Interview with Peter Stefanovic, Sky News First Edition

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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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15 November 2022

SUBJECTS: Defence Force personnel growth; Personnel recruitment and retention; Summit engagements; China relationship.

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Let's go to Canberra. Joining us live is the Assistant Defence Minister, Matt Thistlethwaite. Matt, good to see you. Thanks for your time. So why do you think there is a personnel crisis within the ADF, assuming that you've got the same opinion that Richard Marles does?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Yeah, that's right. We know that we need to recruit about 18,500 Defence Force personnel to 2040. And like the rest of the country, Defence is facing a tight labour market at the moment, so they're in competition with other organisations to try and attract members to the Defence Force and to retain them. The government is doing a number of things to attract people. I introduced a bill into the Parliament a couple of weeks ago to reform the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme to make it more attractive for people by providing subsidies on their home loans and ensuring that we can retain members of the Defence Force into the future.

STEFANOVIC: Okay, so you mentioned the 8,500 there. Peter Dutton had announced that plan pre-election to get those numbers that much higher by 2040. So you're still working on those same figures?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we're working off those figures and like many organisations in Australia at the moment, it's a tight labour market and we know that we have to do more to attract members to the ADF and retain them. And I would say, Pete, that I think that we can look to do a better job explaining some of the roles that exist within the Australian Defence Force. Not all of them are combat roles. So if you're interested in STEM subjects, in computer science, in artificial intelligence, in software engineering, there's a whole host of roles and responsibilities that people can have that are quite interesting and that are cutting edge and where you'll actually progress through the organisation quite quickly. And I think that we need to do a job in explaining that those roles are there and not all roles within the ADF of combat roles.

STEFANOVIC: Well, with that said, though, we do need a serious increase in the numbers of those who are willing to take on combat, though, do we not? Given the state of affairs in our neck of the woods at the moment.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we certainly do. We're going to need a large number of Australians to look to join the ADF in a range of roles, combat and non-combat. And that's what the Defence Minister was pointing out last night. And we're developing strategies to do that. We've introduced some reforms into the Parliament to make it more attractive to support members of the ADF. We've just introduced a new organisation that will be running recruiting for the Australian Defence Force. So we are getting on with the job, making those changes.

STEFANOVIC: Well, on recruiting, Andrew Hastie says talented potential recruits are being denied military careers because of sporting injuries or food allergies or medications. First of all, is he right on that point?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I wouldn't say that he's right on all of those points. I think that there's a lot more flexibility that's being introduced into the recruitment. But obviously the Australian Defence Force has a role and a responsibility to ensure that recruits that are put into particular combat situations are trained and have the physical capabilities to perform those roles and do it safely and the ADF must ensure that and they have policies and procedures to ensure that we're recruiting the best people possible and that they're physically and mentally able to perform those roles.

STEFANOVIC: Andrew Hastie, he's been out there before. And if we're talking about food allergies, surely we can do better than that. The point the question I want to ask is, does the bureaucracy need to be a little less risk averse?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think that they have become a lot more flexible in their recruitment practices out of need in recent times. We know it is a tight labour market and if we are going to attract people to the ADF, we need that flexibility. But as I said earlier, not all roles have to be combat roles and there are a diversity of careers and options for people that they can look to in the ADF that are pretty important roles and provide important capability, support for people that are on the front line and in combat roles. And they're quite interesting roles working in the defence, science and technology, space and other areas that I think we need to demonstrate to people that are there and available.

STEFANOVIC: Okay. Just all ahead of Anthony Albanese's chat with Xi Jinping tonight with the defence focus. China has got no plans to change its Taiwanese ambitions if we have to meet them halfway during these talks, what does Australia do if Xi eventually moves on the island?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we want to make sure that we maintain the status quo, that we maintain peace and stability within the region. And that's the approach that we will take in all negotiations that we have, both bilaterally and multilaterally. And the Prime Minister is at the G20 and ASEAN Summit this week and they'll be the positions that Australia will take. But the positive development is that the Prime Minister is meeting with Xi Jinping later on today. That represents a reengagement and it's important for Australia because we know that China is our largest trading partner and a lot of Australian businesses and jobs rely on a stable and predictable relationship. And that's the approach that the Prime Minister is taking.

STEFANOVIC: Right, I know you want to maintain, we all want to maintain, the status quo. But what if China doesn't?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we've said that we'll stand for Australian values and those values democracy and the rule of law. And we will work with other partners within the region, most notably with our alliance partner in the United States, but also through multilateral forums like the Quad. And they will be aimed at ensuring that we maintain peace and stability within the region.

STEFANOVIC: And protection for Taiwan if need be?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we want to make sure that everyone lives within peace and is free to practice democracy and the rule of law within the region.

STEFANOVIC: Okay, Matt Thistlethwaite, we'll leave it there. I appreciate your time, we'll talk to you soon.


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