Interview with Adam Steer, ABC Darwin

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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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4 July 2023

ADAM STEER, HOST: Matt Thistlethwaite is the Federal Assistant Minister for Defence. Assistant Minister, thank you for joining us this morning. Let's start with Howard Springs. Can you tell us how long Defence will lease Howard Springs for and for how much?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: G’day Adam, thanks for having me on the show. The initial lease is for five years with two options for five year extensions. And this is an agreement that just makes sense. We've seen in recent years an increasing number of troops either deployed to Darwin in the north or rotations of US Marines. And, of course, the important exercises, joint exercises, that occur, like Talisman Sabre, that's about to start. And with Talisman Sabre coming up, there'll be 1300 foreign troops that would be based out of Darwin for a few months. So, it makes sense to utilise a fantastic facility like Howard Springs to house those troops over those periods of peak.

STEER: And how long is the lease for at this stage?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: So, it's for five years with two five year extensions for a good period, and that will ensure that there's some stability for visiting troops and also for Australian troops that travel to the north to train. The other important point I think, to make about this announcement is that it will take pressure off the local economy in terms of hotel beds during the peak season. We know that a lot of these exercises occur during the dry season, which is the tourism peak season up there, so there's competition for hotel beds. This facility will free up some of those hotel beds so you can concentrate on bringing more tourists to Darwin in the north.

STEER: Yeah. Anyone that's been here during Pitch Black, which is one of the major biannual exercises, will know that Defence from around the world sometimes take up those hotel beds. So, I'm sure that will be appreciated by many of the local operators. The cost of this lease, Minister?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, it's about $50 million a year, and that includes $18 million in the lease costs and the remainder in the sustainment costs. So, Defence will take on all of the costs associated with sustaining the facility, the catering services, the laundry services and the like. And I was fortunate to visit the facility yesterday with the Chief Minister, Natasha Fyles for the announcement and see those first class facilities. There's a health centre, there a GP Practice, there's recreation facilities, a gym, a pool and, of course, a huge catering facility there. So, it's purpose built and it just makes sense for rotational troops and the ADF to use this wonderful facility.

STEER: And will it be staffed by Defence 24/7, as far as you understand?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's right, it will be staffed by Defence. It will be a contract of Ventia that will be providing most of those services. So, we're going to see approximately 50 people employed there full time. A number of small businesses from the local community will be contracted to provide services and a number of Indigenous employees will be engaged through Ventia as well.

STEER: And is it the entire Howard Springs facility that's being leased, including the recreational areas like the pool?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, it is, it's the entire facility. But importantly, there's an agreement in the lease that if the Northern Territory government ever needs it again, for instance, for natural disaster recovery and for housing people in the wake of natural disasters, then they can initiate that straight away. And it'll be provided to ensure that there's housing for people in the case where their homes have been displaced.

STEER: You're on ABC Radio Darwin. Adam Steer with you this morning. It's 25 to nine. Matt Thistlethwaite is the Federal Assistant Minister for Defence and your guest this morning. The Australian Defence Force indicated its interest in taking over the facility late last year. Assistant Minister, why has there been such a delay in taking it over?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we've had to negotiate the lease and unfortunately, there was some damage to the properties in the wake of some of the residents that stayed there, resulting from some of the natural disasters that recently occurred up there. So, the NT Government made sure that the facility was up to scratch, that the damage was repaired and now that's been completed and the lease has been negotiated. The agreement was signed yesterday and it was just in time because the first batch of troops, part of the Talisman Sabre exercise, came in last night and over the course of the next few weeks, there'll be up to 1300 troops that will be positioned there.

STEER: Okay, so just to clarify there, the contract was delayed because of the damage caused by residents staying there after the flooding?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's some of the issue. The other part of it was, of course, negotiating the lease, so that took a bit of time.

STEER: Do you know how much damage was done by the residents or some residents? Excuse me?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, from what I understand, it was mainly smash windows and things like that. I don't know the exact figure of the damage, but thankfully the NT Government acted pretty quickly and fixed it.

STEER: As for Lee Point, the timing was curious. Yesterday, as bulldozers were expected to start clearing, you made an announcement on the opposite side of Darwin was that coordinated?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: We made the announcement yesterday around Howard Springs because the troops were coming in yesterday, so we needed to get that lease signed as quickly as possible. So, as soon as the negotiation was concluded, I was on a plane up there to make sure we signed that. In respect of Lee Point, I know that's been a controversial issue in the community up there. And last time I was in Darwin, which was about three weeks ago, I visited Lee Point with Luke Gosling, the member for Solomon. Luke's been on my back about this issue for a number of months now, saying that we needed to make sure that the environmental offsets were increased and that we protected the natural habitat of the Gouldian finch, which, as you know, is a protected species. So, as a result of the visit that we had with Luke Gosling, we made some changes and we got DHA to increase the conservation buffer zone, particularly around the dam. And the Minister for the Environment, Tanya Plibersek, agreed to those changes and that increase in the environmental offset. And as a result of that, the project's now been given approval and will start in the coming weeks.

STEER: Okay, just one more question, Minister. Jetstar will stop operating flights to Bali during the one time of the year us Territorians need to escape our buildup. Jetstar says direct flights between Darwin and Denpasar won't be available between October the 9th and November the 8th due to construction by Defence. Are you aware of other flights that might be affected by the Defence works, Assistant Minister?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the runway needs to be upgraded. It's starting to show signs of wear and tear. And if you're going to cater for the increase in civilian flights that we'd like to see into and out of Darwin and of course the increasing military flights that are coming, that runway needs to be upgraded. Defence has been ready to go on this work for about six weeks, but there's been a difficulty in negotiating an agreement with the airport corporation that run the airport. Obviously, they want to minimise the disruptions and we understand that, but there are some constraints the work has to take place generally during the dry season and of course, as much as possible at night. So, those negotiations are still being finalised. Look, Defence is ready to start the work. We just need to get an agreement with the Airport Corporation.

STEER: Okay?


STEER: Thank you. Minister, I do appreciate your time this morning. I know you jumped off a flight late. Still got to talk to us. I do appreciate it. Thank you.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: My pleasure. Thanks, Adam.


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