Kieran Gilbert, Sky News, Afternoon Agenda

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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

SUBJECTS: Australia’s strategic posture; Defence Strategic Review; AUKUS; US Alliance; Taiwan; Recruitment of ex-ADF personnel; sanctity of Anzac Day

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Let’s get back to national affairs now. The Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister joins me, Richard Marles, live in the studio. After what you have described as the most important outlook for our country in the strategic terms for decades – since the 1980s – Jim Molan, the late, great Australian and former Senator said in his last interview with Sky News that Australia is woefully unprepared for a regional war in relation to the resilience of our nation. Do you agree with Jim Molan's bleak assessments?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No. I mean, ours is not a large military, but it's a highly capable military. And I think Australians should take a sense of comfort and confidence in the fact that we have really capable people wearing our uniform, who greatly add to what our nation can do. But that said, it is time to look at the very difficult strategic landscape that we face and make sure that we have a strategic posture which is fit for purpose for that, and then that we have a defence force which can achieve that posture. And all of that is what the Defence Strategic Review has been considering and I think the report that they provided to us yesterday, as I said today, I think is going to be a blueprint for defence thinking for decades to come.

GILBERT: Given the situation we face in the region, can Australia defend itself right now?

MARLES: Well, I don't think that we are facing an imminent threat of the continent being invaded. I don't think that's the issue and I don't think Jim Molan would have said that either. And this is really the point that we need to be thinking about: Well, what is our strategic posture? Because the strategic posture over the last few decades has essentially been around the defence of the continent, being a significant actor within our region, being a good global citizen, and, if you like, three concentric circles. But the situation that we face today is actually in a globalised, networked world. Whereas as a trading nation, so much of our national income is based on trade. People can do a lot of harm to Australia before ever coming here to our shores and that's really what we need to come to terms with. What that means is that the global rules based order; things like freedom of navigation, freedom of trade, are fundamentally important to Australia. But so too is being able to hold adversaries at risk, at much greater distance from our shores and it's really building a defence force which can achieve that, which is what will protect our national interest going into the future. And the answer to that is there is work to do there, but we can do this and I'm confident that the Defence Strategic Review provides a plan for that.

GILBERT: So just to pick up on that optimism. You said we can do this. But Defence unfortunately has a terrible track record on acquisition. Why should we believe that they can achieve whatever the Strategic Review has outlined we need?

MARLES: Well, I think it's right to point to the past and make sure that we learn the lessons of that. This government is certainly learning the lessons of the failure of the last government, which really was focused much more about a number and a budget than it was about capability outcome. And what we inherited was 28 different programs running a combined 97 years over time, which speaks to the point that you're making. I think what that means going forward is that we need to firstly be making sure that Defence is subject to the scrutiny from Treasury and Finance as any other department is, so that there is a sense of value for money for the Australian taxpayer and people can see that there is actually capability which is genuinely being acquired through the spend. And then making sure that with that scrutiny, we do see an increase in the Defence budget. And we all imagine that that's what's going to occur. Because Kieran, in a rational world, defence spending is a function of strategic threat and strategic complexity. That's what we face today and we are rational people.

GILBERT: A lot of talk about AUKUS and our engagement with our allies. I know there's more to come next month with the Prime Minister's visit to Washington. Is this Strategic Review, though, about our sovereign capacity or can we rely on the United States to come to our aid into the future?

MARLES: This is very much about our sovereign capacity and I might say what we are doing through AUKUS is about our sovereign capacity as well. Both are about building capability for our country. Our Alliance with the United States is profoundly important and it's as important now as it's ever been.

GILBERT: Could we rely on them to come to protect us?

MARLES: I think we can completely rely on the Alliance and on America. But that doesn't mean that it provides a leave pass for Australia to make sure that we have our own capacity and our own capability. In fact, I think we need to be thinking about the Alliance, not just in terms of what America does for us, but what we can bring to the Alliance ourselves. And that's going to be really important no matter what world we face in the future, in what is a very uncertain future. So we are very focused on self-reliance, we are very focused on Australian capability and making sure that we can build that fit for purpose for the strategic posture which the Defence Strategic Review is outlining. And that is going to require more money being spent on defence. It's also going to require a much greater quality in the spend.

GILBERT: You speak, and I remember your speech at the Sydney Institute about impactful projection. Does that include, for example, if the Americans expected us to support them in, say, any potential move against Taiwan? Would they expect us to get on board with that and support them?

