Doorstop interview - Darwin, NT

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

Media contact

02 6277 7800

The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

Media contact

(02) 6277 7840

General enquiries

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27 April 2023

LUKE GOSLING, MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: Good morning everyone and welcome to HMAS Coonawarra. My name's Luke Gosling, I’m the federal member representing this beautiful place – Darwin and Palmerston up here in the Northern Territory. We have always been critical to Australia's defence and security. Most people will understand that in World War Two, but even more recently in terms of the deployment to Timor-Leste, Darwin has been the operating base of our nation.

So soon after the Defence Strategic Review and the Albanese Government's response to it, I’m absolutely delighted to have the Defence Minister and the Defence Industry Minister here in Darwin. Right here, you can see the reality of what impactful projection and our ability to operate in the seas to our north. What is absolutely critical is that we have the ability to have a range of places throughout Northern Australia, with Navy, Army and Air Force bases here in Darwin. With our US allies training here in Darwin. That is part of our integrated, whole of ADF, joint and whole of government effort. This is a transformational moment for our nation. This Defence Strategic Review has mapped out how we are going to shift a bit, in some areas, to make sure that into the future we have the ability to defend not only the nation, but our interests. So thanks very much, Richard for coming up. And also to Pat Conroy, the Defence Industry Minister. Because from here on it, it is the ADF working with industry, and the rest of government as part of the integrated national approach to our defence and security that we are charged with. Darwin is very proud to play our role in the defence of our great nation and we look forward to implementing the DSR in the months and years ahead. Thanks very much for coming down.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Luke. And it's great to be here this morning in Darwin with Luke Gosling, the Member of Solomon, who does such a great job representing this city in our federal Parliament. But also, as a member of parliament who has won our nation’s uniform for many years. He is a really important source of advice for all of us in the Defence team about defence policy for the entire nation. And it's great to be here as well with Pat Conroy, the Minister for Defence Industry. And as Luke has said, we are here in the first few days after announcing the Defence Strategic Review and the Government's response to it on Monday. When the Defence Strategic Review is looking at a new tasking of the Defence Force and a new defense posture for our nation. Central to it is the idea that Australia needs to have the capacity to project. That our Defence Force needs have the capacity to project. And as the Defence Strategic Review observed in looking at how we can engage in that protection, our northern basins are a massive asset for our country and are absolutely, fundamentally important to being the platform for that protection. And as a result of that, one of the six priorities that we announced in terms of the Government's response to the Defence Strategic Review on Monday was improving the Defence Force’s ability to operate from our northern bases in places just like here that HMAS Coonawarra in Darwin.

And so today we are very proud to announce, as a consequence of that, a $3.8 billion commitment to improving our northern bases over the next four years. And this is really just the start of an effort in accelerating the development of our northern bases so that they can be a better place for our Defence Force to operate from. $2 billion of that will be focussed on our air bases from RAAF Base Learmonth in Western Australia, through the Cocos Islands, through the Territory and into Queensland. But that would include RAAF Base Darwin and RAAF Base Tindall. $1 billion on land and joint estate, and that includes looking at some of our training grounds, but improved investments in Robertson Barracks here in Darwin. And $600 million to our maritime facilities and that includes what we're seeing right here at HMAS Coonawarra. And there is money on top of that to provide for the acceleration of these commitments, particularly in an environment where we are seeing rising building costs. All of this is critically important to placing a focus on our northern bases. Obviously, resources and money is really important, but so too is thought and planning, because ultimately, that's what provides for the opportunities to invest money in northern bases in the future. And what you're going to see as we go forward with the new defence strategy architecture of having a National Defence Strategy every two years, starting from next year, is a far greater focus on thinking, on planning for investment in our northern bases. So, the $3.8 billion that we are announcing today is just the start of an increased focus that you will see on our northern bases. Because ultimately we understand how significant a national asset our north is, how significant a national asset Darwin is. And the Albanese Government is completely committed to investing in that asset, to investing in Darwin.

PAT CONROY, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY: Thanks Richard and thanks Luke. It's a real pleasure to be up in Darwin again. And I just want to underline a couple of messages from the DPM. The DSR in its key priorities, particularly hardening the northern bases, means more money flowing into Northern Territory. It means more jobs for Territorians. It means more industrial capacity in this great city. One of our messages to the defence industry that we just come from is that the Northern Territory defence industry is a critical input into our national defence. It's a critical partner for ADF and Defence and the investments that we're announcing today, $3.8 billion across the north of Australia over the next four years as a down payment on the broader DSR recommendation, is about more jobs for the north, more jobs for Territorians and more industrial capacity for the City of Darwin and Northern Territory to support the ADF as we upskill and upgrade the Australian Defence Force.

JOURNALIST: I understand the $3.8 billion investment is a reallocation of funds from within the Defence portfolio. What’s been cut to fund this?

