Interview with Ali Moore, ABC Radio Melbourne

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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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11 July 2023

ALI MOORE, HOST: Plenty to talk about with Richard Marles, Defence Minister and Acting Prime Minister. Richard Marles, welcome to the program.


MOORE: Very well, thank you. I want to start with the announcement about Australia's agreement to help patrol the skies above Europe with this surveillance aircraft. Can you tell us exactly how that's going to work?

MARLES: Well, it's a deployment of about 100 personnel to Germany, which is where the E-7A Wedgetail will be based. It's not a unique capability in the world, but we operate this particular aircraft at one of the highest levels that is operated by any country in the world. So it's a capability which has been sought after by our partners in respect of the conflict in Ukraine, being by Ukraine, the United States and the United Kingdom. It's a really important capability in terms of providing, as you've described, surveillance into the skies above Ukraine and where the conflict is happening. But to be clear, it won't fly in that airspace. But also providing a communications node to other capabilities and platforms that are operating.

As the Prime Minister just said in that clip you played, it's going to play a really important role in terms of enabling logistics in and out of Ukraine, as well as humanitarian assistance in and out of Ukraine. So, it's both a military support in terms of the effort in Ukraine and also a support for humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

MOORE: So which airspace will it be operating in?

MARLES: Well, it's hard for me to say that publicly, but it will not operate in airspace above Ukraine. It won't operate in Ukrainian airspace, or Belarusian airspace, or Russian space for that matter. And so it won't be in those areas. But it doesn't need to be in order to provide the capability that it provides. I mean, obviously it's going to be in air space proximate to that, but that's really all I can publicly say.

MOORE: And you say it was sought, assistance that was sought. So was it in response to a very specific request? I know that Ukraine well, they've not been lobbying for this, they want more armoured personnel carriers.

MARLES: Well, Ukraine's come to us with a menu of requests, which is fair enough, in terms of the sorts of things that could be of assistance to them. The answer to your question is yes, it has been a very specific request and we've been talking to our partners in both Ukraine, but also the US and UK around how we can best provide assistance in respect of the conflict in Ukraine and that's where this has come from, that's where the provision of this capability has come from. Ukraine has, in the direct conversations we've had with them, as I say, provided us with a menu of options where we can be of assistance. And we've been working out packages, really, since we've come to office, which enable us to provide useful assistance. And that's been an ongoing dialogue. And I think Ukraine is really grateful for the assistance that we've provided.

MOORE: I assume, though, that this is very different to other forms of assistance where we've handed over equipment. This is very much staying inside our control.

MARLES: That's true, and that's a fair observation to make. And there's also a deployment associated with this. And it's not the only deployment we've made in that we have personnel who are deployed into the UK right now who are providing training for those entering into the Ukrainian armed forces. So, this now is the second deployment that we are doing in respect of the conflict in Ukraine and both this deployment into Germany and the deployment that we have into the UK are really important supports that we're providing. But you're right in the observation that you've just made. This will be a capability which very much remains in our hands. And in that sense, it's different to what we've done with the Bushmasters or M113s where we're providing equipment to the Ukrainian army.

MOORE: So, Richard Marles, how many of these E-7A Wedgetails – that are, I must say, quite nicely named – how many do we actually have and what do we normally use them for?

MARLES: That's a good question. In the vicinity of six. They are important communication and surveillance aircraft. As I say, we operate them at a very high level and there is quite a lot of Australian IP which is on them now. I mean, the actual physical platform is a Boeing 737, but it's clearly adapted to do the particular work that it does and it provides both surveillance and a communications capability. And we've deployed these in conflicts in the past. They are a really important capability that we operate. And I think the way to think about them is that what they do is enable and, kind of augment, amplify is perhaps a better word, the capabilities that we have with our frontline fighter plane capabilities that we operate.

MOORE: Does it take one though, out of our region, having it in Europe?

