Radio interview, Mix 104.9 Darwin 360

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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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17 May 2023

SUBJECTS: Northern Australia Defence Summit; Defence Strategic Review response; Defence Renewable Energy and Energy Security Program; Supporting veterans.

KATIE WOOLF, HOST: Now, we know that the Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite, is in Darwin for the Northern Australia Defence summit this week. And this year’s summit is going to be focusing on the strategic position of Northern Australia, its role in the wider Indo-Pacific region and its significance to Australia's security. The Assistant Minister joins me on the line right now. Good morning to you.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning, Katie. Great to talk to you again.

WOOLF: Yeah, thanks so much for your time. First, Minister, what is the aim of the summit?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the aim is to bring together people that work in the defence space and members of the Australian Defence Force to discuss the opportunities that are coming up on the back of the Defence Strategic Review for growth of the Defence Force in the north. As a result of the DSR that was released a couple of weeks ago, the new government is investing $3.8 billion in the strengthening of the northern network of our bases, ports and barracks over the next four years. And that includes a $2 billion investment in air bases like RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal. It includes a billion dollars’ worth of upgrades to land and joint facilities, major training areas, including Robertson Barracks, and $600 million in maritime facilities such as Darwin's HMAS Coonawarra Naval Base. So, the Albanese Government sees the north as very important to Australia's strategic needs on the defence of our nation. And we want to make sure that we're working with industry in this area and the local community to ensure that we can get the best results for our Defence Force in the north.

WOOLF: It certainly does seem as though Northern Australia seems to be a focus right across the world. I think you'd have to say, when you look at our defence presence and what is happening right now, a lot of questions, and I think I asked you this last time as well. I mean, does this put Darwin and Northern Australia under a greater threat?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, look, we know that we've faced the toughest set of strategic circumstances since World War II, and the approach that the government is taking is, does Australia have the capability to defend our nation and its people into the future? And the Defence Strategic Review basically outlined that there's more work to do and that the north will be critically important to Australia being able to achieve that defence of our nation and its people into the future. So, we see this more as an opportunity for the north. We know about the wonderful work that's done through North Force in defending our nation, particularly maritime borders along the north coast, but these are greater opportunities. We know that the north benefits from the Marine rotational force every year. That's just about to kick off in this area. So, that means that we are going to need extra facilities, additional bases and additional support in the north to ensure that we have that capability into the future.

WOOLF: And, Minister, it does mean that there's going to be well, I guess everybody is anticipating quite a bit of work get underway. Is that work going to go to local Northern Territory businesses? How can they make sure that they're really taking advantage of that money being invested?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, absolutely. And defence bases and contractors in the Territory, there's about 100 of them engaged with the Defence Force at the moment, and it includes about $160 million worth of investment in those businesses. And what I'm going to point out today in my speech is that there's some great opportunities, particularly for veteran owned and indigenous businesses. And I'm going to point out businesses like Pattemore Consultants that are doing work in this area around the RAAF Base Tindal redevelopment, you've got Ventia, a service provider to defence estate. And some of the bigger prime companies are also subcontracting with some of the smaller indigenous businesses to grow opportunities for locals in this area. So, coming on the back of this additional investment that the government is making, there's going to be plenty of opportunities for investment by not only indigenous and veteran businesses, but local small businesses as well. And that, of course, is jobs for the north.

WOOLF: Now, today you're actually out speaking about some further investment in the Northern Territory. $13 million is being announced in solar energy generation and battery storage systems at five defence sites across the Northern Territory. It is part of that nation-wide Defence Renewable Energy and Energy Security Program. What exactly is it going to mean for us and what are we going to hear today?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's right, Katie. The great thing about the Defence Force is it's the largest landowner in the country and that means plenty of space for renewable energy projects. And what I'm announcing today is a further investment of $13 million in solar energy generation, particularly at RAAF Base Darwin. But that comes on the back of other announcements that I've made in the north when I was up here last time. The investments in solar that we're making at Tindal, Robertson, Larrakeyah Barracks and Harts Range as well. And that means that we're not only reducing the energy cost for the Australian Defence Force so that we can invest more money in capability and importantly, in our troops and their families, but it also is better for the nation. We'll reduce our emissions footprint and we create jobs in the new economy in the process. So, this is a win-win for the north and for Defence as well.

WOOLF: Minister, I know you are pressed for time this morning and I do want to ask you before I let you go, veterans’ support network Soldier On, it's going to be losing $1.5 million in funding over the next four years after the budget declined to keep supporting its work. Instead, it looks as though Labor has prioritised the Government to run a $24 million employment program to help provide job outcomes for veterans transitioning back into civilian life. We know that Soldier On have done a phenomenal job. Why did the Australian Government decide to make this decision?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, Soldier On is a great charity that provides support for veterans, particularly in the employment space, and I spoke at their annual dinner just a couple of weeks ago in Sydney. The funding that was provided by the previous Government was scheduled to end this year and that's going to occur. The Government has taken the view that Soldier On and its work is doing so well that we'd like to see that mainstream and we'd like to see programs such as that delivered by the Government. So, we're going to make investments in ensuring that programs such as the one run by Soldier On can be mainstreamed across the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The other point to make, Katie, is that the key issue that was raised by the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide, that's doing damage to the mental health of many veterans, is the backlog of claims that there is in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. So, the Government is investing additional millions of dollars in reducing that backlog, employing 500 new staff to reduce that backlog and get it down. So, that's our principal aim with investments over the coming years. But we'll continue to work with Soldier On and provide them opportunities to continue to do the great work that they do.

WOOLF: Look, I think most people will understand that, yes, that work does need to be happening within the departments as well. But Soldier On have that proven track record, so should they really be having their funding cut?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we know that they've done a great job in that area and, look, we'd like to be able to fund every program. There's 1500 ex-service organisations and unfortunately, we just can't fund all of them. So, the Government chose to listen to the advice of the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide and make those investments initially in these coming years, to ensure that we try and reduce that backlog and that we get more staff into the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. And, of course, that costs money. So, that's where the priority for the Government is at the moment.

WOOLF: Well, Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite. We really appreciate your time this morning. Thanks so much for having a chat to us while you're in Darwin.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: My pleasure, Katie. Thanks for having me on.


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