25 April 2023
SUBJECTS: Anzac Day, Defence Strategic Review.
NEIL MITCHELL, HOST: I prerecorded an interview today with Richard Marles, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence. Of course, he's out and about at Anzac's celebrations or recognition, and Anzac services. He had been to the Geelong dawn service when I spoke to him, his local electorate. I began by asking him– and remember, there's this defence report, strategic defence report released yesterday. We'll talk about that briefly towards the end of the discussion. That has really said China is coming over the horizon, it's urgent, we've got to spend a lot of money getting ready, preparing. You got to think it is urgent. But I began by going to a bit of the theme for today, which is Anzac Day will change as the numbers of veterans dwindle. I asked the Defence Minister, how did he see Anzac Day unfolding in the future?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I think Anzac Day has become actually, I think, the most special day on our calendar. And that's not by virtue of government decree or someone writing a rule. I think it's literally people voting with their feet. It's a very organic expression from Australian people about patriotism, but I also think about gratitude for those who have served. And it is remarkable through my lifetime to see how it has grown and I think it will continue to grow. And I've been at a service this morning in Geelong bigger than we've seen before, but that's actually been the story of successive Anzac days throughout my time, attending them as an MP. It's becoming our great national day.
MITCHELL: The marches will change, obviously. I think it was 3800 World War Two veterans left with no World War One and one Rat of Tobruk. We're looking at Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq. Do you think the marches will change to the point that more members of the public, non-service people are able to march and make a point in support?
MARLES: I think that's true and I think what we are seeing is family members, children, grandchildren wearing the medals of their forebears, marching. And again, I think that is a wonderful expression of the enduring meaning of the sacrifice of those who have gone before. But it's not just in that moment, that it lasts for generations. I think we should also acknowledge that we've had tens of thousands of Australians serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a very large number of people. So there will continue to be contemporary veterans who are marching on Anzac Day. And I think that alongside the children, the grandchildren of those who've served in earlier conflicts, gives rise to a really special moment and a moment of collective remembrance on the part of the country.
MITCHELL: Something very poignant to seeing a little child, a grandchild, walking along with photograph of a deceased veteran. Do you have any problem with the photographs being carried?
MARLES: I don't, and again, I think the way in which people remember their forebears is very personal. And I also think there is something of a voyage of discovery for a lot of Australians about their forebears who served in earlier conflicts. I've gone through that, in a sense, myself, learning about my grandfather who fought in the First World War. And I think Australians walking that journey, understanding what their ancestors did and then acknowledging it today – and if that's holding a photograph, that's fantastic – is a wonderful thing about how our nation's been built and remembering those who very much deserve to be remembered.
MITCHELL: What happened with your grandfather? Where did he serve?
MARLES: Well, my grandfather served in the First World War at Pozières, and he came back. I think he was greatly affected by the experience of being at Pozières. I knew my grandfather, he died when I was about 14, but I can absolutely remember watching the cricket with Grandpa. But it's only later in life, really doing what I'm doing now, that I understand the meaning of what he did. He actually won a Military Cross at Pozières, which is a huge honour, but I, to be honest, had no appreciation of that growing up.
MITCHELL: So he didn't talk to you about it at all?
MARLES: He did not, and or did he really speak to my mother about it, his daughter. And so it wasn't part of our kind of family legend, really, that he had done this remarkable thing in winning a Military Cross at Pozières. And last year I had the completely astonishing experience of being taken to the very spot where he won the Military Cross. He's mentioned in Bean’s history of the First World War. And so it's actually possible to locate where he was. And that was a hugely moving experience for me.
MITCHELL: It would be deeply emotional. Over the years, as an MP, you'd meet a lot of veterans. Unfair though it is, and I've met a lot, I've been very privileged to do that right back to the days of Australia remembers, the 50th anniversary of World War Two. Is there one that stands out to you, a story or a person that stands out to you?