MARLES: No, it does, it absolutely does. And in that sense, it's a significant commitment for us to make. It's not like we have hundreds of these planes. Having six, this is a big commitment for us to make. But it's also an important commitment to make. It's one that we can do. It will be very good kind of experience for those who are flying and operating the plane, so Australia gets the benefit of that experience within our own personnel. But it's not without a cost to us and that's an observation to make as well.

But we get that we’ve got a national interest engaged in the conflict in Ukraine. What Russia has done is an affront to the global rules-based order. The pressure that the global rules-based order is under is not only in Eastern Europe, we see it the Indo-Pacific as well. And it's important that we stand with other countries in the maintenance of the global rules-based order. So, we're very happy to provide this and it forms part of our ongoing support to Ukraine because we really do feel that it's very much an Australian interest that Ukraine prevails in this contest and is able to resolve it in its own terms.

MOORE: You're listening to Richard Marles who's Defence Minister and currently Acting Prime Minister. Richard Marles, I want to ask you what you make of the commentary from former Prime Minister Paul Keating around NATO. And just as the current Prime Minister was landing in Europe, Paul Keating issued a statement, he slammed NATO's planned expansion into Asia. “Exporting that malicious poison to Asia would be akin to Asia welcoming the plague on itself.” They’re the words of Paul Keating. I know you've been asked about it before and you're very hesitant to criticise Paul Keating, who of course is from your own side. But I wonder the extent to which Paul Keating's words land among our allies and friends offshore. Is he listened to? Is he ignored? Did that fall on deaf ears? How does that sort of commentary sit and what sort of reaction do you get from our friends and allies?

MARLES: Well, look, you're right that I'm not going to criticise Paul Keating. He's got a right to express his opinion and his view and as a former Prime Minister, that is the case. I think though, in answer to your question, the people overseas, the partners that we work with, the countries that we are allied to, see the expression of Australia's will through the statements that are made by those who are governing it right now. And in that sense, it's really what our current Prime Minister says which matters in terms of how countries view Australia's position. And that's obviously correct. I mean, Paul Keating was the prime minister of Australia but he was the prime minister back in the nineties, thirty years ago. Anthony Albanese is the Prime Minister now and he is really the one who expresses the will and intent of the Australian government and I think that's how countries overseas see it.

MOORE: He raises an interesting point though, and that is what is called this planned expansion into Asia. But is that actually overstating it? I mean, what, from your and Australia's point of view, is the NATO ambition in this region? I know there's talk of a liaison office opening in Japan which the French apparently object to, but does NATO have ambitions in the Asia Pacific?

MARLES: Look, I think it does overstate it, would be my view. Obviously, in terms of the liaison office is a matter for NATO and Japan. I think it is right that NATO has a global outlook in the way that we do as well. Because we understand, as I just expressed earlier, that we live in a much more globalised world and a threat to the global rules-based order in Eastern Europe really does engage our interests now in a way that it might have in the past. And we need to be mindful of that. Having said that, NATO's primary area is the North Atlantic. It is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It isn't the Indo-Pacific. And from our point of view, our primary place of interest is the Indo-Pacific. And we in that sense have our focus on building relationships within our region. And you can see that in my movements, if you like, over the last twelve months, certainly those of our Foreign Minister and our Prime Minister, where we've been deeply focused on the region; on the Pacific, on ASEAN, on countries like Japan and Korea, and of course, in respect of China itself, as we've sought to stabilise our relationship there. We're very focused on the region and we see that the collective security of the Indo-Pacific is one of the tasks that we have now provided to the Australian Defence Force. And that is maintained through building our relationships with the countries in the Indo-Pacific.

MOORE: Yeah. So, you would not want NATO to be trying to throw its weight around in the Asia Pacific?

MARLES: Well, I don't think NATO is trying to do that. And I think it's understandable that NATO has an eye to other parts of the world beyond where it operates, as we do as well. I don't think that equals throwing your weight around. But the primacy of NATO's activities remain the North Atlantic, as the primacy of our activities remain he Indo-Pacific.

