Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News, Sunday Agenda

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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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4 June 2023

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: The Shangri-La Dialogue, this is the 20th anniversary - why is it so important for you and the government to engage in?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Well, it is a unique opportunity. I mean, this is one of the biggest gathering of defence ministers, of think tanks, of the strategic community that happens in the world, certainly the biggest in our region.

GILBERT: So your counterparts, defence ministers from all over- the UK, US- right across the region-

MARLES: Right across the world. So in that sense, we will be meeting with ministers from ASEAN, from the Pacific, I met with Fiji on Friday, as an example. But there are also British- the Defence Secretary is here, I should say, the US Defense Secretary is here. So in fact, defence secretaries and ministers from around the world are coming to this meeting.

GILBERT: We can see here, people in uniform right across the place. So we're talking about ministers, but Generals as well. So how open is the dialogue? How open is the discussion?

MARLES: Well, it's open in the sense that you do get a feeling for the views that each country has, the directions that they can achieve with their defensive forces. I mean, obviously, countries have their own confidential secrets, which are not going to be shared here- you wouldn’t expect that. But the human interaction, that human dimension to it, when you see the colour of people's eyes, you get a sense of what that is- you get all of it.

GILBERT: We talk about the Prime Minister getting to know world leaders, having that repour, but for you, as Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister is that also an important capacity to say, to be able to get on the phone, to call Lloyd Austin of the United States or Ben Wallace of the United Kingdom, or for that matter, those that aren't our allies can you do that to?

MARLES: 100 per cent. So, you know, I first met Lloyd Austin at this event last year, the US Defense Secretary, I hope to see him again this year. But the point is that over the course of the last 12 months, I've seen Lloyd on numerous occasions but that relationship began here.  Ben Wallace, again the UK Defence Secretary, someone I've had a lot to do with over the course of the last 12 months, looking forward to catching up with you in this forum. It is a really important opportunity to meet people, to get to see what they're all about and to build that personal repour.

GILBERT: A year ago, almost to the day you met your Chinese counterpart face-to-face, that was the first ministerial contact in nearly three years, that relationship it's gone a long way in the 12 months, hasn't it?

MARLES: It has. And it was a very significant moment, a year ago. And we had literally just taken office, so this was the first overseas trip that I was doing-

GILBERT: And it was in this hotel.

MARLES: It was definitely this hotel. And I can remember in the lead up to it thinking about the significance of that moment. And it was not necessarily clear that that meeting would take place. But when it became apparent that it was going to, we had only about 24 hours to really properly prepare for it. It was a pretty significant event. And I think what's played out in the course of the last 12 months has borne that out. We've seen numerous meetings now at ministerial level- our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong has done one of those meetings in Beijing, and our Trade Minister Don Farrell has done the same. And of course, we had the meeting in November between Prime Minister Albanese and President Xi. All of that is a lot of dialogue, and dialogue and talk matters. But there's also been outcome, we've seen much of the trade we put back in place- that's, you know thousands of jobs, which are a part of that. In my space, in that first meeting a year ago, what we wanted to re-establish was the formal defence dialogue between our two countries, which is just important in terms of making sure that we don't see miscalculation, that there is an understanding as our two militaries interact which has occurred. And what we are now seeing is the beginnings of the defence dialogue occur. We had the first of those meetings back in March. So the relationship is being stabilized.

GILBERT: I want to talk to you about that, because the Prime Minister goes into that sort of question about the dialogue and the guardrails in the relationship with China in the keynote address that he gave here in Singapore. But before we get to that, just in broader terms, how difficult was it for the Prime Minister to land that balance in that keynote between addressing the rising China and its aggression on the one hand, but not wanting to jeopardize the thaw in relations and the improving trade ties on the other?

