Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

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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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15 February 2023

BEN FORDHAM, HOST: Right now, though, we want to look at some developments in national security. A new defence review has advised our leaders to prepare for a potential war with China. Now, I know that the Federal Government will be talking that down, but the report points to major holes in our arsenal, including a lack of killer drones and long range weapons. And we've been waiting for an update on another concerning issue. Last year, there were suggestions that China had been trying to poach Australian Air Force pilots. The Chinese army had successfully lured 30 former pilots from the UK, paying them $450,000 a year. It was feared Australians had also been approached. The Defence Minister, Richard Marles, ordered an urgent investigation. He's about to reveal some of the findings for the first time. The Defence Minister, Richard Marles, is on the line. Good morning to you.

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

FORDHAM: Good. Nice to be able to talk to you. Do we now have proof that Australian pilots have been approached by China?

MARLES: Well, I can't discuss that publicly, as you'll appreciate. But what we saw last year in the reports that came out of Britain were obviously concerning, as you described it, it was a very concerning situation. It matters that Australia's secrets are maintained. And so, as you said, when that all arose last year, I asked Defence to engage in that investigation to see what the situation was here. And the thing I would want to say, as I've now received that report, is that we do have very robust policies and law in place – when people become in possession of one of our nation's secrets. And that includes, for example, how our planes fly. There is an obligation to maintain that classified information for as long as it's classified, irrespective of whether or not you work for Australia anymore. So that's really clear. But having said that, there were a number of recommendations that the report made and most of them go to tightening up policies within Defence.

FORDHAM: I appreciate that you don't want to go into too much detail, but I'm reading between the lines because I don't think you'd be talking about it if it wasn't the case. Clearly, some former Australian pilots have been approached?

MARLES: Well, again, I'm not in a position to go through –

FORDHAM: You're not denying that though, right?

MARLES: As I say, I’m not in a position to go through the detail of it. What I am saying is this is obviously a concerning set of circumstances and we need to make sure we have the most robust policies in place. And the point I did want to make to you is; one of the recommendations does recommend that we develop some additional legislation which the Government will now pursue. And that's important. And that is really to make sure that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that not just the secrets that people might come into contact with, but everything that surrounds it, forms part of that. And that if you release any of that information to anybody, and that would include a foreign power, that would be a breach of Australian law and subject to prosecution.

FORDHAM: So, am I right in saying, Richard Marles, you're confirming now that there will be additional legislation brought before Parliament, to make sure that anyone who's been part of the Australian Defence Force knows what's expected of them?

MARLES: Well, firstly, everyone who's part of the Australian Defence Force right now knows what's expected of them – so I want that to be really clear. But the report did recommend that we develop legislation to remove any doubt around the full breadth of the secrets that need to be maintained. And, yes, we will be developing that legislation.

FORDHAM: Okay. Richard Marles is with us, the Defence Minister. Let me ask you about the security cameras. We had Chinese security cameras installed in electoral offices of 88 federal MPs and at a number of Defence sites across the country. You were very quick to say that they've been removed. Are you worried that we've been spied on?

MARLES: Well, again, we need to be prudent here. I don't want to overstate it, but it was right for this issue to be raised and it's important that these cameras be removed. And so what I can say is that within Defence, all the cameras that were registered to this company, that we're aware of, have been removed. But in addition to that, I've also asked Defence to go through and do another audit so that we can be completely clear about this. It is really important that we have confidence around the security, not just of electorate offices, but all the facilities that exist within Defence and really, for that matter, government.

FORDHAM: Does it concern you that people thought it was okay in the first place to put foreign made spy cameras in Defence facilities?

MARLES: Well, I wouldn't characterise them as spy cameras. And obviously there's a whole lot of technology that comes from overseas that are used throughout government. Can I make this point – this first became aware to Defence back in 2018. So this has been in place for a long time. It obviously not only predates the last election, but the one before that. But now that we are aware of it, this Government has made clear that we need to be acting on it, which is why we've sought for them to be removed.

FORDHAM: We've seen these spy balloons over America and some of these balloons are travelling about 60,000ft above ground level. If one is spotted over Australia, are we in a position to shoot it down?

MARLES: Yeah, well look, we do have that capability to track – well obviously to deal with the balloon in the way you’ve described, but also to track the balloons. I'm not aware, and I should make this clear to your audience, I'm not aware that there has been such a balloon over Australia. And obviously, we've been seeking that advice since the balloon first became apparent over America -

FORDHAM: But the question is, are we capable of shooting it down? Because the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 has got an operational ceiling of about 35,000ft. So if we had one at 60,000ft, 65,000ft, like they had in America, are we able to shoot it down?

MARLES: Yeah, look, we're confident that we would be able to deal with the situation.

FORDHAM: Can we shoot it down?

MARLES: Well, I can't go into all the detail Ben. But we're confident that we could not only track it, but deal with it. But the thing I'd want to say to listeners is that there hasn't been –

FORDHAM: Sure. I know that we can track it. You're saying we can deal with it. But in America they shot it down.

MARLES: That is how they dealt with it. And again, I'm limited in what I can say, which you'll appreciate, but we are in a position to deal with it.

FORDHAM: We appreciate you jumping on the line this morning, Richard Marles.

MARLES: Thanks Ben.


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