31 August 2023
SUBJECTS: Defence investment in Northern bases; Defence Strategic Review; RAAF Base Curtin; Voice to Parliament.
ROS BUTCHER, HOST: A few months back, you might recall, the Federal Government announced a massive $3.8 billion spend over the next four years to improve Australia's northern bases. Well, that's important for us up here, isn't it? $2 billion was pledged to the air bases of Learmonth near Exmouth, a base in the Cocos Keeling Islands and bases in the Northern Territory in Queensland as well. Another $600 million will be divvied up to redevelop the Harold E Holt Naval Communications Station on the Northwest Cape near Exmouth and also HMAS naval bases in Darwin and in Cairns. Well, Curtin RAAF base near Derby wasn't earmarked in April's announcement, possibly because more than a year ago, the government announced plans for an upgrade there. A short time ago, I spoke to Assistant Minister for Defence, the Honourable Matt Thistlethwaite, who's at Curtin today, and I started by asking him if any additional resources would be ploughed into northern defence bases.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: The recently released Defence Strategic Review recommends to government that we upgrade the resilience of our northern bases for the ongoing defence of Australia. And RAAF Base Curtin will be a very important part of that strategic resilience building in the north. And we're planning the Government and Defence to invest an additional $390 million in facilities and infrastructure upgrades and upgrades to the airfield at Curtin, the runway, the taxiways and the aprons. And this will ensure that we have a first class defence establishment in the north of Western Australia which will be critical to the ongoing defence of our nation.
BUTCHER: That is a lot of money. You're expanding Curtain air base and upgrading it. Why does this represent value for taxpayers’ money?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, many of the facilities and infrastructure at Curtin are ageing. The runway was installed 40 years ago and hasn't been upgraded. And if we're going to be able to ensure that we can cater for the size of aircraft that we wish, that will be important to reconnaissance and surveillance and other activities in the north, then we're going to need to upgrade that infrastructure. And we're planning $153 million investment in the upgrade of the runway, the taxiways and the aprons. Then, of course, there's the important facilities to support that capability. So, we need to upgrade electricity, sewage, ordinances, storage and some of the old buildings that are on the base. It's about making sure that we have the best base possible that's strategically important to the defence of the north.
BUTCHER: I'm speaking with the Assistant Minister for Defence, the Honourable Matt Thistlethwaite. You're in our region at the moment, but can you tell us what is the timeframe for all of this? It's a lot of money. Sounds like a great plan to upgrade Curtain. What sort of time frame are we looking at?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we're looking at completing this over the next five years. So, it's a long-term investment and it will ensure that we've got better facilities and a better capability and a strategically important base in the north of Australia.
BUTCHER: You're meeting with the Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation at Curtin Base to discuss this redevelopment. What are you hoping to learn from them?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I've sat down on a number of occasions with representatives of Walalakoo to hear about their important cultural and heritage connection to this country and it's really given me a great insight into their history and their culture around these important lands. And we want to make sure that we respect that through an agreement with Walalakoo moving forward that will ensure that we protect important heritage sites, that we're respecting their culture, but importantly that we try and facilitate economic opportunities, employment opportunities through the construction and design phase, but also ongoing through maintenance of the base as well. And we'll be sitting down today to try and work through those issues with Walalakoo.
BUTCHER: You said there will be employment opportunities. What sort of jobs will come from this?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, there'll be plenty of jobs in the design and construction phase, obviously. Engineering style jobs, labouring jobs, maintenance jobs. All of these economic opportunities will flow from this very important investment. And we're going to sit down today with local Indigenous representatives to see what opportunities can come for economic empowerment for their local community and longer term job opportunities, and indeed training opportunities. Many of these contracts provide significant training opportunities, people to gain additional skills and competencies that provide longer term economic benefits for their communities.
BUTCHER: The PM announced the Voice referendum date as October 14. Will that form part of your conversations today?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we've certainly had a conversation with Walalakoo about the importance of a Voice. The Voice is about listening and getting better results for Indigenous Australians, and that's exactly what we're doing here today. We're sitting down with local Indigenous representatives to listen and hear what they have to say about an area and a country that they've had a cultural connection to for thousands of years. We'll use that information and that listening to ensure that we can get better results economically and socially for their local community. And that's what the Voice is about on a national scale. It's about listening and getting better results for Indigenous Australians.
BUTCHER: As the Assistant Minister for Defence, you are in charge or you oversee the Defence estate, which is a pretty large land holding in the Commonwealth. What does that mean? You've announced these upgrades to the Curtin base. Will there be upgrades as well to other Northern Defence assets, like in the Pilbara, Learmonth or Yampi even?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, there certainly are. Yesterday, a couple of days ago, I was in RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory, where there's significant work that's occurring there already and it's similar work to the work that will occur here in Curtin. It's upgrading the facilities to take a greater capacity of aircraft, more troops into the future and building the strategic defence of Australia in the north. There's work that's going on in Queensland, in the Northern Territory and in Western Australia and indeed on other northern bases as well to ensure that we're strategically upgrading those important assets for the defence of the nation moving forward.
BUTCHER: The Honourable Matt Thistlethwaite, the Assistant Minister.