Interview with Hamish Macdonald, RN Breakfast

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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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13 July 2023

SUBJECTS: Additional support for Ukraine, NATO, Robodebt.

HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: Well, the NATO Summit has come to an end with record funding committed to support Ukraine in the war against Russia. But leaders refused to give Kyiv an invitation or even a timetable for joining the alliance. It provoked outrage from Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President. Despite not being a member Australia was there, the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, in Lithuania this week joining the summit from the sidelines and overnight committed another 30 Bushmaster armoured personnel carriers to Ukraine. The Acting Prime Minister and Defence Minister is Richard Marles. He's here now. Good morning to you.

RICHARD MARLES, ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Hamish. How are you?

MACDONALD: Very well, thanks. So, we'll come to the Bushmasters, but Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the NATO position as absurd. Is he right?

MARLES: Well, ultimately, Ukraine's membership of NATO is a matter for NATO and a matter for Ukraine. We're not going to make a comment about that. I think what matters here from the Australian national interest perspective is that we stand with Ukraine given the affront to the rules-based order that the Russian invasion represents. And I think that's reflected in the way that NATO has stood by Ukraine as well. And all the vast bulk of the support that has been provided to Ukraine in this fight has been coordinated and done through NATO.

MACDONALD: You must be able to observe, though, the precarious position this puts the Ukrainians in, telling them, ‘well, your future may be in NATO, but we won't give you a clear timeline, we won't tell you what the conditions are for your accession to NATO’. With recent history in mind with regards to Georgia and also previous positions of NATO on Ukraine, you can see why the Ukrainians might be pretty upset?

MARLES: Well, again, I'm not about to offer an opinion in respect of Ukraine's membership of NATO. I think the point, though, is that there is a conflict to be won and the focus right now has to be on that and on supporting Ukraine through what can be - what I think will be a protracted conflict, so that Ukraine is able to resolve this conflict on its own terms and that's where Australia is at. But I think that's where the countries of NATO are at, is that right now the focus needs to be on supporting Ukraine so that this conflict can be won and can be won on Ukraine's terms.

MACDONALD: If that's the case, do you think Ukraine has been supplied with enough offensive weaponry to win against Russia?

MARLES: I think one of the extraordinary stories really around the conflict in Ukraine has been the way the international community has come together to support Ukraine. Let me also say that the story that stands above all else is the inspirational way in which Ukraine itself has stood up to Russia, which I think has far exceeded anyone's expectations, but the global community has been there and has stood around Ukraine and has enabled it to prosecute this fight.

MACDONALD: You'd acknowledge, though, that the majority of this fight for Ukraine to this point has been defensive, and they've been supplied with defensive capabilities by the west to do that. But this is now a question of a successful counter-offensive to take back the land that was stolen effectively by Russia. So, my question is whether or not you think NATO and the west, us included, has done enough to supply them with the weaponry they need to achieve that?

MARLES: Well, again, I think the answer to that is that there has been an enormous amount of thought through NATO, and including the major partners of NATO in terms of the US and the UK, around enabling Ukraine to successfully pursue its counter-offensive this year. And everyone understands that the successful prosecution of that counter-offensive is really going to shape this conflict in terms of its outcome and its duration. So, I actually think the support has been there. But let me say at the heart of all of this, as I said before, has been Ukraine's inspirational way in which it has gone about this fight, which is beyond anyone's expectations, and none of this would be possible but for Ukraine's spirit.

MACDONALD: Obviously, we've made this announcement about 30 more Bushmasters. It's clear the Ukrainians appreciate that. There's been requests for more Hawkeis as well, a variation of Bushmaster, if you like. What about aircraft? There's been some suggestion that we might give them some disused aircraft. How strongly are we considering that?

MARLES: Well, firstly, Hawkeis are a very different platform to Bushmasters, and I think that's something that needs to be understood in the discussion here. And in a sense, it, as an example, does explain the way in which we're engaging with Ukraine here. And it goes to the question of aircraft as well. I'm not going to go into the specifics of any platform, but we are in a conversation with Ukraine about the sorts of things they might need in the context of the fight that they understand best in terms of what they are waging. But also knowing that the platforms that they're asking of us are ones that we operate and so we know best. And so there is actually a dialogue there about how we can best ultimately support them. And the various announcements that have been seen, really since we came to government, are the expression of that. The situation around aircraft is pretty complicated. We will keep having the conversation with Ukraine around that, as we will around all the various requests that they've made. But what is at the heart of this is making sure that what we actually ultimately announce and what we give and what we do needs to be practical and needs to make a difference for Ukraine in a timely way.

MACDONALD: Why is the question of aircraft so complicated?

