Radio Interview, ABC Far North Drive

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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 September 2023

SUBJECTS: MRH-90 incident; Disaster response; Northern infrastructure.

ADAM STEPHEN, HOST: Well, it's been two months since the MRH-90 Taipan helicopter crash off the Whitsunday coast. Captain Danniel Lyon, Lieutenant Maxwell Nugent, Warrant Officer Class 2 Joseph Laycock, and Corporal Alexander Naggs were all killed on the 28th of July. Investigations into the accident are ongoing. I caught up with the Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, to find out about these investigations, where we're at with them, and if Australia's dependency on the ADF during natural disasters was impacting our personnel's war fighting ability. So, this is my conversation today with the Australian Defence Minister, Richard Marles.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Recovery continues and there are now investigations underway. There end up being a series of investigations when a tragedy of this kind occurs. So, the Queensland Coroner will be conducting an investigation, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force does a version of that for the Defence Force in a separate investigation, the Flight Safety Bureau of the Defence Force does an investigation as well, and Comcare given that this is a death in the course of employment in the Commonwealth. So there are four investigations which will take place and they are going to take some time. Already, the Flight Safety Bureau has forecast it'll take the better part of a year for them to complete their work, which essentially looks at the air platform, why it crashed and why it crashed in a way which was not survivable.

So, there's a lot of water now which goes under the bridge, but we need to do this in a really thorough away so that we can understand exactly what's occurred here. And, obviously, while that's all underway we've made clear that the Taipan fleet of the Army won't fly until we understand exactly what's happened and we're in a position to remedy any causes that are brought forward through the investigation. We simply have to be able to retrieve all the wreckage that we can so that we can do these investigations in the way I've described in a completely thorough away, and get an understanding of exactly what occurred here. Until we do all of that, obviously we're not in a position to fly these aircraft again and that is going to take some time to complete that work.

STEPHEN: Deputy Prime Minister we also know we're in the midst of another bushfire season in Australia and in Queensland. And we know in recent times, including in the Townsville floods of 2019, we had the ADF deployed to help in the cleanup. And we've seen that ADF play a role in a lot of natural disasters, both as they're occurring and after the event. But it seems as though there are some that are concerned, including one of your own federal Labor colleagues, who are concerned that it could be impacting our personnel's war fighting ability, the reliance that we have on them to help in disasters. Do you share that concern?

MARLES: Well, it was an issue that came up in the Defence Strategic Review and it is absolutely right to observe that really, effectively the changing climate and the greater frequency of significant weather events, be it cyclones, floods, fire, are all creating a much bigger demand on the Defence Force. And to be clear, whenever there is an emergency in Australia and the Defence Force has a unique capability which can be applied to that emergency, the Defence Force will always be there, of course. Historically, the idea is that Defence Force is the last call that is made in the midst of a national emergency. That call is being made more frequently, and so we do need to think about the load that is being placed on the Defence Force because its primary job is actually to provide for the defence of the nation. So this has been a big topic of conversation and we are really working with our emergency agencies around the country to think about ways in which this can be organised going forward in a more sustainable way. And that's not to take the Defence Force out of it – the Defence Force is always going to be there when there is a capability that's going to make a difference. But I think we do need to be thinking about ways in which we can make sure that in providing this service, it doesn't detract from what is the Defence Force's first job, and that is to provide for the defence of the country.

STEPHEN: You hear people speak very fondly of their interactions with the Defence Force following, say, Cyclone Larry or even the towns were floods. I can remember speaking to flood victims that know they're at their absolute lowest ebb. And then some members of the Army turned up to help clean out their house and restored their faith in humanity. So, I guess it can't be undervalued the impact that the Defence Force has on the community. But is it just about getting the balance right, that they're not being overloaded and diverted away from other important matters because of playing this role?

MARLES: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I mean, I think you put it very well, actually. It is about getting the balance right. There will always be a place and that's understood. And it's understood in terms of the role of the Defence Force. People who come into the Defence Force, those who plan for the Defence Force, do so with the idea that this function will be part of what the Defence Force does. But the ADF is there to defend the nation. But I think that observation is also right about the comfort that the uniform provides to people. In people's moments of greatest distress when they see a person turning up wearing our nation's uniform, it does provide a sense of comfort, relief, confidence, and it helps get people through. And I think you're exactly right, we just can't overstate the significance of that in those most difficult moments. And again, that's always going to be there. But we do need to get the balance right.

STEPHEN: You do hear people say ‘where's the Army?’ when there is a disaster, you'll hear people say, ‘where's the Army? Why aren't they being called upon?’ You detailed that it's often the last call that is made, really, to get the Defence Force involved. Why is that?

MARLES: I mean, the way in which we've thought about disaster response as a country for decades, where we've got state emergency services, fire brigades and the like, which are designed to be there for those natural disasters, for those emergencies that's actually, if you like, their day job, that should be the first port of call. But where there is a particular emergency and the ADF has something to offer and we really are in that last moment, then there is a place to make the call to the ADF. But it's easy for one to think through the idea that if we are ringing the ADF first, then as we see more natural disasters occur, well, we are in danger of changing the role of the ADF, and that would, in that event, detract from the very important and unique role that the ADF provides and that is for the defence of our country.

STEPHEN: Hearing here from Defence Minister Richard Marles, our guest on Drive this afternoon across regional Queensland. The government is looking at ways to try and strengthen the north, what are some of your key focus areas right now?

MARLES: Coming out of the Defence Strategic Review, we saw a real focus on the north of our country as being the platform from which we can project our Defence Force, is perhaps the way to think about it. And so Townsville, along with Darwin, is one of the two great garrison cities of our country. There's a very significant defence presence in Townsville, but there is also in Cairns as well at HMAS Cairns. What comes out of the Defence Strategic Review is a real focus on these places and the importance of making sure that we've got all the infrastructure right and that we've got the posture right. In other words, we've got the people and the equipment in these places. And so I think we will see an increasing focus on the defence presence in Townsville specifically, but also Cairns going forward, and, I should say Darwin, Weipa and the north of Western Australia as well. But it becomes a real focus of our outlook, our orientation if you like, coming out of the Defence Strategic Review.


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