MARLES: Well, as you say, I've met lots of veterans. And in the role that I have now, I've met the family of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Just this morning at the service in Geelong, I hope she doesn't mind me saying, but I met Vicki Pearce, the mother of Matthew Lambert, who died in Afghanistan. And it was an enormous honour to meet her and to hear her pain, her experience, the experience of other mothers, particularly of those who had died during the Afghanistan conflict. And I didn't know this, but they do know each other and have connected with each other, and there's something very poignant and touching about that. And it just reminds me that even in an ongoing sense, the huge sacrifice that comes, and the willingness to sacrifice, that comes from putting on our nation's uniform is something very extraordinary indeed. And it was extraordinary during the First World War when my grandfather fought, but it's just as extraordinary today and we see that sacrifice happening right now.
MITCHELL: If I may, quickly to talk about the Defence Strategic Review released yesterday. In very simple terms, how vulnerable is Australia at the moment?
MARLES: Well, I just think our circumstances are changing and the Defence Strategic Review observes, and as a government, we acknowledge, and I think it's widely acknowledged, that we face as probably the most complex set of strategic circumstances, in many ways the most challenging set of strategic circumstances, since really the end of the Second World War. And it's really in that circumstance that we've really felt that there needs to be a rethink about, a reset of, our posture to make sure that we can keep the country safe going into the future.
MITCHELL: China has said that Australia is hyping up the threat narrative. What's your reaction to that?
MARLES: Well, obviously, that's not what we're seeking to do. As we spoke about Australia's posture going forward and the mission of the Australian Defence Force in the future, at the heart of it is providing or making our contribution, along with our partners, to the collective security of our region, of the Indo Pacific. And that's really where Australia is coming from. What we want to do as a nation is to provide and to make our contribution to the collective security of our region, understanding that that's really where the defence of Australia lies.
MITCHELL: The Review says it's urgent. Is it?
MARLES: It's urgent. It's definitely urgent. There is a sense of urgency about the circumstances that we're facing and it's important, therefore, that we take a new direction. I want to make clear we have a wonderful Defence Force and the posture that we've had has served us well over a very long period of time. But we do need to be looking at a different position going forward and that's what we're doing.
MITCHELL: But if it's urgent, we're not spending extra money in the next four years. If it's urgent, why not?
MARLES: Well, I'm kind of mindful, Neil, I will answer the questions, but I'm very mindful of the day, obviously, on which we are answering these questions. We actually are reprioritising $7.8 billion over the forward estimates in order to focus on the priorities that we articulated yesterday. That is a significant commitment. And over the medium term, we do expect that defence spending will rise beyond the trajectory that we've inherited.
But I think the thing to say, and I am very mindful of the day, is that we are very focused, noting that the sacrifice of those who have gone before us, to make sure that we are equipping our Defence Force and our defence personnel with what they need going for.
MITCHELL: Given, I take your point about the importance of today, given that, why was it released yesterday, this report.
MARLES: We said quite a while ago, actually, that we were going to release the report in the first part of the year, and it was two months ago that I said it would be released in April. So, that it was going to happen in this week has been really on the cards for quite a while, and that's the reason why.
MITCHELL: So it's coincidental?
MARLES: Yeah, it is. And I think it's possible to do that work on Monday and I'll be doing it again tomorrow and through the week, whilst at the same time taking today to honour those who have engaged in the sacrifice of our nation.
MITCHELL: And again, this goes to the day, but do Australians have to come to terms with the possibility of another war?
MARLES: I'm not going to speculate about that. I'm certainly not going to do it today. But even if you ask me that question tomorrow, I wouldn't be speculating about that. I think really what we need to be doing is just making sure that we have a defence force which provides for the greatest strategic space for our country and which also provides for the collective security of our region. And our focus as a government is to achieve that.
MITCHELL: Final question. You said in 2019 we should have closer military ties with China. Those days gone?
MARLES: I think the world has changed significantly, obviously, since 2019. That said, we want a productive relationship with China and part of that is to put in place or reinstate the defence dialogue that we've had with China. And actually that started to occur. It's important that there is a dialogue there, but, yeah, we face some different circumstances to what we've seen in the past.
MITCHELL: We're not training any Chinese pilots or soldiers at the moment, are we?
MITCHELL: Okay. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. And I know you have a busy day. All the best for the rest of the day. Thank you.
MARLES: Thanks very much, Neil. Appreciate it.