Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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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19 July 2023

SUBJECTS: Commonwealth Games; AUSMIN dialogue; Australia-Solomon Islands relationship.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let's go live to Fremantle now with the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles. He's straight from a Voice campaign event there with the Fremantle Dockers. Welcome, Deputy Prime Minister. I might full disclosure declare that we have Josh Wilson, the local MP who's accompanying you, on, so we'll talk to him about the Voice a little later. There's a bit to get through with you in your various areas of responsibility.

We did hear from the Opposition earlier in the program just about the Victorian Government's cancellation of the Commonwealth Games. As the most senior Victorian MP in the Albanese Government, when did you first become aware that the Andrews Government was having, at least doubts, if not revoking this contract altogether?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, I became aware yesterday, and the announcement was made yesterday, about the decision, obviously not just as the senior Victorian member of the Albanese Government, but as the Member for Corio, which really means I'm the member for Geelong in Regional Victoria, and that was where the closing ceremony was going to be held, at Kardinia Park. There's obviously a sense of disappointment that the Games aren't going ahead. That said, there has been an assurance from the Victorian Government that the infrastructure that would be put in place in regional Victoria will still go ahead. So, for example, in my community, that was going to be the swimming centre. We understand this is a matter for the Victorian Government. We respect it. And as a local member, obviously keep working with the Victorian Government to make sure those infrastructure facilities are ultimately built.

JENNETT: Yeah, I understand those commitments that the Premier’s made. But it does strike outside observers like us as somewhat odd that, in a financial bind here, if cost blowouts were really the reason, why would not the Victorian Government have at least taken soundings with you or others about federal assistance that might have put a different financial complexion on this entirely?

MARLES: Well, look, I take the Victorian Government at face value in terms of the decision they've made and the factors that went into that. And they've described not just a small potential overrun, but really a significant difference in what they believed would be the ultimate cost in delivering the Games as against what they believed would be the cost when they first walked down the path of pursuing the Games. So, I don't doubt that and I do respect the decision that's been made. There is a sense of disappointment, clearly, but we get it and it's now, I think, a matter of moving on, and for those of us who live in regional Victoria, I think it's a matter of working with the Victorian Government to see that the benefits – the lasting benefits beyond the Games, which were being promised as part of the Games, actually come to pass.

JENNETT: All right, let's move on. A quick one on AUSMIN. You've set a date now with Tony Blinken and Lloyd Austin for talks, along with Penny Wong in Brisbane next week. I see that Secretary Austin in a statement today, says these talks will highlight, “the historic progress our nations are making together on Force Posture modernisation”. What progress has actually been made on that since AUSMIN last year? There was a stated goal there to increase US bomber rotations, fighters, army and navy rotations. Are the numbers of US forces in Australia higher this year than they were 12 months ago?

MARLES: Well, we are seeing a very significant move forward in terms of Force Posture Initiatives in Australia. I mean, the most obvious answer to the question you've just asked is that since AUSMIN in December last year in Washington, we announced the AUKUS arrangements which would see the Optimal Pathway by which Australia would acquire a nuclear-powered submarine capability. And as part of that there will be a forward rotation of US submarines based right here, actually, in Fremantle. So, that's now working in earnest to walk down that path. And between now and when that comes into play, we will see more visits of US submarines. This weekend we see the opening of exercise Talisman Sabre, which is the biggest exercise that the Australian Defence Force does. It happens every two years. 30,000 people will participate in that and there's a significant number of American personnel who will be engaged in Talisman Sabre. We clearly have the Marine rotation which continues in Darwin and continues to go from strength to strength. So, what we will see with the Force Posture Initiatives, whatever kind of specific dates you look at, what you're going to see over the next few years is a growth in the way in which Australia and the US operates together. And that will obviously be a key topic of conversation between myself and Secretary Austin next week as part of AUSMIN.

JENNETT: We'll track progress on that in the months and years ahead, I'm sure.