MARLES: Yeah, it’s a good question. And you're right, that we are walking a line here. And, it's important that we do get the balance right. That said, I think we've been really clear in how to strike that balance. We want to work with China where we can, we will disagree with China where we must. That has really been the mantra of how we have sought to manage the relationship. And when you think about that, in terms of the way in which we engage with China, you can make this happen- it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. And I think, at the heart of this has been very clear with China, but with the world in fact, in all of our engagements, where we stand, what we are seeking to do, being professional, I think, being polite but making it very clear what we're about- that there are no surprises. And that's how we've sought to go about things which is not really- it is not rocket science there that's just trying to be adult, mature, and professional. And I think that gets you a long way. So we have been able to make clear to China our anxieties, there are clearly a number and we are seeing a very significant military build-up which is not being accompanied by strategic reassurance and we have expressed our concern about that. We also want to have the most productive relationship we can with our largest trading partner. And we're clear about that too.

GILBERT: When you talk about that dialogue and being upfront with people, I guess Mr. Albanese quoted the Singapore Prime Minister on that issue, he says, Prime Minister Lee said big powers have a heavy responsibility to maintain stable and workable relations with one another. And it goes to those guardrails we talked about in terms of having a dialogue. Is this speech from the Prime Minister, is this basically a signal to the region that your government is going to seek to encourage that China-US dialogue more and more now?

MARLES: I think what we're really trying to say here is this; that nothing is inevitable. That we have agency- each of our countries, but collectively as a region, we have agency about the future relations that occur, but whether or not we walk down paths of war or peace, and we need to be exercising our agency to create pathways for peace. And that's what Australia will seek to do. And that does encourage dialogue between great powers- I mean, obviously, China and America have their own relationship. We lead in a sense by example, coming back to the very specific of a defence dialogue between Australia and China, and at the heart of that is about making sure that there are no misunderstandings. It's a really important conversation to have. That's an example of the kind of conversations that we need to promote throughout the region. And from there, trying to then focus on what is really our core interest, which is the collective security of the region, but the maintenance of a system of rules within the region- the global rules based order- that we resolve disputes by reference to rules, not by reference to might and power. And that's very much at the heart of what the Prime Minister was saying.

GILBERT: But underpinning those rules, and again, the Prime Minister in that keynote spoke- and this comes off the back of the AUKUS announcement, it's talking about the submarines. Specifically, he says, Australia wants to be a stronger partner and a more effective country in terms of ensuring stability, through the submarines. So, is this again, is this a more positive sort of message that you're trying to say to the region off the back of AUKUS that this isn't about aggression, this is about a positive contribution to the region?

GILBERT: And this is the point that I think many of the region have noticed- that there's been that equilibrium in the relationship, but the government has been deliberate not to compromise on national interest. In fact, the Prime Minister said, quite bluntly, in his keynote that the nation should be allowed to pursue opportunities for our people without fear of coercion or retribution. That's a very blunt message to China, given our recent history.

MARLES: But it is a self-evident comment. We need to live in a world which is guided by rules, where countries are not- when the ability for countries to pursue their interests, to make their own sovereign decisions is not a function of size and power, it's a function of rules and nationhood and sovereignty. Other countries should be able to be free to pursue those interests without a fear of coercion. I mean, that's the point that the Prime Minister is making. And underpinning that is really the idea that we want to live in a world where there is a clear, respected rules based order, and that is very much at the heart of the government's response to the Defence Strategic Review and it was very much at the heart of the Prime Minister's speech.

GILBERT: To that huge story that broke last week- as Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, I've got to ask you about our nation's most decorated soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith. It's a long way from that, to what we're seeing now where a judge has found that it was truthful, those reports that he had murdered unarmed civilians, committed war crimes. How much does this diminish the SAS and the ADF?

MARLES: Well, firstly, I obviously understand the interest that people have in this story, and I obviously understand that it will be evoking a lot of feelings around the country. At the end of the day, this was a civil matter between two private parties. And the government- well the Commonwealth was a witness in the case, but it was not a party to the case, and so it's obviously not appropriate for me to talk about that case. And the parties to it still have rights in respect of the decision that has been made. I think what I would say, putting the case to one side is that the Brereton Report was a remarkable document, and a remarkable piece of work. It really did seek to have Australia hold itself to account, against the highest standards. The Brereton Report has offered the nation an opportunity, and we as a government, are very clear that we want to do everything within our power to implement the recommendations of the report to the fullest extent. And that's the path that we will walk. And that's actually the path which in our view means that the standing of our defence forces, the standing of the SAS and elements of it, but actually the standing of the nation is maintained.

