10 September 2023
SUBJECT/S: Morocco earthquake; Qatar Airways flights; Boxer export deal; Surface Fleet Review; Voice to Parliament referendum; Special Purpose Aircraft Schedules.
ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: All right, let's go live now to the Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles who joins me from Geelong. Acting Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time. I will get to Qantas in a second. I just wanted to ask you about your reaction to the Moroccan earthquake. And will the Federal Government be considering an assistance package in relation to that this week?
RICHARD MARLES, ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, good morning, Andrew. Obviously, the news that's come out in respect of the earthquake in Morocco is tragic. It seems as though there has been a very significant loss of life and this is a part of the world that many Australians have visited, so I know that there will be an enormous amount of concern and sympathy for the Moroccan people. We'll obviously talk closely with the Moroccan government about ways in which we can help and we do have an embassy in Rabat and there are investigations now about whether or not Australians have been caught up in the earthquake. My latest advice is that it doesn't appear that any have, but obviously that will be a situation which will be closely monitored as well.
CLENNELL: All right, let's turn to this decision around Qatar Airways not getting extra flights into Australia. As Acting Prime Minister, can you tell us the reason, or reasons, the Minister made this decision?
MARLES: Well, firstly, this is a decision which lies within the purview of the Transport Minister. I mean, there are certain decisions in government which are Cabinet decisions, certain that you would expect to go right round the Cabinet, some that are in the sovereignty, if you like, of a specific minister and this is one of those. And we are running a serious Cabinet Government which allows Ministers to do their job and to make the decisions which are within their responsibility and this is a decision that was within the Transport Minister's responsibility and she made it. And that, I know is very confusing to the Opposition because they had a Prime Minister who was making literally every decision and swearing himself into every portfolio. That's not what we are doing. She's made her decision. She makes the decision–
CLENNELL: Okay, so what's the reason?
MARLES: Yeah, she makes the decision on the basis–
CLENNELL: What is the reason, or reasons?
MARLES: Yeah, she makes the decision on the basis of our national interest, in this instance, our national aviation interest. We want to see greater access into the Australian market. Obviously, there are choices as to how that access can occur and she makes the decisions in respect of any specific application based on how to maximise that from the point of view of the Australian national aviation interest, in terms of how that access occurs. And that's what she has done in this instance and that's the sole basis on which she has done that. If you take a step back from the specific call in respect of an airline, in Qatar, we want to see greater access because we want to see greater competition. And that's why you've seen decisions for greater access be made in relation to Singapore, in relation to Cathay, in relation to China Southern. It's obviously why we are walking down the path of a white paper process to look at how we can increase the level of competition within the Australian aviation market. It is also to be observed that, going back to the specifics of Qatar, that they have unused access right now into second aviation markets. So, looking at how we can best maximise Australia's national aviation interest in respect of any of these specific decisions is what's considered when the Transport Minister makes her decision.
CLENNELL: All right Mr Marles, I'm just going to try this again, because the national interest could be anything, frankly. Let me ask this. The Minister said it's because of the strip searching of these women in 2020, or at least that's context. She said it's about Australian jobs. She's even said in London it's partly about decarbonisation. So, is it all these things, or does one of these things stand out? What is the reason that the Government has refused this application?
MARLES: Well, she's made clear that in relation to the appalling incident that happened with those women, that that is part of the context. But fundamentally, the decision goes to the question of our national aviation interests in terms of how we increase our access into– aviation access into this country. And when you look at the way in which that occurs, there are choices that can be made and we are looking at what are the best options for Australia. Now, taken as a whole, we are increasing access. There are going to be specifics in relation to any individual decision which leads to the call that has been made in this instance.
CLENNELL: All right, what is it about– because Qatar Airways obviously wanted to increase access. What is it about Qatar Airways that made the Government think, or the Minister think, that wasn't the best way to increase access?
MARLES: Well, again, she has gone into that decision and I'm not about to go into all of the specifics of that. It is about looking at which option is the best option in terms of increasing our access. And that’s why we have made other–
CLENNELL: So, Qatar Airways is not the best option?
MARLES: Well, that's why we've made other decisions, Andrew, or why the Transport Minister has made other decisions, in respect of Singapore, and Cathay, and China Southern. And it is to observe, as I just have, Qatar has unused access right now. So, not only do we want to increase the rights of countries, of airlines, to operate in and out of Australia, we obviously want those airlines, those countries which have that access, to use it to its fullest possible extent. Qatar is not doing that right now.
CLENNELL: She mentioned decarbonisation, but the Government's saying Qatar can fly into Adelaide, it can fly bigger planes into Sydney or Melbourne. So, it just sounds, to be honest, like she's not telling the truth as to the real reason, the Minister.
MARLES: The Minister's made a decision and there are a range of factors which go into that. It's right that she is making her statements at the highest principled level, as it were, in terms of the way she's answering the questions, the way I've answered these questions now. I mean, there's good reasons why you're not going to itemise all of those factors in an interview such as this. We're being pretty clear. At a macro level we want to see more access and as a matter of fact, that is what has occurred. We are observing the fact–
CLENNELL: Can I just ask, what are the good reasons?
