Radio Interview, ABC Perth 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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10 October 2023

SUBJECT/S: Hamas-Israel conflict, Voice to Parliament referendum; Senate Inquiry into Bilateral Air Service Agreements; Cocos Islands airfield upgrade.

JO TRILLING, HOST: Minister, good afternoon.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon, Jo. How are you?

TRILLING: Well thank you. Firstly, your reaction to the latest events in Israel and Gaza?

MARLES: Well, this is a tragic act of terrorism which has seen the loss of, at this point, more than 900 innocent lives and Hamas needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms because these are acts of profound evil. In this moment, we very much stand in solidarity with the people of Israel.

TRILLING: Do you have any updated information about whether any Australians are caught up in this on the ground?

MARLES: Well, obviously we're working very closely with our Embassy in Israel to ascertain the safety of Australians. There's about 10,000 Australians who live in Israel, a number of them are dual nationals and there will be other Australians who are there as tourists. We don't have any reports at this point around any Australians being killed or hospitalised. We are reticent, as you would understand, to talk about individual cases, but we are very much monitoring the situation and trying ascertain the safety of Australians who are currently in Israel.

TRILLING: The Israeli Defense Minister has ordered the complete siege of Gaza, the cutting off of food, fuel and electricity. Do you think this is justified?

MARLES: Well, I think Israel is justified in acting to defend itself in this moment. I think it's justified in seeking to protect and liberate its citizens and to act against Hamas. I mean, this is an incident which is being wrought upon innocent civilians and it is an act of terrorism. And in this moment, that Israel is acting in a way which is seeking to defend itself, I think we can understand.

TRILLING: But does that right to defend itself extend to collective punishment? How far does that right go?

MARLES: Well, I'm not– we are not sitting in the chair of the Israeli Defense Minister now. And so the particular judgments as to how this is pursued is really a matter that Israel is executing as we speak. But we can't take our eye away from the fact that what we've seen here is an act of terrorism wrought upon innocent people, which, at this point, has seen the loss of more than 900 lives. This is a tragic incident and in that event, Israel does have a right to defend itself.

TRILLING: Yesterday, your Government said Israel hadn’t yet asked for military support. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says Australia should be more forthright in offering aid. Is Australia prepared to get involved militarily?

MARLES: Well, there's no talk of that at all and Israel has not sought that from us. So that is just not something which is being talked about, or being worked through. I mean, our focus is very much in terms of standing in solidarity with the people of Israel. We're obviously very focused as well on the wellbeing of Australians who are in Israel. And from as early as Saturday, I was keen to understand that Australian personnel who are in the region are safe, and they are. But there’s no talk of Australia participating in that way.

TRILLING: Dutton is also calling for a national security meeting to discuss domestic threat levels. Is that necessary in your view? Is there a threat here?

MARLES: From the moment this incident occurred, from Saturday afternoon, the Government has been constantly briefed and advised by our security agencies to look at how we can make sure that firstly, we're acting in a way which does seek to assure the safety of those Australians who are in the Middle East, but to look at the situation in terms of its general application, and we're managing all of that and making the decisions that we need to make in that context. And that includes ensuring domestic security here.

TRILLING: I’m speaking to Richard Marles, the Defence Minister. We’ve only got days to go until the Voice, Minister. Now, ABC data journalist Casey Briggs has looked at polls across the country, he says No is leading by 57%, and if it is going to fail anywhere, it will be Queensland and here in WA. How concerned are you about Saturday’s poll?

MARLES: The first observation I’d make is that there have been a lot of polls, and they have been quite different in their outcomes. But what matters is the way in which people actually vote in the referendum, in pre-polls and on Saturday, and we’re focused on that. And there's obviously a lot of people who are still making up their minds and so we will be campaigning right through until six o'clock Saturday night. And the only thing I can really say is all the engagements that I’ve done here in Western Australia – from Perth to the Pilbara, around the country as well – when the message is put about recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution in a way they have sought, in a practical way, through having a Voice to Parliament, a consultative mechanism, where we listen to Indigenous Australians on the issues that particularly affect them, so that we can really make a difference with those programs that will help close the gap. I think the response from Australians is positive to that. I haven't met anyone who thinks it's okay that a group of our fellow citizens, by virtue of their birth, are living shorter and less healthy lives. I think Australians see that as something which is fundamentally unfair. We really believe that this can make a difference by establishing a Voice to Parliament. So we will keep giving that message to Australians between now and the end of Saturday and I remain hopeful about a positive outcome.