MARLES: Well, there has been a reprioritisation in the Defence portfolio and we made those decisions clear on Monday in terms of a range of programs and some difficult decisions that we're not shying away from in terms of reprioritising a total of $7.8 billion over the course of the next four years to focus on the six priorities that we announced on Monday. But one of those priorities is the bases in our north. And the whole exercise of the Defence Strategic Review is about looking at reshaping our Defence Force to meet the posture that we must have, which enables us to project more, which is what the Defence Strategic Review has called for and what the Government accepts. So, we've made very clear where money is coming from. Today we're making absolutely clear where that money is now going.

JOURNALIST: You’re announcing investments in infrastructure today, but what about personnel? Luke and Warren Snowdown before him had raised concerns for years about personnel being taken away from Darwin and sent to places like Adelaide, including the 7RAR. Will we be seeing more personnel shifted back to the top end?

MARLES: We will be seeing the numbers of personnel in the north, and specifically in Darwin, growing over the next ten years. And that's an important point to make. There is some moving around, but in aggregate, you will see numbers grow, because it is fundamentally important that we have the footprint here. And you're right in saying assets is one thing, but the human dimension is a critical part of that. You need to actually have people here, and that is our personnel, is the answer to your question. But I think what you're also going to see is a continual growth of the Marine rotation that's happening here. And greater opportunities to involve other countries in training opportunities that come from the presence of the Marine rotation in the north and here in Darwin. All of that equals greater defence activity in the north and here in Darwin. And all of that is good news for the Territory's economy.

JOURNALIST: We’ve previously seen a cap on the Marines at 2,500. How much higher do you think that’s going to go from where it’s already sat?

MARLES: Yeah, I mean, ultimately that's a conversation between ourselves and the United States Defense Force and the United States Marines, and so it's difficult to speculate about that. But what I would say is that certainly the Marines really enjoy the opportunity of being able to have the rotation here and the training that comes from it. There is enormous interest from other countries with whom we work very closely about exercising while the Marine rotation is taking place. And we see that as providing enormous opportunities for greater activity here. And that goes very much to the thrust of what the Defence Strategic Review is articulating in looking to have a greater physical investment in our north, but a human investment as well.

JOURNALIST: How does the Darwin Port factor into the hardening and protection of the north?

MARLES: The Port of Darwin? So, the Port of Darwin and the review into the Port of Darwin has its own process, which is actually being done through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It's a fair way down the track. So, we will be awaiting the outcome of that review, but that sits separately to what we're doing with the Defence Strategic Review.

JOURNALIST: When can we expect to know the outcomes of that review? And will you release the terms of reference of that review?

MARLES: The outcome of that review is not far off.

JOURNALIST: Is it a possibility that the Government would buy back the (inaudible)?

MARLES: I'm not about to speculate on the outcome of that review. Let's just see what it comes up with. But it's not far off.

JOURNALIST: Will you release the terms of reference publically of that review?

MARLES: Look, the review is happening. I've made the comment that it's not far off. It’s a report being received by government. Let's wait and see what happens.

JOURNALIST: How much strategic value do you place in the Port of Darwin?

MARLES: Well, again, the answer to that really lies in the fact of the statements that we've made, both in opposition and now in government in relation to the Port of Darwin and the fact that we've commissioned a review into the sale of the Port of Darwin through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. So, I think that speaks volumes about the significance that we place upon it, the review’s happening. Let's wait till we get the response and we'll go from there.

JOURNALIST: There’s already a lot of pressure on housing in Darwin, if we’re going to see a large increase in the number of personnel up here. We've seen a Defence Housing development put on hold by the federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek because of concerns about the Gouldian finch. How are you going to make sure that there's enough housing here, so that the cost of housing for people who already live here doesn't go through the roof?

MARLES: Yeah, that's a good question. And, I mean, there's a whole lot of questions around amenity in the Northern Territory and here in Darwin, and housing is one of those where we don't have all the answers right now, but we will be working very closely with the Northern Territory Government in the short term, but in the medium term, to make sure that we see an evolution in the amenity here in Darwin, including in respect of housing, which allows the growth that we are planning for in respect of Defence.

JOURNALIST: Given the Government’s priority to rapidly prepare Australia for military threats, are you looking at the Defence Department’s awarding of large consulting contracts to former US officers?

MARLES: Look, I think I'm not about to comment about what's been released out of the Pentagon papers, which I think is where your question is coming from. I'd simply say this: when we seek expert advice in relation to critical issues and challenges that we face, we have a global perspective in terms of where we seek that advice from. And that's really important because we want the very best advice. We make no apology for that. Because the kinds of challenges and decisions that we're making are profoundly important for the future of our country and where we have sought advice from those former officials in the US Navy, that has been on issues of profound importance for our nation's future. Thank you.

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