MARLES: Can I just finish this? Can I just make this observation, Andrew, and we've made it a lot and it's difficult to go into it further, but Qatar have unused access right now. We want countries, airlines which have access to Australia to use their access to the fullest possible extent. Now, I think you can take all of that as you will, but if you think about the ways in which we are going to move forward to maximise access into this country, we want to look at making the best decisions that we can to increase that access. We want countries and airlines which have access to use it to the fullest possible extent. Qatar is not.
CLENNELL: Alright, but if you were going to do that, wouldn't you enter the bilateral negotiations and try to negotiate that? She didn't even really do that, did she?
MARLES: Well, again, I'm not going to go into the details of how those negotiations take place. You wouldn't expect me to. Aviation agreements are reached which provide, between countries, which provide the national carriers or the airlines which fly the flag of those countries to have access into a country. That is what has occurred with the Qatar government in relation to the current situation. The access which is available to Qatar Airways is not being fully used.
CLENNELL: Okay, so the Minister makes a decision. She communicates that decision to lawyers for the women who were strip searched in Qatar in 2020. On July 10, she writes back to them. At this time, Anthony Albanese is overseas or going overseas for the NATO summit, you’re Acting Prime Minister, did the Minister tell you about that decision while Anthony Albanese was overseas, or did her staff tell your staff?
MARLES: No and nor would we expect her to. Again, I come back to the starting point. This is a decision which lies within the responsibility of the Transport Minister. She has made this decision within her own responsibility, which is absolutely what everyone would expect her to do, as I make a whole lot of decisions which are within my responsibility and I don't tell the Prime Minister or other cabinet Ministers about every decision I make.
CLENNELL: No I understand. But Mr Marles, let me ask you this. Catherine King said she consulted colleagues before making her decision. Were you one of those colleagues? Because you were Acting Prime Minister at the time.
MARLES: I was Acting Prime Minister on that day, but the answer to the question is no. And consultation happens over a significant period of time. I mean, again, Andrew, in terms of how government operates, if I have a decision to make, which is my responsibility to make, but which might have an impact in relation to three or four other ministerial portfolios, I will consult with those Ministers over a period of time prior to making that decision. That's exactly the process that Catherine King has articulated in terms of the making of decision. I am not one of those, and nor was the Prime Minister.
CLENNELL: Okay, I want to move off this issue in a minute, but I just have this question on it. Why did the Foreign Minister call the Qatari PM about this last Monday, or call him last Monday and mention the strip search? It's the first time she's called him in 16 months in office. Why was that call made?
MARLES: Well, I understand a call was made in the normal course of the interactions that the Foreign Minister has with countries around the world. I don't think it was related at all to any of the media or the discussion around this.
CLENNELL: Is the reason the Government saying the strip search is not the only reason is because that would open up a can of worms around other countries and their human rights records and whether they can get flights?
MARLES: No, the reason why that's being said is because the basis upon which the decision was made was in relation to our national aviation interest, in the way in which I've just described. Yes, the Minister has said it provided context, but the fundamental basis upon which this decision was made, the main issues that were in the Transport Minister's mind was how we pursue Australia's national aviation interest in terms of airline access to this country. And that in a context where we are seeking to open up greater access, which we have done, and looking at the best ways in which that can occur. They are the key factors which the Transport Minister has articulated were her consideration in making this decision. And so that’s– I mean, the answer is evident.
CLENNELL: All right, if I can ask now about your portfolio of Defence. Anthony Albanese made a big deal when he was in Berlin on this July trip, the one we just spoke of, of this billion dollar contract to assemble Boxer Army vehicles outside Brisbane. There's been a report in the past couple of days out of Germany that negotiations on that have broken down after your Government awarded a more lucrative defence contract to construct the new Infantry Fighting Vehicles to a South Korean company in your electorate. Is this contract that the PM announced now dead, the Brisbane one?
MARLES: Well, look, I'm aware of the speculation, but obviously we're not going to react to the speculation. I mean, we are working with– we'll continue to work with Germany in relation to the provision of those vehicles. The facility in Brisbane is an excellent facility and the Boxer vehicles which we have purchased for our own army, I've had the opportunity of looking at, and they are an excellent vehicle and we'll continue down that road. I mean, you mentioned the decision in relation to the Infantry Fighting Vehicles, which was a different type of vehicle, of which Rheinmetall was a tenderer. Yes, Hanwha has won that tender. You'll know, obviously, that I recused myself from the making of that decision, so I wasn't a part of that decision. But what we do with major defence tenders is to have competition between competing tenderers so we get the best value for money, for the Australian public. That necessarily means that for every tender who wins, there is a tenderer who loses. Defence industry companies know this better than anyone, it's part of the process. But in relation to that tender, both were excellent. Rheinmetall is a fantastic company and the Boxer that they are currently making for Australia is a fantastic vehicle and we will continue to work with Germany on the prospect of making them for Germany.
CLENNELL: And after the Defence Strategic Review you committed to a Surface Fleet Review, that's due this month. Are you about to cut the number of Hunter frigates Australia will be getting, as has been speculated? And might it still cost the same as– might we be getting six frigates instead of nine, it might cost the same anyway, $45 billion?
