Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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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2 March 2023

GREG JENNETT, HOST: All right, well, let's talk through any residual damage from that contribution, if any, that is. The Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles is out at his home airport near Geelong, taking in the Avalon Air Show today. He joins us live from the airfield there. Welcome back, Deputy PM.

We might talk a little about Avalon in a moment, but why don't we go to Peter Dutton's remarks. He points out that there are risks with the first model of a new type of production run and he still strongly favours the U.S. Virginia class subs for AUKUS. Isn't he right? Would you want to buy the first Toyota Corolla out of a half million production run?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it obviously raises the question about what on earth the government was doing in relation to the Attack class program, if that was their view. So it's kind of an insightful critique on the failures of the former government over the last ten years, which has indeed led to a lost decade at a time when we couldn't deal with it as a nation, and that is what we've inherited in terms of this program, in terms of trying to deal with potential capability gaps. But look, I'm limited in what I can say. We are at a point where it won't be long before we are making the announcement about what the optimal pathway will look like. The Opposition Leader is obviously giving comments based on confidential advice he was provided almost a year ago. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. We're mindful of the issues that have been raised, but people need to wait and see what is ultimately announced.

JENNETT: Well, it sounds like there's an implied criticism by you of the mere fact that he's making these disclosures a year on, but can I sort of refine the question a little. He has said, to be fair to Peter Dutton, he said he'll support whatever sub decision the government comes up with. Do you nevertheless, though, feel his remarks have been in any way unsettling in the perception that it might create with the AUKUS partners of a breakdown of bi-partisanship in this country?

MARLES: Look, I think it is really important that there is bi-partisanship. I'm confident, obviously, that our partners in the United Kingdom and the United States are completely sure about where we stand on this and know that there is full government support in relation to it. I think they would obviously understand that the former government initiated the process. And I do accept what the Leader of the Opposition has said, that the Opposition will provide support to whatever we announce in the near term. But I'm not sure that speculation of this kind helps right now. We are really very much on the verge of an announcement and I think what matters now is, when that announcement is made, making sure that that enjoys the support of the full spectrum of politics in Australia.

JENNETT: And what will you do to manage that? Because I think, well, I know, Labor were critical of the briefings given to it on the eve of the original AUKUS announcement. When will you brief the Opposition and others ahead of this month's announcement on the pathway?

MARLES: Yeah, we will work with the Opposition and make sure that they are appropriately briefed in respect of the announcement. We have obligations to our partners in terms of where we're at here and so we need to bear that in mind as well. But we will absolutely make sure that there is an appropriate briefing of the Opposition.

JENNETT: And you say you're on the verge, what are we talking now, a matter of days?

MARLES: I think I'll stick with the phrase ‘on the verge’. It's not far off.

JENNETT: All right, fair enough. I'm not sure we'll shake that one out of you today. To the Avalon Air Show, you've spent time there today. Are you sensing, as others have described, that contractors feel frustration that they are on hold pending the Defence Strategic Review, a buildup of commercial frustration around your processes?

MARLES: No, I wouldn't say that at all, actually. I think there is actually a sense of excitement about the focus which is being brought to bear, both in terms of our nation's strategic posture, what we need to do in terms of procurement to give effect to that strategic posture, and how we want to make sure that our procurement processes are brought up to date with the current strategic environment that we're in right now. Which means that they need to be quicker, more agile, less bureaucratic. All of these are messages that I think are really welcome from defence industry. So quite the opposite, actually – I think there's been a real sense of positivity in the conversations I've had throughout the day with defence industry about what's happening in the field of defence and what the future holds.

JENNETT: Are there assets there that are definitely going to be included in the strategic review as future purchases?

MARLES: Are there assets at the air show?


MARLES: Well, there's a lot of assets at the air show – for people who haven't seen the air show, it is a remarkable display of capability from around the world, actually. But it's a really remarkable display of the capability of Australian defence industry and it gives you a sense of confidence about the ingenuity and technology which exists within our defence industry and the way in which we can, I think, export that to the world. I've got no doubt there is capabilities which we've seen today which will form part of the future for the Australian Defence Force. But it's also, I think, about making sure that there is clarity around what the Australian Defence Force is going to need, but also there is support for Australian defence industry and what they do, both in terms of supplying to the ADF, but exporting to the rest of the world and as a display of the potential of Australian defence industry. I mean, it is genuinely remarkable.