GILBERT: Are you worried about the impact of this scandal on morale within the within the ADF? Is that a concern to you?

MARLES: Well, this has been- the Brereton Report came out some time ago. And obviously, this is years old, is the point of trying to make. It is important, obviously, that we maintain-

GILBERT: Two years old, but it's back, very much back in the public eye, uniformed officers and soldiers and sailors. It'd be difficult time for many of them.

MARLES: I completely understand that, and I think that's right- this will be evoking a lot of feelings. But it is why I’d make the point that the Brereton Report offers us a way forward, and it offers us an opportunity to meet the highest standards as a Defence Force and as a country. And that's what we need to embrace. And we need to embrace that, and certainly from the government’s point of view, through the fullest implementation that we can achieve of the recommendations of the Brereton Report.

GILBERT: Are you concerned that some of our partners, our allies might be less willing to work with our SAS, as the US Defense Attaché warned General Campbell, only a couple of years ago off the back of the Brereton Report?

MARLES: Look, I'm not. And I don't say that lightly. Obviously, I saw what came out in Senate Estimates last week. What came out in Senate Estimates last week, which you referred to obviously were events which occurred under the former government. The thing again, that I'd say is that since we've come into office, we've had an intense engagement with the United States as you can see, with all the announcements that we've made over the course of the last 12 months. This has never been raised with me as an issue by the United States, and I am satisfied that the ability of our Defense Force to work with the United States Defense Forces, including the SAS is absolutely there. So I am very confident looking forward, that we're able to work to the fullest extent with the US Defense Forces and I am sure that will be the case with other defence forces.

GILBERT: We’re at the Shangri-La Dialogue. It's the preeminent forum for defence and strategy. Are you worried about how this episode damages our ADF reputation here in the region?

MARLES: Well again, I think the critical answer to that question is Brereton and the report that he did, and the significance of it. I mean, obviously the allegations contained in the Brereton Report are deeply serious. I mean, I am completely aware of that. But the Brereton Report is Australia holding itself to account and it is, you know, in historical terms a genuinely remarkable piece of work, which is why it's so important in terms of navigating this episode in this moment in history, that governments are implementing his report to the fullest extent that we can. And that's definitely our intent.

GILBERT: Do you think the Australian War Memorial should pull the tributes to Ben Roberts-Smith?

MARLES: Again, that is a matter for the War Memorial and I'll leave that to them. And again, just emphasize that, whilst there's been a lot of attention over the course of the last week, and I can understand why there has been that, it is at the end of the day a civil case between private parties. But that's ultimately a question for the War Memorial. From the government's point of view, where I think we relevantly engage here is in relation to the Brereton Report.

GILBERT: You're right, it is a civil case. But we can expect other movements now from the federal police, from the Office of the Special Investigator. It's a fluid situation.

MARLES: Well, what the Brereton Report has done has set up a process by which material can be investigated, and then handed over for prosecution. And without speaking about individuals, that's the process that will now ensue. But that was the case before we received the judgment last week, and that was in train. But again, it's why it's so important, amidst all the noise, that we do everything we can to implement the full recommendations of the Brereton Report, and that's where our commitment lies.

GILBERT: You're going to back the General in pulling those medals? I know it was overturned by the former Defence Minister, Mr. Dutton when the Coalition was in office. But in terms of those citations, will you back General Campbell on that, 100%?

MARLES: I can clearly give my full confidence to the Chief of the Defence Force, you can see that in the fact that we extended the Chief of Defence Forces tenure this time last year in coming to office. But the process that the Chief of Defence Force has gone through in relation to command accountability, again, is fulfilling one of the recommendations of the Brereton Report. Now he's done his work, he has given that to me, it's now for me to engage in a process which will lead to my own recommendation in respect of that, which will go to the Governor General. Right now I'm taking appropriate advice about the process that I will implement. But underpinning it all is going to be making sure that we fulfil these recommendations, because to do anything else would be for us to be judged by history. And I know that at the end of the day what matters is the sanctity of our Defence Force and the sanctity of our nation, and the standing of Australia, and Brereton offers us that chance and we must take it.

GILBERT: Deputy Prime Minister, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

MARLES: Thanks, Kieran.

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