TRILLING: Yesterday, or recently, I think you said you were optimistic on the prospect of the Voice. Still optimistic, or now hopeful?

MARLES: No, there’s no difference– I don’t mean to ascribe any difference in each of those words. I'm optimistic and I’m hopeful. I mean, it comes back to what I've said. When we explain what this is about to Australians, the reception I've been receiving has been very positive and that's very much the feedback we get from those who have been campaigning in support of this referendum. And so, I do remain hopeful and I am optimistic about a positive result on Saturday.

TRILLING: Polls are showing a clear majority for the No campaign. If it is a No on Saturday, what happens next?

MARLES: Well, our focus is on Saturday and every ounce of attention and energy that I’m going to be using between now and the end of Saturday is going to be focused on seeing a Yes result on Saturday. I mean, we will deal with the future as we find it. Right now, this is about trying to achieve a positive outcome in this referendum, because we really believe that it can make a difference in closing the gap.

TRILLING: Minister, I want to move onto the Coalition-led airline inquiry, which has accused your Government of being too close to Qantas. Federal Opposition transport spokeswoman Bridget McKenzie told ABC Perth earlier today that the Government blocked Qatar Airways from introducing extra flights to protect Qantas’ market share.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE (EXCERPT): We have a highly muscular and aggressive airline in Qantas, who protects its market share against all the odds. There’s also concern that the Minister was of a mind to approve the additional flights. In January, she let aviation insiders know that. And then only six months later, to reject the additional flights. And when you ask the question why, it seems there was influence by former CEO Alan Joyce, if not on the Minister herself, definitely on the Prime Minister.

TRILLING: Will your Government review the decision to block Qatar from putting on extra flights?

MARLES: Well, firstly, this is an inquiry which was always a political stunt, that has been led by an opposition which is not serious on this issue and they weren't serious when they were the government. I mean, none of the reforms that are being suggested by the Opposition now, did they introduce when they were in government. And the kinds of assertions which have been made here are patently ridiculous. I mean, we want to see greater access into the Australian market, to give rise to greater competition in the Australian market–

TRILLING: So will you review the decision then? Because Qatar wants to do that.

MARLES: Well, what we are focused on is seeing greater competition within the domestic market. That's why we are doing a white paper in relation to aviation which will look specifically at all the issues here, but will look at how we can have a more competitive aviation market. And we've put on greater access. When you look at airlines such as Cathay, such as China Southern, there is greater access that's being provided. And the fundamental issue with Qatar, Qatar have unused access right now. So we want to see greater access into the Australian market, we want to see greater competition, but frankly, what we are seeing from the Opposition is politics writ large in an attempt to gain advantage for themselves. It’s not about the Australian consumer.

TRILLING: Just finally, before I let you go, Defence plans to spend more than half-a-billion dollars to upgrade the airstrip on WA’s Cocos Islands, to enable it to take military spy planes. Last year Cocos was declared part of one of the largest marine sanctuary areas in the world. Construction of the runway is slated for 2024 but, so far, there’s been no environmental impact work done. Will that happen?

MARLES: Well, in all the work that Defence does, we obviously take serious account of environmental questions in relation to the works that we do. It is right that our northern bases are very much, and enhancing our northern bases, is very much a focus of the recommendations that were made in the Defence Strategic Review and a part of the priorities in the Government's response to the Defence Strategic Review, and Cocos forms part of that. Cocos is a really critical national security Defence asset for the country. But environmental issues will always be a critical part in the way in which Defence improves its estate.

TRILLING: So, environmental impact work will be completed?

MARLES: Well, as I say, the environment and making sure that all of those issues are taken into account form part of the way in which we go about the improvement of the Defence estate, and that includes the Cocos.

TRILLING: Yeah, the endangered turtles, you can see them starving, dying not far from the end of that runway. So what will Defence do to further mitigate the death of this turtle population?

MARLES: Well, we’ll work through the environmental issues in terms of the works that we do at Cocos, as we would work through environmental issues wherever Defence is improving its estate and we’re always very mindful of those issues.

TRILLING: Minister, thank you for your time.

MARLES: Thanks, Jo.


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