MARLES: Well, all we’re really saying with impactful projection is that the rules of the road, the global rules based order, exists out there. By that I mean it exists in places like the South China Sea, where most of our trade traverses. We need to be in a position where the rules of the road apply in bodies of water, such as that. And we also need to be in a position where we can hold an adversary at risk, much further from our shores, knowing that any adversary can do a lot of damage to us, as I said before, without ever setting foot on the Australian continent. Now, you look at both of those things and it speaks to the idea that we need to be able to project, not just defend, but be able to project. And that's got to be impactful, by which I mean it's got to be projection at the top end, but throughout the range of proportionate response.

GILBERT: But on Taiwan, would the US expect us to get on board?

MARLES: Well, look, I try and refrain from speculating about Taiwan, and I know people do –

GILBERT: But Paul Keating says it's not a vital Australian interest, that we essentially could do nothing. Do you agree with him on that?

MARLES: Well, I mean, our position on Taiwan is really clear. We don't want to see any alteration to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Our position is also clear in that all of our diplomacy and action in the region has been about trying to create pathways for peace and to de-escalating tension throughout the region, including in respect of Taiwan. And you look at what the Foreign Minister has done, and she's done an admirable job there. Our position is very much that we do not want to see any unilateral change to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. And that's where we stand.

GILBERT: The next generation UK submarine, potentially, according to The Sun newspaper this week – the Brits have said they're going to provide us a couple off their production line in Cumbria and then into a locally produced version. Is that right?

MARLES: Well, my answer is not going to surprise you, which is that I’m not going to pre-empt the decision that all three governments; the United Kingdom, the US and ourselves will make in the not too distant future about what the optimal pathway will look like.

GILBERT: But it sounds like the trilateral boat that you've been talking about, that sort of thing.

MARLES: The point that we've made, and I'll continue to make, is that it is a genuinely collaborative effort between the three countries. When this is ultimately announced, and it's not far off, people will see that this is far from it being a competition between the US and the UK. In fact, it is both countries working hand in glove to help Australia acquire this capability.

GILBERT: Will you be with the Prime Minister when they look –

MARLES: Look, we’re working all those details through in terms of how the announcement occurs. What I've been very much focused on is landing the position with the United Kingdom and the United States around what the optimal pathway looks like, and doing that in the time frame that we said would occur, and we're confident that's going to happen.

GILBERT: A couple of quick ones before you go. The Air Force pilots, the legislation you're going to introduce. When will that be – essentially to stop Australian personnel going to China to be paid to give, basically, training that they've had here and pass that on to the Chinese?

MARLES: Yeah. Look, I'm not in a position at the moment to give a precise answer to that. I mean, we asked Defence to look into this issue when it arose last year. I think the thing I really want to say to people is that the policies and legislation that we have in place now is strong. And any person who, in the course of working for our nation, acquires classified information is obliged to maintain that information for as long as it remains classified. And that's beyond their employment with the Commonwealth. And to reveal that to anyone else, including a foreign power, is right now a crime. But we do think that there is legislation that can be put in place which removes any doubt that information that I would describe as ancillary to that, forms part of the secret. So we're developing that. We're going to do that as quickly as possible. We’re in the process of working out where we can fit that into the legislative agenda. But we are very keen to make sure this passes the Parliament.

GILBERT: The Government made a change to allow public servants to work on Anzac Day if they want. Is that appropriate?

MARLES: Look, we saw this strange couple of questions in the House today and again, the first point I make here is the idea that the Opposition is seeking to politicise Anzac Day is sad. Because Anzac Day is as sacred a day as any in our calendar. That is very much the view of this government. We are completely committed to Australia being able to commemorate Anzac Day. Now, as the Minister for Defence Personnel pointed out, there are a number of public servants that need to work on Anzac Day in order to facilitate the very Anzac Day ceremonies which we have. And so the flexibility of being able to swap a day in, or a day out, in terms of a public holiday is the kind of flexibility that exists across industrial contracts, right through our economy. There’s nothing unusual about it. It existed for almost the entirety of the former government’s term in office. It’s not something to be politicised. We’re completely committed to the sanctity of Anzac Day.

GILBERT: Deputy Prime Minister, I appreciate your time as always, thank you.


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