Interview with Katie Woolf - Mix 104.9

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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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27 April 2023

KATIE WOOLF, HOST: It does look as though we've got the federal Defence Minister on the line right now. Richard Marles. Good morning to you, Minister.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Katie. How are you?

WOOLF: Yeah, really well. Now, we know that obviously, earlier in the week, the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that Australia faces the greatest strategic challenges since World War II, as the Government unveiled its response to the landmark Defence Review. Minister, there has been a lot of discussion over the last couple of days in the Northern Territory, wondering what this review means for the Northern Territory. And you're here today and making a fairly significant announcement?

MARLES: Yeah, look, we are. And the answer to your question is, it's hugely significant for the Northern Territory because one of the things that the Defence Strategic Review does is think about what our Defence Force needs to do in the future. And a large part of that is having a much greater ability to project. And our northern bases, and right here in Darwin and the Northern Territory, is the place from which we do that projection. And so today we're announcing a $3.8 billion commitment to bases across the north of Australia. It's one of the six priorities that we announced on Monday that we would pursue as a government in response to the Defence Strategic Review.

And what that means here in Darwin is increased investment in infrastructure at HMAS Coonawarra, which is where I'm speaking to you from now. At Larrakeyah, we're seeing significant money being spent on the wharf here. We're seeing money that will be invested in upgrades of Robertson Barracks in Darwin. You'll see money in respect of RAAF Base Darwin, RAAF Base Tindal in Katherine. All of these are really important assets for our Defence Force, but they're so important in terms of how we now think about the job of the Defence Force going forward. And that's projecting from Australia, and that means projecting from Australia's north.

WOOLF: So, Minister $3.8 billion to bases across Northern Australia. How much is earmarked for the Northern Territory?

MARLES: Well, there's a considerable component of that in the north– sorry, in the Northern Territory. When we talk about our northern bases, we are thinking about places like Learmonth, which is in Exmouth in Western Australia, through to Cocos Keeling Islands, through to Townsville in Queensland. But the bases here in the Northern Territory around Darwin, which is one of really the the two big defence towns that we have in our country, with all three services operating out of Darwin – at RAAF Base Darwin, at Robertson Barracks, here at HMAS Coonawarra. But also Tindal. It is a really critical part of that equation.

And the other point I would make is that across the north, Darwin is not just a place of investment in infrastructure, although it very much is that, but it's a place of investment in people. What we're going to see is the Defence personnel grow in Darwin over the coming years as we make sure that we get the human dimension of this right as well. And so both sides, all of that equals more money for the Territory's economy.

WOOLF: Do we have any idea just how many people, how many additional Defence Force personnel we're going to see in the Northern Territory in the coming years?

MARLES: I probably wouldn't speculate on the numbers, but you will see a growth in Australian personnel. I think the other thing that you're going to see in Darwin is really a growth in the tempo of exercises. We've got the Marine rotation that people would be familiar with, which has just started now, in the last few weeks and will go through to October. And it's been such a wonderful thing for the Australian Defence Force and our country, but I think a wonderful thing for the Darwin community. But what also– other countries in the region look at that and see it as a great opportunity for them to do exercises with Australia and with America here in Darwin and the immediate environment. And so as I go around the region, there's a lot of conversations I'm having with countries who want to use this opportunity to engage with us in more exercises. And all of that equals more people coming here and more money being spent in the local economy. So, all of it, I think, is really an optimistic view about the place of Defence in Darwin, but what that means for the Territory's economy going forward.

WOOLF: Well, it does sound as though it's going to have an impact positively when it comes to the economy. We know that we are strategically important in terms of our location, but we also know that with that there is threat. We here in Darwin obviously commemorate every year the bombing of Darwin, so it is very real for us in the Territory. Just what kind of threat is the Northern Territory under after having that Defence Review and talking about bolstering all the additional resources and our infrastructure?

