Greg Jennett, ABC News24, Afternoon Briefing

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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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9 March 2023

SUBJECTS: AUKUS; Prime Minister’s trip to India; Defence Act reform; Calls for public feedback on key changes to Defence legislation; Defence Strategic Review.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Matt Thistlethwaite, great to have you back in the studio. We'll get to your review of the Defence Act in a moment. But as we heard in Question Time, references to the big announcement coming in San Diego next week on AUKUS submarines. There are duelling leaks coming from each side of the Atlantic, about up to five Virginia class submarines on the way to building two British boats. In theory, if that were correct, wouldn't that mean there'd be fewer than the full complement being built right here in Australia?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: As you know, Greg, there's a Submarine Taskforce that's been in place for some months now. They've almost completed their work. And obviously they'll report to government about the future direction that will take in acquiring that capability. The Prime Minister is currently in India on an important trade and defence mission. And then he's traveling to the United States where there will be a meeting of the AUKUS parties as well as important bilateral meetings between Australia the US and the United Kingdom. And there will be more announced at that period of time. So, at the moment we're awaiting the report and then the meeting will take place.

JENNETT: All right, I get the holding pattern that we probably all find ourselves in but particularly the Assistant Minister for Defence. Why don't I take you to something that you do firmly have a grasp on and that's this overhaul of the 1903 original Defence Act. Not for the first time, but what is the pressing need to come back to it now?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the Act was legislated in 1903, as you say, and it assumes a binary state of affairs for the nation. We're basically either in a conflict or we're not. Increasingly, we're seeing grey zone activity, cyber warfare, up to but not including that conflict level. So, we believe it's appropriate that the Defence Act is reviewed, to provide the full range of capability to the Australian Defence Force to deter activities such as that and ultimately to protect the Australian people.

JENNETT: So, this would have come out of some sort of legal advice. What was the deficiency or the vulnerability that isn't catered for in the current wording? I know you use phrases like will support the full range of military activities and capabilities. Does that mean that something we're currently doing or are about to do isn't covered in the Act?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It principally looks at three areas. Firstly, the legal support for capability, so for instance, body worn cameras that the Australian Defence Force currently use to train with, we'd like to use that a lot more. That's important for collection of data and training of troops. There are technicalities associated with state law with using that, it also looks at interoperability, the ability to share data between countries that we have alliances with and importantly the security of defence capability as well. Making sure that if someone goes onto a base and takes photos with smartphones, that capability that the Australian Defence Force has the ability to protect that capability.

JENNETT: Some of this is very modern, sort of a digital era update that you're referring to here. Does that mean there hasn't been data we wanted to share with partners up to this point? Or that they might be restricted in some way until the Act is updated?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It’s more to do with the volume of data that we're receiving, the surveillance that Australia undertakes, the training that we undertake with allies and the volume of data, and the Act doesn't contemplate sharing that data through the cloud, sharing that data by electronic means, it certainly doesn't contemplate activities within space. So, there's time for a rewrite of that. We're entering into a consultation phase now. We've published a discussion paper, there's 10 questions that we're asking members of the public to comment on. And once that discussion period and consultation phase is concluded, we'll get on with rewriting legislation.

JENNETT: I’m sure when people hear references to updates on, you know, centuries old act or century old act, they'd be wondering about whether it clears the way for things we haven't done military service, national, compulsory or otherwise, otherwise encouraged military services that within scope of this review law?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, it's not, there’s certain areas that are beyond the scope, the War Powers that's been dealt with by a separate inquiry, and certainly conscription is not covered by this.

JENNETT: Okay. And what's the timeline on the process from here? Is there a greater urgency to getting this done through the Parliament?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: We’d like to have it done before the end of the year, so the six-week consultation phase will end in April. Then we'll look at the submissions, the feedback that we've received from the Australian public, begin drafting the legislation and then we'll go through the normal parliamentary processes.

JENNETT: People in the veterans’ community and people who like to follow defence affairs often have really strong views on these subjects. Are there limits? Are there things you're telling them we don't really want to hear about as part of this update?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, there are. And that's why I encourage people to have a look at the discussion paper. There's basically three areas that I just outlined that we'd like feedback on through a series of 10 questions, and we'll limit it to that. That's quite a fair bit of work for the government to undertake, particularly given that we've got the Defence Strategic Review, the Submarine Task Force, there's a fair bit of work going on in Defence over the next 12 to 18 months.

JENNETT: There certainly is, which probably means we'll be talking to you at regular intervals. Matt Thistlethwaite, great to have you back.



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