MARLES: Well, again, I'm not going to react to all of that speculation. The one thing I will say is that the Surface Fleet Review is underway and we are expecting to receive it by the end of this month, which was the time frame that we articulated at the time of the Defence Strategic Review. And obviously I've been working with the review leads and that report we are expecting in the next few weeks. We'll take our time to digest that report. It won't be a huge amount of time, but obviously we'll take our time to work through that and to make the announcements in relation to that in due course. But it does form a very critical part of, really, the review of the whole Defence establishment that we've been undertaking since we've come to power.
CLENNELL: On The Voice, it looks unlikely the Yes campaign will win, given the polls. Do you concede the Government’s up against it on this?
MARLES: Well, I think, if you think about where we're at now relative to an election day, if you did that analogy, we really are at the beginning of a campaign. And what our experience is with elections is that people engage much closer to the date and what I've found when I've gone and spoken to people around the country – be it in the Pilbara, Tasmania, Sydney on Friday, Newcastle – that when you explain to people what this referendum is about and as people start to engage in this more and hear what this is about, there is an enormous amount of enthusiasm, support, acceptance for it. And so I remain very optimistic about the prospect of the Voice. I mean, the Voice isn't determined on the basis of polls today, it's going to be determined on the basis of the Australian people voting in a referendum on the 14th October. And ultimately, Andrew, the recognition of our First Nations people in the Constitution has something that's been bipartisan over a long period of time and would seem even the Opposition Leader is supportive of that. The idea of doing that in a way where we seek to ask our First Nations people how they would want to see that recognition happen in the Constitution was an initiative of the Abbott Liberal government, and the product of that is the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And really what we are doing is seeking to complete that process by putting that proposition to the Australian people. And all the Voice does is ask our First Nations people, consult with them around issues which particularly affect them, so that we can meaningfully close the gap of social disadvantage. And when you explain that to the Australian people, this is an uncontroversial simple proposition and I do feel optimistic about being able to see this referendum pass.
CLENNELL: All right, Peter Dutton's been into you about a lack of detail. Can you tell us how many people will sit on this advisory committee? Will they all be elected? How will they be elected?
MARLES: Well, we are taking a principle to the Australian people in terms of the Constitution and obviously you know that, Andrew. And so the specifics of all of that will not form part of the referendum, that will be a matter to be legislated in the Parliament, Peter Dutton will have a say in all of that. Now, Peter Dutton doesn't have a problem with the idea of a Voice, and the idea of a Voice is what's being put to the Australian people. We know he doesn't have a problem with the idea of a Voice because he said he would legislate one and he's talked about that. Nor does he have a problem with having a constitutional referendum around recognition, because, as he said on this program last week, if this referendum fails he'll put a second referendum. So, he doesn't have a problem about a referendum, doesn't have a problem about a Voice. We are seeking to put this at a principled level, I mean for those who are interested, the Calma-Langton Report has gone into great depths about what a model could look like. But the idea, and this is what people will be voting on, the idea that First Nations peoples should be consulted about issues which particularly affect them, so that we can change the way that we do business in terms of closing the gap of social disadvantage, is the idea that is going to be put to Australian people. And when I talk to people about that idea, there is an enormous amount of support. And as we get up to the referendum and we watch Australians start to engage with this and we have the opportunity to explain this in its simple terms, as I just have now, I feel a sense of confidence that this referendum can pass.
CLENNELL: Nearly out of time. I have to ask about this controversy over your VIP flights. Will you be releasing details of where you've spent the $3.6 million to the Senate?
MARLES: Well, we're keen, as we always have been, to release as much information as possible within the bounds of the national security advice that we've been given and will continue to be given. And indeed, the order for the production of documents coming out of the Senate acknowledges that fact as well. It asks for information consistent with what is the national security advice and we will provide that information. But look, Andrew, I come back to what I've said repeatedly. Everywhere I've gone, everything I've done has been in the pursuit of my duties on behalf of the Australian people. So, I very much stand by every flight I've made, be it on a Special Purpose Aircraft or commercially.
CLENNELL: So, will you release that information or will the advice give you cover not to release all that information?
MARLES: Well, the advice will be the advice. I don't give the national security advice. We will release as much information as we can within the bounds of the national security advice. And the issue there and the concern that the national security agencies have is about not revealing patterns of behavior which then create a target. And I think people can understand that. But within the bounds of that, I'm obviously keen to see as much information revealed because I've authorised the flights to the extent that you've just described, a whole lot of people fly on those planes, my direct contribution to that is a fraction of that number. You know, I want to see information in the public domain.
CLENNELL: But it's still $3.6 million, isn't it? And just very briefly–
MARLES: But a whole lot of people flew on those flights.
CLENNELL: Okay, I've got to wrap. What do you make of this criticism of you using the VIP to fly directly to Geelong, rather than flying commercially?
MARLES: My flights from Geelong, where I am today, to Canberra on a regular basis, I habitually do commercially and I can completely demonstrate that.
CLENNELL: Okay. Richard Marles, thank you so much for your time this morning.
MARLES: Thanks, Andrew.