MARLES: It's a good question. The Defence Strategic Review describes the most challenging circumstances that our country has faced since the end of the Second World War, and the Government agrees with that. Part of that is about the fact that we are seeing within our region the biggest conventional buildup of military power that we've seen since the end of the Second World War. And that obviously has an impact on our strategic landscape and the threat level, I guess, in terms of our strategic circumstances. Part of it, though, is a change in us. We are much more connected with the world today, economically, through trade, than we were 30 years ago and there's a physical dimension to that. So, we don't look at this as being something where we're imagining that there's going to be some invasion of Australia. Because the truth is that any country who wanted to do us harm can do a whole lot of harm to us before ever setting foot upon our shores. And that's why we really now see that the defence of Australia, our national security, really lies in the collective security of the region in which we live and the maintenance of the global rules-based order. And both of those are elements of tasking that we have done as of Monday, for the first time for our Defence Force. But in order to do that, you need to be able to project, to be able to provide for the collective security of our region with our partners. We need to have the capacity to operate beyond our shores and that's why our northern bases are so important. So, I don't think it gives rise to an increased threat per se for Darwin. It is a very challenging set of circumstances for our country. But what it's really to say is that Darwin is so important in terms of how we as a country can respond to those challenging circumstances by enabling us to operate further from our shores. And that means operating from our north.

WOOLF: Minister, one of the other things that gets raised very often when we do talk about our defence and when we do talk about the Northern Territory and our importance is the Port. We know that the Port has been leased for 99 years to Chinese owned company Landbridge Group. That is something that the former federal government was having a closer look into. I believe that the current government is taking a look into that, or has indeed taken a look into that. Are we expecting to see any changes with the Port?

MARLES: Well, obviously, when we were in opposition, we were critical of the former government’s sale of the Port of Darwin to Chinese owned interest and we regard the Port of Darwin as very strategically important and we bring that to bear as we've come to government last year. And so we initiated a review into the sale of the Port of Darwin, which is being undertaken by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. And that review is both looking at the sale and what options we have going forward. That review is underway now, it will report shortly and we'll take it from there. But we see the Port of Darwin as being a very important asset for the nation, which is why we've undertaken that review and we'll have something to say about that in the not too distant future.

WOOLF. So, over the next few weeks or so, do you anticipate, or?

MARLES: I probably won’t commit to a time frame like that, but the review has been operating at a pace since we initiated on coming into office and it will not be long before we get answers from that review and we'll take our decision making process from there.

WOOLF: I mean, it does seem like it's going to be an important decision to make – when you talk about supply chain issues, that's something that has been raised throughout the week and supply. And you would think that that Port is an incredibly important piece of infrastructure for Australia?

MARLES: 100%. I mean, that's why we were so anxious about the sale by the former government and what that has meant from a strategic point of view for our country. And that's why we now need to look at – I mean, the sale has happened, we understand that. So, you can't wind back the clock. But we wanted to look at what our options are now going forward, because we see the Port of Darwin as being so important in terms of the future of– well the future of the region, but the future of our country. That's why we've undertaken the review and as I say, as soon as we get the results of that review, we will be working out what the next steps are as a government.

WOOLF: Defence Minister, we are going to have to get ready to wrap things up. Can I just ask you one very quick one? You've spoken a lot about the potential economic benefits to the Northern Territory. Are we going to be utilising local contractors for these projects and for any sort of work that is getting underway?

MARLES: It's a really good question and the answer is yes. And we've had a roundtable this morning with local industry and local contractors where you would imagine that question was raised. Look, we really see that part of the social licence of defence, or government generally, but defence specifically, operating anywhere, but certainly in a place like Darwin, is making sure that as that Defence estate grows and is invested in, the economic benefit of that has a local dimension to it. And a significant local dimension to it. And that means local contractors being involved. And we're very mindful of that in the way in which that investment will take place. We're working very closely with local industry in respect of that, but we think that making sure that there is a local economic benefit associated with these infrastructure upgrades is fundamentally important in terms of the social licence that Defence seeks to operate within this community.

WOOLF: Defence Minister Richard Marles, we really appreciate your time this morning. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MARLES: Thanks for having me.


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