ally in partner and in ensuring peace and stability within our region into the future.

JENNETT: What do you think, Stuart, is it a small hop or a large leap for a nation like Japan embedded in expanded military ties with Australia to be doing things like hosting nuclear submarines from this nation into the future and perhaps other things too around technology?

STUART ROBERT, MEMBER FOR FADDEN: I think Matt said it quite well. The US 7th Fleet is anchored out of Japan, 30 plus vessels, 27,000 combat soldiers but there is a nuclear-powered or nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier there and submarines coming and going so Japan is well versed in holding substantial or receiving or home basing or supporting substantial combat weapons from many countries around the world. Japan well understands what is required so when they speak about hosting nuclear-propelled vessels they are doing it right now in terms of the US 7th Fleet. Matt said succinctly in that AUKUS is moving through a considered process. Our Government started it previously and Matt's Government is considering it sensibly and soberly. There is always room for involvement of other nations but let's walk before we jump. Let's get a lot of momentum behind where we are going. Certainly the Quad is an important part and Japan is an important relationship between the United States, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. I think all Governments want to see that continue.

JENNETT: As you suggest some of these projects of cooperation are a few years away yet. Why don't we talk about some thoughts offered by Kim Beazley from your side of politics at that same conference today where he says, "The share of defence spending within the budget simply needs to go up." He is saying about 6% of current budget spending need to be at about 8 or 9. Is this where your Government is going to take us beyond March when we get the full picture about this defence strategic review?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well the Defence budget that we delivered in October is one of the highest defence budgets that we've had in the last decade. It is well over 2% of GDP now. That's why we're conducting the Defence Strategic Review and that will be concluded in March. It's to get a better idea and better guidance for Government about where we should be putting our posture in terms of the region, where we should be investing in capability and that will include weapons, that will include deterrence and importantly it will include cyber capabilities as well because we're seeing the war in Ukraine that increasingly warfare is being done through computer and malware rather than conventional means. So all of these issues will be highlighted and canvassed in the Defence Strategic Review and that will set the direction for Government moving forward in terms of our Defence posture and then we will look to meet those commitments with the appropriate funding.

JENNETT: So Matt's painting the trajectory of where this is likely to go, what do you think about quantum though Stuart Robert, do you agree with Kim Beazley that it is well short of what he thinks the mark should be as a proportion of budget? For some reason which we will hear later from him he prefers not to talk about the GDP ratio but about the share within the budget, do you agree with Kim Beazley?

ROBERT: I think the trajectory is up. I think the, in terms of GDP spend, that's the nomenclature we all understand, we understandably globally and NATO and its partners unit. We are at about 2%, 2.1% of GDP. We balanced the budget with defence spending at 2% of GDP and I think the trajectory is up. It has to go further by doing a force structure and review at present, Labor is wise to understand the next requirements. The key thing for the Labor Party is to make sure they keep to this. I have heard this before. I have been in parliament for 15 years, I was there when Labor talk about increasing and deterrence and lethality and then dropped the budget to 1.56% and the lowest since 1938. It is a real test to see if they will stump up with a proper force structure and then fund it and then balance the budget because there are trade-offs and it will be really interesting to watch how committed they are to this. Absolutely the trajectory has to be up.

JENNETT: That is a question I'll have to confront. In fairness to Kim Beazley I think he aggregated figures over a quarter of a century to say governments of all stripe have fall yearn short of the mark. We will hear from you later in this program. Matt Thistlethwaite why don't we go to your Prime Minister and so much attention being paid to his eminent arrival in Bali there, not only for the G20 collectively but this likely meeting I think we can say, with President Xi. What are you looking for to come out of that if it happens?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think this is a positive development if it occurs. It certainly represents the Albanese Government's commitment to engaging with our region. We have seen Penny Wong and Pat Conroy and indeed the Prime Minister do a lot of the work in the Pacific with our nearest neighbours over the past six months and we believe getting a working relationship with China again is pretty important but we do so on the basis of standing for and standing by Australian values, particularly democracy and the rule of law and the Prime Minister's made it abundantly clear that the Chinese government will have to move on some of the trade sanctions that they've had in place.

JENNETT: What would you expect them to move very, very quickly. As an earnest of good faith from whatever tone of conversation happened between the two leaders, let's assume they were cordial, how quickly would you expect the Chinese government to make good on some of those trade sanctions removals?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well the Chinese market is the biggest in the world and it is Australia's largest trading partner. There are a lot of businesses and jobs that are reliant upon a stable and predictable relationship between our two nations. We haven't had that over recent times and we want to try and reengage with the Chinese government while standing by our values and the things that we stand for but make sure that we get that relationship back on a stable and predictable footing because ultimately there's jobs at steak. If you look at the viticulture industry and the barley and wheat industries there are jobs that have been lost because of that instability. We want to make sure we are reengaging but standing by those commitments where we do need to see some movement from the Chinese government.

JENNETT: And Stuart, is all dialogue a worthy endeavour in this situation, is there any downside to this meeting coming off in your analysis?

ROBERT: No downside at all, full credit to the Prime Minister for getting in there and catching up with the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang which is good. If we can get a meeting with President Xi by our head of state, in this case the Prime Minister, that is of value. It is imperative that the trade imposts put on us in terms of pulses and grains and thermal coal and wine, they are in breach of the World Trade Organisation obligations, they went on overnight, they should be taken off overnight. The Prime Minister should engage, we should seek to reset the relationship as all relationships need resetting from time to time. I think all Australians wish the Prime Minister very well as he goes and does that.

JENNETT: That is very supportive. I suppose it raises the question, not that it was easy for the Labor Government to bring it to this point, but let's face it they have been able to do it in less than a year, well under a year in office, why not so under the Morrison Government?

ROBERT: We tried, we reached out, we made it very clear at senior ministerial level and prime ministerial level we were keen to engage, the Chinese were not keen to engage. The beauty of elections whichever way they go they provide an opportunity to reset and recharge and the current Labor Government is seeking that opportunity to do that, as they should. It is not a matter of lack of will by Australia, its diplomats or political leaders over the past decade it is simply an opportunity through an election to reset. So that opportunity comes up but it is important that we continue to hold to our values as Matt said and important that everyone abides by the World Trade Organisation obligations in which China's imposition of extra tariffs does not. They went on overnight there is every opportunity for the Chinese to remove them. I think we all wish the Prime Minister well. These are important discussions and important relationships for Australia with our largest trading partner. We all hope they go well.

JENNETT: That will be the test, won't it. Matt, listening to Stuart, it is amazing what a difference an election can make. The tone here is one of support and constructive cooperation, at least domestically. That has got to be a good footing or platform for the Prime Minister to move off on?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think with international relations, certainly associated with defence and our foreign trading relationships we should, as far as possible, have a bipartisan, multi-partisan position so I am really encouraged by Stuart's comments there. Ultimately, we are all in parliament to see the best outcomes for Australians particularly Australian workers through jobs and we want to get this trading relationship back on a stable footing and I think everyone in the parliament is really committed to that. So it's encouraging to hear Stuart's comments and we will work on a bipartisan basis with all parties in the parliament to try to achieve that outcome for the Australian people.

JENNETT: There are dollars involved and jobs at the end of the line always. So let's see what the next couple of days bring from Bali and thank both of you, Stuart Robert and Matt Thistlethwaite. Matt in particular I think you answered our call quite late in the piece so we really value that. Thanks both for coming on. We will talk again soon.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No worries, thanks Greg.


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