Can I take you to the Solomon Islands, because I know you've been taking a strong interest there. In fact, you were there not very long ago yourself. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has returned from Beijing and he's been talking about very consequential discussions he said he had with you on a Solomon Islands Army. “I've raised it with the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. He says he's very supportive” and he went on about including the establishment of a full military force in this country. Are you very supportive of the creation of a Solomon Islands Army? And in what form would Australia support it?

MARLES: Well, firstly, it's clearly a decision for Solomon Islands. And in my conversations with Prime Minister Sogavare, who I've known for a long time, I wanted to make clear we see this very much as a Solomon Islands decision. And in that sense we don't express a view about whether they do or whether they don't. But if they do, what I wanted to make clear, and what Prime Minister Sogavare is reflecting in his comments, is that Australia would be very much there to work with Solomon Islands to be their natural partner of choice in helping to establish a Solomon Islands Defence Force. Now, what was indicated to me by the Prime Minister is this is a path that Solomon Islands is interested in walking down. And in that event, Australia is very keen to play its part in partnering with Solomon Islands in the development of their Defence Force. And we've obviously got experience in terms of what we do with the PNG Defence Force, the Fiji Defence Force, the Tongan Defence Force. Vanuatu is also thinking about moving down this path as well. And so we bring a lot of experience to bear. But I think the real fundamental point here, Greg, is we seek to be the natural partner of choice for Solomon Islands, and indeed all the countries of the Pacific. And after a decade where this country took its eye off the ball, to be frank, over the last year we've really improved our relationship with Solomon Islands and I think the comments of the Prime Minister reflect that.

JENNETT: Yeah, sure. He does seem, still to this day though, Richard Marles, to hedge on this first choice security partner arrangement. Manasseh Sogavare, again on return from Beijing, has spoken about Australia's primacy as first choice partner. But then he went on “we have standing arrangements with China too and if there's a reason that delay sets in, for instance, it only takes 9 hours to fly from China and to land forces here and nothing is actually stopping me from that. If there are hiccups along the way, we can invoke our security arrangements”. That's his security plan B. What are you doing to ensure that he would never invoke that?

MARLES: Well, we're engaged, is the answer. And deeply engaged. And you can see that in not only the visits that we've made to Solomon Islands since coming to power, but the meetings that we've had and the commitments that we're making to Solomon Islands. I mean, the relationship really is in a very different place now to what it was a year ago. And I think what we've seen in the agreements that – or the MoUs that were signed between Solomon Islands and China, with Prime Minister Sogavare's visit to Beijing in the last few weeks, really is an extension of what occurred last year with the security agreement that Solomon Islands made with China. And that in turn was a function of Australia taking its eye off the ball for the better part of a decade under the former government.

JENNETT: I understand that point –

MARLES: But what it really shows, Greg, is that in order to be the partner of choice, it's not something we get by right, it's something we need to earn. And so you need to put in the effort, to do the work, to be present and to make clear Australia's willingness to partner. And in terms of the creation of a Solomon Islands Defence Force, that's exactly what we're doing. Which is why now you see the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands saying what he has said.

JENNETT: Yeah, sure. And just look, one final one, it goes to your point. He also went on to suggest that there may be some delay, was his word, in financial assistance offered by Australia and it must be said New Zealand. He didn't really specify what that delay is. Can you verify that there has been any delay in delivery of finance?

MARLES: Look, actually, we've been growing our support to Solomon Islands across a range of areas, and we will continue to be focused on that, in terms of our development assistance, in terms of our support, for example, in respect of the policing and security challenges that Solomon Islands has had and will have as they host the Pacific Games, which is a massive event in Solomon Islands later this year. Really the biggest event that Solomon Islands has ever hosted. And of course next year they have their elections, which presents security challenges as well. You know, Australia is right there with Solomon Islands in respect of all of that. And one of the things I made clear in my visit is if Solomon Islands needs help in respect of either of these really big events on its calendar, we are there to assist, and we seek to be the first partner choice, the natural partner of choice and I think that's something that is respected.

JENNETT: No, the pledge is there and I'm sure we'll track that through again with you as we get closer, particularly towards the election it must be said, next year. Richard Marles, really appreciate your time there in Fremantle. Talk again soon.

MARLES: Thanks.


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