MOORE: Can I ask you about another of the announcements that we heard a little earlier from Anthony Albanese, and this is the Climate Club. I have had a couple of texts, Minister, I have to tell you, just saying Climate Club, it sounds sort of very bureaucratic. I mean, what is a Climate Club and does it actually really change anything?

MARLES: Yeah, I wouldn't use the word bureaucratic, but it's a nice term and I can understand why your listeners would be texting in about it. Look, I think the way for us to view this is the opportunities, and the economic opportunities that come from having a realistic view about what we need to do in relation to climate change. Our government is very different to the former government in that firstly, we accept the science of climate change and we believe it's a real issue for the globe. We're obviously different in terms of what we've done with our own emissions reduction strategy, for our own economy. But the real point here is that what comes with that is a whole lot of economic opportunity. I mean Germany – and I was in Germany last year and it forms part of, I think, real excitement about where our bilateral relationship with Germany is going – but Germany see Australia as one of the most important, if not the most important, partner for them in terms of green renewable energy and particularly hydrogen. And they want to work with us as being a country which can be a significant provider of green energy going forward. Actually, I think the war in Ukraine has sped up that process in German thinking because of what it's meant in terms of not having access to Russian gas, which has been a historic source of energy for them, and they see us in the future as an alternative for that. But what that points to is the huge economic opportunity for our country when we embrace the possibilities that come from renewable energy. And that's the road that we're walking down, obviously. But this is a really tangible example of the economic benefit that comes from it.

MOORE: Richard Marles, a question on matters much closer to home and the Robodebt Royal Commission. The former Secretary of the Department of Human Services, Kathryn Campbell, is now employed in your department working on a project related to AUKUS. Given the Royal Commission's final report, will she stay there?

MARLES: Look, I'm for good reasons, not going to talk about the circumstances of any individual public servant, and so I'm not going to answer that question. What I will–

MOORE: Can I beg to interfere and say it's not any public servant, it's one who has been very clearly and repeatedly mentioned, named, whose behaviour has been gone over with a fine tooth comb by a Royal Commission.

MARLES: I accept all of that, but for a whole lot of very important reasons I am not about to discuss the individual circumstances of that public servant or any other public servant. What I will say is this, the Royal Commission's report came down on Friday. In the sealed section of that report is the mention of a number of people against whom there are adverse findings. Who–

MOORE: Have you seen it?

MARLES: I've not seen the sealed section. And again, for good reason I've not seen it. It outlines a number of processes that need to occur and those processes began yesterday. Literally the next business day, in terms of people being referred to the APS Commissioner, to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, to the police and the like. Now, it's important that the public understands that we have taken steps immediately for those processes to be implemented in complete accordance with the Royal Commission's report. But I'm not about to discuss the circumstances of any specific individual in relation to that and again, that’s for good reason.

MOORE So, a general question, In relation to due process, do the people who are going to be investigated, regardless of who they are – and I'm not asking you specifically about one person – do they continue to hold their job, be in positions of responsibility and receive a pay packet while they're subject to investigation?

MARLES: Well, again. I won't answer specifically in relation to individuals –

MOORE: But what's the process?

MARLES: But there is a process by which those circumstances are assessed in respect of each of the individuals in relation to what their status and standing is, pending the processes that those people will go through. And that is going to be different in relation to each of them.

MOORE: So, some may be stood down, some may not?

MARLES: Correct. And again, those decisions have started to be taken as of yesterday, both in terms of the referral of where people go, but also their status in the meantime. So, people should be assured that all the steps are being taken. But in a sense, the privacy of those people at one level, but also preserving the legal circumstances surrounding them at another, and that's really what both issues are in my mind right now as I answer these questions, need to be maintained for good reason and that's how we will maintain it in terms of not talking about individuals.

MOORE: Richard Marles, I really appreciate you coming on Drive this afternoon. Many thanks.

MARLES: Thanks Ali.


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