JENNETT: Yeah, alright. We've had some reporting this week about killer drones designed by BAE and the like. They'd have to be somewhere around a shortlist, would they?

MARLES: Well, I saw those comments reported. I think that the point about drones is that increasingly what we are seeing in air warfare – not just in air warfare, but in the other domains as well – is an increasing role for autonomous vehicles. And that's certainly the case in air warfare. I think the future is where we will see a range of autonomous vehicles perhaps working in tandem with a crewed aircraft, but giving applications to a much wider effect as a result. And certainly as you walk around the air show today, you see one technology after another, which is walking down that path. That's going to be important for our Air Force to make sure that it is as modern as it can be. But as I say, it's really encouraging from the perspective of Australian defence industry, that all this ingenuity is happening here, which has the potential to be exported to other parts of the world, which is really important in terms of building Australia's strategic weight.

JENNETT: Yeah, sure, all right. Why don't we step it out a little more broadly. Richard Marles, have you got TikTok on any government owned phone?

MARLES: I do not. So I have to say –

JENNETT: It's a generational thing, I suspect.

MARLES: ...there is a review going on. There is a generational thing, that's what I was going to say. My lack of being able to compete with my children in terms of where they're at with social media platforms is probably the best defence in respect of anyone ever getting onto my phone. I'm definitely living in a previous century. But, look, the Home Affairs Minister is obviously conducting a review into this. We will take advice from our intelligence agencies about what is the best pathway forward in relation to all social media platforms including TikTok.

JENNETT: All government agencies, or might it be done piecemeal according to their sensitivity? I mean, I'm imagining in your area, Defence is among the most sensitive. Would you be prepared to make decisions akin to what's happening in the U.S. and Canada for your department alone?

MARLES: Well, right now, I think there is a high degree of security which applies to Defence phones, which would be different to those that apply to phones issued by the Parliament, for example. So there's already that gradation in the security applying to phones from various parts of the Australian Government. But I think the point here is what we really need is a review of this, which is what the Home Affairs Department is going to do, and it's their bailiwick to do that and to get proper advice from our experts, from the relevant intelligence agencies, about what platforms are appropriate on what phones. And you're right, I mean, the Defence phone is obviously much more sensitive than a range of other areas within the Australian Government.

JENNETT: Yeah, all right. Well, the visiting Royal Air Force Chief Mike Wigston has spoken while in our country this week on the process of what he calls weeding out British pilots who'd helped train Chinese comrades. Top tools, not top guns, I think is how they've been described here. In what way did the UK alert you to the dangers emerging among former Australian pilots?

MARLES: Well, we obviously work closely with the UK and we've been following what's happened there, and we've obviously undertaken our own investigations. I wouldn't want to overstate the size of the issue in Australia and I'm limited in what I can say. But it is an important issue. I mean, it's obviously an important issue that anybody who has worked for our country and in the process come into possession of classified information is obliged to keep that information classified for as long as it is classified. And to do anything different is to break Australian law, and that includes how to fly various planes. And so we want to make sure –

JENNETT: Speaking of which, yeah.

MARLES: That is an occupational hazard at the air show.

JENNETT: I can only imagine. I think it was an F-22, wasn't it?

MARLES: It was an F-35 that just went right past then and it's going to do a loop in a moment. So this is going to become a disrupted interview, but it is a very cool aircraft. But I think what we've got to make sure of is that we've got all the law in place to deal with it. We just want to make sure we're doing that.

JENNETT: Yeah, all right. Look, I didn't know whether I'll tempt fate with another question. Richard Marles, in view of the almost mach loop that's about to take place above you. We’ll thank you for your time and let you go get back to the Avalon Air Show on your home turf there.

MARLES: Thanks, Greg.


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