Interview with Andy Park, ABC RN Drive

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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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15 June 2023

ANDY PARK, HOST: Joining me in the RN studio in Parliament House in Canberra is Matt Thistlethwaite, the Assistant Minister for Defence. Welcome to you.


PARK: Was it Russia or the proximity of this land to Parliament House that was the issue here?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It was the proximity to Parliament House. We've acted on the advice of the security and intelligence agencies. This land that was leased by the Russian government was literally a stone stroke from Parliament House. It was on Capitol circuit across the road from Parliament House. And the security and intelligence agencies have advised the government, on the basis of its proximity, that it wouldn't be wise for that lease to be granted. And the government stepped in and passed this legislation as quickly as possible.

PARK: Anyone who's been to Canberra will know there are a lot of embassies close to Parliament House, including Russia's existing site in Griffith, which is only about 3.5 kilometres away from the building. So, why is that not a security risk, or is it?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, obviously, Australia is assisting Ukraine at the moment in the effort to resist the illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine by Russia. All of those factors are taken into consideration in a decision like that as well.

PARK: So, it's about security, is it?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the security and intelligence advice was that this particular development posed too much of a risk to the Australian government and to the nation, and we've acted.

PARK: On that advice staying on Russia for now. Labor is being accused of becoming a bystander, is being called to increase support for Ukraine. Has support stalled and why?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, support hasn't stalled at all. Australia is one of the largest non-NATO contributors to the Resistance effort in Ukraine and we've supplied well over half a billion dollars’ worth of support. There's been over 90 Bushmasters that have been supplied and continued to be supplied artillery, uncrewed vehicles, as well as humanitarian support, and, of course, the 70 ADF troops that have been training the Ukrainian military in the UK as part of Operation Kudu. We're constantly receiving requests from the Ukrainian government. They're well publicised and the government, in conjunction with the Australian Defence Force, constantly assess those requests and where we can we provide that support and we're continuing to do that at all times.

PARK: I note you said those requests are well publicised, including on social media. Are those requests a little embarrassing for Australia, which was a big supporter certainly earlier this year, end of last?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No. I think that the Ukrainian government, obviously, through their ambassador here, are doing all they can to ensure that they can maintain their best effort to resist this invasion. And it's not just Australia that's targeted with these requests. Obviously, they're making those requests throughout the world and Australia is part of that international effort to support Ukraine to resist this Russian invasion, which is illegal under international law, not only immoral but illegal. And we're doing our best to make sure that we carry our bit, and we support that effort and we've been doing that constantly.

PARK: Let's move on. The Federal Parliament has been warned that large scale military responses to future natural disasters such as bushfires and flooding could hurt Australia's ability to defend itself from potential enemies. So, what's being done to ease the burden on the ADF here?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, this is a big issue, Andy. Since 2018 there's about 62,000 people in the Australian Defence Force. Since 2018, almost half of those have been deployed on natural disaster relief and recovery operations. Now the ADF do a wonderful job and I think that the Australian community certainly support their efforts and they're well trained, but that's not the principal reason that they sign up and enlist to be a member of the ADF. So, the government has heard their request from the Defence Force to ensure that we can provide a bit more relief and take some of that pressure off the ADF over time. That's why we've announced an investment of $38 million in an organisation called Disaster Relief Australia. This is a body of volunteers that are predominantly veterans. It's an organisation established by Australian veterans that obviously have that experience and that training in disaster recovery and relief. And we're going to supply them with $38 million over the next three years to build up their volunteer ranks by about 5000 people and that will provide that relief to the ADF.

PARK: It's 05:13. You're listening to RN. Drive. Joining me from the Parliament House studio is Matt Thistlethwaite, Assistant Minister for Defence. The Federal opposition raised the alarm over the Socceroos match in China, effectively warning Beijing could use it to stir up propaganda. What about you? Do you share some of these concerns?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, obviously the government's had an effort to repair relations with the Chinese government and you've seen the dialogue that's been reinstituted the positive impact that trips and meetings that Don Farrell and Penny Wong and Richard Marles have had. Some of the trade restrictions that the Chinese government had on Australian products are now beginning to be lifted. So, we want to make sure that we have a dialogue with all of our partners in the Asia Pacific region. We want to make sure that the rule of law is upheld and that we maintain peace and stability in what is a very dynamic and changing region. And dialogue is an important part of that.

PARK: But the essence of the question is are you worried that Football Australia risks being manipulated by China's government on this tour?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I don't think that there's a risk that football and the playing of a sport is going to be manipulated by another country. I think that the Australian government and its efforts are the main game when it comes to relationships with international partners. And you've seen this government committed to repairing relations not only in the Pacific, in our immediate neighbourhood, but also more broadly across the Asia Pacific. And Australian teams in all sports are constantly playing internationals throughout the world. And that's something that the government supports.

PARK: I want to ask you about what's happening over in the US at the moment. Donald Trump still intends to run for the Republican nomination, despite two indictments. Is your government, is the Federal Government considering what a Trump presidency would mean for foreign affairs?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, Australia has had a very, very long and stable relationship with the United States, both economically through our trading relationship, but also with our security relationship. And ANZUS has withstood changes to governments of all persuasions in both countries. And I'm confident that whatever happens in the United States in the lead up to the presidential election, the strength of our relationship will be maintained. And there's certainly a commitment from the Australian government to work with whoever is in power in Washington to maintain that relationship into the future.

PARK: Just moving to news of the day, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says he's told Victorian's Liberal Senator David Van following further allegations against Senator Van being raised with him overnight and this morning, that he's to sit out of the Liberal Party room. Last night, Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe used parliamentary privilege to accuse Senator Van of sexually harassing and assaulting her. She later withdrew the remarks to comply with Senate rules but made further comments about her experience in the Senate today without naming Senator Van. It's important to note Senator Van denies this allegation. What do you make of how Peter Dutton's handled this situation?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, obviously, that's a matter for Peter Dutton and the Liberal Party. I want to say that I think that in the Parliament here, Members of Parliament and staff from all sides of politics have made a concerted effort over recent years to improve the culture and the acceptance and the respectability in Parliament as a workplace. And that comes on the back of the Jenkins Report recommendations. And there are now a set of policies and procedures in place for people who have grievances and who feel that they have allegations to make. And it's appropriate that if someone does feel that there has been any assault or bullying or harassment, that they should take those complaints either to the police or follow through the procedures that have been put in place in Parliament. And that includes a Parliamentary Workplace support service. And I would encourage anyone that works here in this building to avail themselves of that service.

PARK: Matt Thistlethwaite, Assistant Minister for Defence. I do appreciate you dropping into the Parliament House studio in Canberra.



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