MARLES: Well, again, technology, timeliness, abilities to actually operate the platform, all of those are questions which come into play clearly with aircraft - would come into play with all platforms - but aircraft become a much more complicated question when you consider all those factors. And that's why I say there is an ongoing discussion which is an important one and has been a very thorough and fruitful one between ourselves and Ukraine. But the ultimate end of that discussion needs to be contributions which are practical and timely and are going to make a difference. I really believe that what we have announced up until now is doing that and you can see that in the gratitude that comes from Ukraine in respect of those announcements. But our obligation here is not just to kind of do whatever, it's to actually work out with Ukraine how we can best support them in making a difference and that's what we'll continue to do.

MACDONALD: I suspect many Australians have watched the news this week, whether it's the Prime Minister at the NATO summit or a former Prime Minister like Paul Keating making comments about the NATO Secretary-General, trying to understand what it is that NATO does, why we're engaging in the way that we are. Us over there in Europe, NATO seeming to have intentions here in the Indo-Pacific region. Can you help Australians understand what is our relationship with NATO? Is it in our interest that NATO has a bigger presence in this region of the world?

MARLES: Yeah, look, it's a really good question and you put it well because I can understand why people would think about those issues. And in a sense, the answer to it lies in our really evolving engagement with Ukraine in a conflict in Eastern Europe which if you round the clock back a decade, I would have struggled to imagine would have been something that was in Australia's national interest. But we live today in a much more globalised world where the global rules-based order is under threat. It's under threat in Eastern Europe, which we can see with the war in Ukraine, but it's also under threat in the Indo-Pacific and we are deeply invested in a global rules-based order as a country which engages in trade. So, we find ourselves - if I can just finish Hamish - we find ourselves much more interested and see our national interests lying much more in a conflict in Eastern Europe. And I think similarly, NATO has a global outlook as well. It can see that events playing out in the Indo-Pacific affect it. But I would want to make this point: NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It has a geography which is the North Atlantic. I mean, that's its principal area of operation. I think it makes sense that it has an eye to the rest of the world as we have an eye to Eastern Europe. But just as our principal area of operation is the Indo-Pacific, it is the North Atlantic, and so I wouldn't overstate its intentions in our region.

MACDONALD: But I suppose you'll obviously be aware, many listeners will be aware, that the Russian argument that's been advanced, and in fact, some western scholars have advanced these arguments as well, that NATO's sort of expansionist position in Eastern Europe has agitated matters on the European continent. And obviously, this is the argument Paul Keating seemed to be getting at in his comments earlier in the week, that perhaps doing so in the Asia Pacific region might have a similar impact here. Can you understand that the concerns some might share? And obviously, the French President is not totally on board with NATO having a bigger presence in the Asia Pacific either.

MARLES: Again, I think it's important not to overstate what NATO is doing in the Indo-Pacific. I mean, I think having an eye to the Indo-Pacific makes perfect sense to me, as we have an eye to Europe. But NATO's principal area of engagement is the North Atlantic and Europe. And in that sense, actually, NATO has been, I think, an incredible force for security and peace since the end of the Second World War. But for us, our primary interest is in seeing our security lying in the collective security of the Indo-Pacific. And where that takes us in terms of our engagement is while we have an eye to Europe, our principal engagement is with the countries of ASEAN, countries like Japan, Korea, countries in the Pacific. If you look at all the engagement that we have done as a government since coming to power, yes, there have been some visits to Europe and yes, the Prime Minister is in Lithuania now. But far and above the focus of our engagement has been all the visits and engagement that we've done with our region, because that's where our security principally lies. And I think if you look at the way we've engaged, it's really the mirror image of what we're talking about with NATO. So, I wouldn't overstate NATO's interest in our region. It makes sense to me they have an eye to our region, but their focus is clearly the North Atlantic.

MACDONALD: Briefly, if I could, Kathryn Campbell is now working in Defence. She was criticised as part of the Royal Commission into Robodebt for a previous role. She's currently on leave as I understand it. The role currently relates to AUKUS and the delivery of that. Is it appropriate that she remains in that role?

MARLES: Well, what's not appropriate is for me to give a comment about or to give information about any specific public servant. Let me say this: the Robodebt Royal Commission came down last Friday. In its sealed section, which referred to a number of people within the public service for whom there had been adverse findings. There were processes that were recommended to be pursued. They began on Monday, literally the next working day, in terms of referrals of people to the APS Commissioner, to the AFP, to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. In addition to that, decisions were taken in respect of all of those people about their ongoing status, be they on leave, on leave without pay, suspended, whatever the particulars were, and they varied from one person to another. Again, all of those decisions have been made. So, we've acted in respect of the Royal Commission. It's really not appropriate for me to discuss the circumstances of an individual in respect of that. But your listeners should know that we have been really clear in our action. But the other point your listeners should know is that the real villains here are not the public servants, it is the former government. The guilty party here is the Liberal Party. They are the ones that put in place the culture and the climate, and made the decisions which enabled the appalling gross maladministration that we saw in the handling of Robodebt to impact the lives of half a million Australians. That is where the blame lies and people need to have their focus on that.

MACDONALD: Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles, good to talk.

MARLES: Thanks, Hamish.


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