Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News Newsday

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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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24 February 2023

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Today marks one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, not for the first time, but in this second offensive after what happened in 2014. It was initially feared it would be a futile resistance from Ukraine. Incredible resistance though, as long as a strong determination by the west, including NATO, to fight back and help arm Ukraine has meant a year on, it's still unknown how all of this will play out. Joining me live is Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, who does join us from Thailand. Thanks very much for your time.

Your government has announced $33 million in drones today. They are unarmed, why not armed drones?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we've done is work with the Ukraine Government to think of the best ways in which we can provide assistance and this is what they've sought and what we're able to provide. So it's a $33 million commitment which comes on top of the significant commitments that we've made over the course of the last year. It's more than half a billion dollars now in military assistance that we've provided Ukraine over the course of the last twelve months, which makes us one of the largest non-NATO contributors to the effort. But it's important that occurs and I think you summed it up pretty well, Tom, in your introduction – this time last year our hearts were all in our mouths about what we were about to face. I think the thought was that Kyiv might fall within a matter of days, and here we are a year on and the resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces has been, well it's been inspirational, much more than anyone could possibly have expected. President Zelenskyy has been an inspiration to his country. But what we now need to do as an international community is make sure that we are there and there for the long term, because this is going to be a protracted conflict. And so we are ready to do that, and we will keep talking with the Ukrainian Government about how we can best help.

CONNELL: So as Russia gears up, and Vladimir Putin and his own take on one year in has been very clear, he's also not for turning. What would your message be to any Ukrainians who fear that inevitably the longer this goes on it slips down the totem pole of priorities for Australia and other governments.

MARLES: Well, it won't. It won't for us, and I don't think it will for the international community. Because when we think about this, and we look at how we should be acting, what's clear to us is that the principles at stake in the conflict in Ukraine, the very sanctity of the global rules-based order, are so profoundly essential to our own national interest that we've got to be there for Ukraine. And I think that's the way that the entire international community is looking at it. So I would say from the international community's point of view the result now is every bit as great as it was a year ago. I think there is a sense that Ukraine itself is standing up and this is an effort which must be supported. And really, I had the enormous privilege to meet new recruits of the Ukrainian armed forces a few weeks ago as they were training in England via our trainers as part of that UK led mission. And the point I made to those men and women was they're there for their families, they're there for their country, in so many ways I think they're there for us too, because what they're defending, which is the global rules-based order, is so important. It's important in Eastern Europe, but it's important for us in the Indo-Pacific, and I think the world sees it's important. So I think the world will be there for Ukraine for as long as it takes.

CONNELL: You mentioned the reaction of the rest of the world, not every country has been behind the cause, if you like, of Ukraine. There's now widespread concern that China is weighing up actually providing weapons to Russia. If that happens, would Australia place sanctions on China?

MARLES: Well, I don't want to speculate about that. I just would make the point that obviously what we are seeing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a complete flouting of the UN Charter, of the rules-based order, and it's for every country to condemn that and to stand up to that. Obviously, it would be a very retrograde step if we saw China providing that supply. And so we very much hope that that does not occur, and we'd be urging China to stand with the rest of the world in condemning Russia for the steps that they've taken. The global community must stand behind Ukraine and the global community must condemn Russia, and China needs to be a part of that.

CONNELL: There have been widespread sanctions, though, by the Australian Government and others for anyone assisting Russia. So wouldn't China fall into the same basket?

MARLES: Again, I think right now, with those reports out there, the important point is that we encourage China not to walk down that path and that we encourage China to join the rest of the world in condemning Russia's actions. I don't think it's about speculating what happens if someone does walk down that path. I think it's, right now, about encouraging China not to go there.

CONNELL: Often the best way, though, is by disincentives. Is it fair to say there'd be some sort of consequence from those countries behind Ukraine if that did happen?

MARLES: Well, again, I mean, all of these matters would be matters that would be assessed at the time. But right now, I think that the point is to say it is fundamentally important that the global community stands behind Ukraine. It is fundamentally important that we stand in condemnation of Russia's actions. And supporting Russia in this effort would be a terrible step, and it's really important that no countries walk down that path, including China.

CONNELL: You've discussed joint patrols of the South China Sea with your Philippines counterpart during this trip you're on right now. Is it fair to say this is a direct response to some of the Chinese aggression in the region, in particular directed at the Philippines, recently?

MARLES: Well, I think what we found very much in our visit to the Philippines was a sense of great strategic alignment between our two countries right now. And we probably have a greater strategic alignment today than we've had at any point in our history. And it's a very close relationship. It has been, there’s a lot of people-to-people links, a very large Filipino diaspora in Australia, and so there's actually, I think, a great affection between our countries. But there is now a really significant strategic alignment. And what it reflects is that, and the fact that we want to grow our, well our bilateral relationship, but we want to grow our defence to defence relationship. I had, again, the privilege of seeing Australian trainers in Mindanao yesterday in Cotabato, doing training of Filipino armed forces there in the context of the issues that they faced in the southern Philippines. But we want to grow our relationship, and joint patrols in the South China Sea is the next step in that.

CONNELL: Is it pleasing that the Philippines is back in the fold, if you like, of what you believe is right in that region in the South China Sea? That it should be free and fair after what might have been, well the cozying up of President Duterte with President Xi?

MARLES: I think the Philippines understand their national interest, just as we understand ours, and that is that their national interest lies in a rules-based order. And that means that the rules of the road, as they apply in bodies of water around the world, including the South China Sea, freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, are profoundly important for them. As, of course, it is for us, because most of our trade –

CONNELL: But that wasn't quite the view expressed always by President Duterte, was it?

MARLES: Well, what I'd say about the current government is that they completely understand the significance of the global rules-based order for them, of the ability for countries to operate in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea. And so, you know, what we've what we've said is that we'll explore the possibility of doing those joint patrols with the Philippines. And it is certainly a really positive step that we are growing our defence to defence relationship with the Philippines.

CONNELL: One big domestic issue all week has been superannuation. So with your hat on as Deputy Prime Minister, there were pretty clear questions put to the PM before the election – any changes on super, he said no. If these were made – the changes were made – before the election, would that be a broken promise?

MARLES: Yeah. Look, you'll forgive me, Tom, having been away for the week and I know that the Treasurer and the Prime Minister have both spoken on this, so I might leave the answers to that. I’ve found when you're not in the daily cycle, that can be a recipe for disaster for someone like me to start answering those questions. So I'll leave it to Jim and Anthony to answer those questions for you.

CONNELL: You must have been briefed and read the reports. I mean you must be across this?

MARLES: Of course, but I think it's a good policy when and you're out of the country and out of the news cycle, stick to the business that you're on, and you've got plenty of other people who can comment on that.

CONNELL: What about just the principle, though? Would changes need to go to an election?

MARLES: Look, again, this is a discussion that's been happening during the course of the week and I'll let Jim and Anthony play that out.

CONNELL: All right, sounds like one that you’ll come into the studio when you're back here and, I'm sure, illuminate me and our viewers as well. We appreciate your time today. Richard Marles, Defence Minister, Deputy PM. Thank you.

MARLES: Thank you.


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