Interview, ABC Radio National 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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9 August 2023

SUBJECTS: Government’s response to the inquiry into international armed conflict decision making; Israel / Palestine.

ANDY PARK, HOST: Joining me from the Parliament House studio in Canberra is the Assistant Defence Minister, Matt Thistlethwaite. Welcome back to the program.


PARK: The Federal Government will set up this new parliamentary committee that will have oversight and accountability functions in relation to the ADF. What's the point of this new body if the decision making process isn't changing one iota?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the power under the Constitution vests in the Crown, that's a tradition of the Westminster system, the power to employ our armed forces has existed with the Governor-General as the Queen / King's representative under Section 68 of the Constitution. And the committee upheld that view. But they've also recommended that there should be additional oversight and transparency. So, the Minister being required, the Defence Minister, to table a statement in the Parliament and then allow a parliamentary debate. And that statement would have to outline the objectives of the mission, the reasons why it was taken and the legality of the decision as well, and then allow for a parliamentary debate. So, we're accepting the principles that exist in the constitution, but bolstering that by allowing additional transparency and oversight through the Parliament.

PARK: So, effectively, nothing's changed in terms of how the decision to go to war is made?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, the decision to go to war will still be primarily with the Governor-General on the advice of the government of the day. And the Committee recommended that because they saw that there was a need for agility in decision making around issues associated with Australia's defence. And I think we also need to look at it in this context, Andy, in the past, it's been a very binary decision. Australia was either at peace or we were at war. In modern times, there's this grey zone activity that's increasingly becoming a part of modern day warfare. So, cyber-attacks are being employed by state actors to take out infrastructure and we've seen that in Ukraine. So, the committee recommended in this day and age that the executive needs the agility to make decisions very quickly to defend Australia in those grey zone areas, as well as those traditional means of warfare.

PARK: You say agility Minister. Does that effectively mean we can always be at war now?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, it means that we have to make sure that we have the means to counter cyberattacks and make sure that we can keep Australians safe, but where we do employ more kinetic types of warfare, that they would be subject to those normal scrutinies under the Constitution.

PARK: Sure, but that's not a vote in the Parliament. I mean, why not allow something so significant like the decision to send young Australian men and women into combat to be decided by elected representatives?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, because of that tradition that exists in the Constitution, that the Constitution is very clear about where that power lies. And that's a Westminster tradition that we don't believe that the Australian people want to overturn easily. But we're adding to that by putting in that there will be additional parliamentary scrutiny through a parliamentary debate and you get the normal sort of commentary. And indeed, you can have protest in the lead up to these sort of decisions that will be able to be undertaken in the Australian public.

PARK: Who's going to be on this committee? I mean, surely they're going to have to see some pretty sensitive, highly classified material?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, the committee has recommended that there be six government members and five non-government members and that they would be security cleared so that they would get access to classified briefings from defence and security officials, so that they have the most relevant and up to date information and can apply that scrutiny to decisions of the Australian Defence Force and indeed the government that relate to defence. And the government, in accepting that recommendation, has said that we'll now work on a multipartisan matter to ensure that we establish that committee properly and that we have the relevant people on it.

PARK: I mean, one of the arguments used by the Department of Defence against allowing a vote was that it would require highly classified military information to be circulated more broadly. I mean, isn't that effectively what's happening with this committee? More people with access to more information?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, there will only be a certain number on that committee, obviously, and they will be subject to all of the normal checks and balances that goes with providing classified information to certain Australians. And there are, of course, laws in Australia that prohibit the disclosure of that information on national security grounds. And those individuals will, of course, have to abide by those legal requirements to make sure that we maintain the integrity of our intelligence collection and ultimately that we ensure the safety of the Australian Defence Force members and our security and intelligence agencies.

PARK: So, in your view with this committee, are you effectively signing up to a higher bar before taking the decision to deploy troops so that we don't see a repeat of, for example, the Iraq deployment, which was determined, really relying on dodgy intelligence?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: We're signing up to a higher degree of scrutiny about those decisions. We want to make sure that whilst we maintain that principle under our Constitution of that decision, resting with the Governor-General, through the executive, that there's as much scrutiny as possible about those decisions and that there is debate. Within the parliamentary context, and it's in both Houses of Parliament, both the House and the Senate, that that parliamentary debate would ensue, that people would have the opportunity to state their case on behalf of their electorates, and that a lot of that information would be supplied to the Parliament by the Minister justifying the decision.

PARK: If you just joined me on RN Drive, Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite is here. He's joining me from the Parliament House studio in Canberra. Let's move to another topic, Minister. The Federal Government yesterday announced it would strengthen its stance on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel. Labor will now use the term, quote, occupied Palestinian territories when referring to areas in the West Bank. Here's what Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham had to say about the move this morning. What do you think, Minister? Is this part of a factional deal in The Labor Party?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, if you look at what's been happening in Israel, there's been quite a bit of unrest of recent times and Australians have been seeing that on their TV screens and through their radio. And a lot of that unrest relates to the fact that the Israeli Government has been building settlements in areas that have traditionally been recognised as Palestinian territories. And the Labor Party and the Government, in adopting that approach of occupied Palestinian territories, is aligning itself with what is recognised internationally as the correct term for what's been going on there. And our close neighbours, like New Zealand, the United Kingdom government, the EU, all adopt the same terminology and it's backed by UN resolutions, and it's backed by international law. So, very much aligning Australia with the rest of the world when it comes to this definition and ultimately trying to secure peace in the Middle East.

PARK: It may align Australia, or at least the Labor Party, more closely to Britain and the EU, but not the United States, arguably Australia's biggest ally. So, does this put us at odds with our biggest military and trade ally?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the United States, the Biden government, has expressed concerns regarding recent settlement activity in those areas. And Joe Biden's been pretty forceful in expressing that to the Israeli government. So, I believe that we're consistent with what the United States has been doing in really saying to the Israeli government that you need to be conscious of the fact that there is international concern about this, and that the international community sees this as hampering a pathway to peace. And ultimately that's what we want the outcome to be. This has been a multi-generational conflict that has lasted for a very long time. All international partners want to see stability and peace restored to that area of the Middle East. And we believe that the best way to do that is to ensure that that settlement activity is reduced and that the parties get to negotiations around a settlement.

PARK: But the question remains, are internal Labor Party factional politics influencing Australia's international policy, especially ahead of the big meeting next week?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, we take our decisions on what we believe is based in the best interests of Australia. And this is an issue that's been debated internationally. It's a subject that comes up regularly in the United Nations, through which Australia is often asked to make a contribution. And we're clarifying now what our contribution should be to that movement that ultimately is aimed at peace.

PARK: Well, Labor's national platform currently calls for the next Labor government to recognise Palestine as a state. Can you give me clarity on that? Has the government set a timetable for this declaration?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, we haven't set a timetable. We support peace in the Middle East and a two state solution, and that's been a long standing part of our platform. And we believe that the best way to ensure that that occurs is that the parties sit down and get around the bargaining table and try and work this out. And ultimately, the position that we've taken in our platform is aimed at trying to ensure that that occurs as quickly as possible.

PARK: We're out of time. Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite. Appreciate it.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thank you. Thanks, Andy.



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