17 May 2023
SUBJECTS: PFAS contamination; Defence Strategic Review response; Northern bases; Supporting veterans; Defence Renewable Energy and Energy Security Program; Republic; Voice to Parliament.
RICK HIND, HOST: Today, the North Australian Defence Summit is being held down at the Darwin Convention Centre. One of today's speakers will be Matt Thistlethwaite, Assistant Minister for Defence, for Veterans’ Affairs and the Republic Minister. Before we get to that, should Australia phase out the use of PFAS chemicals entirely now that Defence has settled the class action lawsuit that included Darwin and Katherine?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, we're working quite hard with local communities to rid them of PFAS contamination in their communities. Unfortunately, due to the legacy use of firefighting farms by the Australian Defence Force, there's contamination around bases throughout the country that's resulted in some class actions. There was another big one that involved people from the Northern Territory that was settled last week, but I've been travelling around the country working to ensure that principally, the Defence Force is remediating land that was contaminated. So, getting rid of that contamination and making sure that we support communities as best as possible and the in principle agreement that's been reached in this class action is part of that process.
HIND: When can claimants expect to see their money?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, it's got to be approved by the court, so there's a little way to go and obviously the litigants will need to be happy with the outcome. So, really, the ball is in Shine Lawyers’ court, they're going to consult their litigants and then it will go to a further approval from the court. But my principal aim is to make sure that I'm working with those communities to eradicate that contamination at the source. And already Defence has spent over $300 million in working to eradicate contamination throughout the country around Defence bases.
HIND: Minister, the Federal Government's response to the Defence Strategic Review was a promise to spend $3.8 billion to upgrade and develop the northern network of bases, ports and barracks over four years. You've written an op ed about how much of a priority that is, when and where will we see that money start being spent?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we need to invest more in our bases in the north. We're going to see additional troops based up here and capability. There's $3.8 billion worth of investments that we're going to make over the next four years, and they include $2 billion at air bases, RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal, a billion dollars in upgrades to land and joint facilities, including Robertson Barracks, and $600 million in maritime facilities such as HMAS Coonawarra. So, these investments will ensure that we have better facilities and better capability for our troops in the north and they also will help support the US Marine rotation that's about to kick off here in the north.
HIND: On Veterans’ Affairs, Soldier On lost funding in their federal budget. Why was that?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, Soldier On funding that was provided by the previous government was scheduled to end this year. And we know that Soldier On does great work. I recently attended their conference down in Sydney and spoke about the great work that they're achieving, particularly supporting veterans in employment. There are 1500 ex-service organisations. Unfortunately, the government just cannot fund all of them. And Soldier On have done so well that we're looking to replicate some of the model that they've got around employment services and mainstream it through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The other point is that the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide pointed out that the number one reason that veterans are having a hard time at the moment and there's mental health issues is because of the backlog of claims in the Department of Veterans' Affairs and we're, as a priority, going to try and remove that backlog. So, we've made additional investments, we put additional money into employing about 500 new people, new staff to work on reducing that backlog. And of course, that's an investment that we see as a priority. So, unfortunately, when we've got scarce resources, we have to make decisions about where priorities are, and we've chosen to accept that recommendation of the Royal Commission and invest in reducing that backlog.
HIND: You were in the top end recently to announce with the Federal Member for Solomon, Luke Gosling, $64 million for the Defence Renewable Energy and Energy Security Program. But the ADF has been criticised for what looks like suspiciously low carbon emissions figures. Are you satisfied that the Federal Government knows how much carbon the ADF is really emitting?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I know that the ADF needs to do more, and I know the ADF needs to do better when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint and investing more in renewable energy. The Australian Defence Force is the largest landowner in the country. I see that as a massive opportunity to invest in renewable energy and to reduce the emissions of the Defence Force, but also to reduce the energy costs. So, the announcement we're making today, $13 million in solar generation at RAAF Base Darwin, it comes on the back of an earlier announcement of $64 million that I made when I was up here last time, and that was in solar farms at Tindal, Robertson, Larrakeyah and Harts Range. And those investments will reduce the energy costs of the Australian Defence Force so that we can prioritise more investment in capability. But also, they'll benefit the Australian economy by creating jobs in new industries and reducing emissions. And they're the type of investments I want to see more of across bases, not only in the north, but more broadly across Australia.
HIND: And just quickly, on the Republic, King Charles has had his coronation. Many Republicans had put their plans on hold while Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne. Now there's someone else in the chair. Is it full steam ahead on the Republic?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: At the moment, the Government's priority is the Voice to Parliament. That's the right thing to do, to deliver the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. So, that is our priority. However, the Government does have a longer term vision for Australia with an Australian as our head of state, representing our maturity and independence as a nation. So, at the moment, we're working on the Voice to Parliament and hopefully that will succeed later this year. And I, of course, encourage your listeners to get on board that important campaign. And once we've dealt with the Voice and hopefully if that's successful, then we can look to discuss with the Australian people whether or not they want an Australian head of state in the future.
HIND: Is the Voice in trouble? The polls out today suggest that its support is weakening somewhat.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, I'm confident that we can get there with the Voice. We know that we've got some work to do in the wider community, but I point out once again that this isn't the Government's referendum. This is a very generous request that was made by leaders of First Nations’ Australia in 2017 when they came together at Uluru, and they spoke with one voice, and they asked for respect and they asked the Australian people to join them on this journey of listening and respect. And the Government is really working with First Nations Australians to try and deliver that outcome. And I think that it's something that can unite the country around a shared vision for an Australia where we recognise First Nations people in our constitution, and we provide them with a Voice to Government.
HIND: Minister, thank you. I know you're busy.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks, Rick.