Television interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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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11 October 2023

SUBJECTS: Cheng Lei; Hamas-Israel conflict; Voice to Parliament; Constitution.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Okay, well, we're going to bring in, because the program has gone in directions we didn't entirely anticipate, Matt Thistlethwaite to join us, Assistant Defence Minister and amongst other things, also Assistant Minister for the Republic. We were going to have Dai Le. But Matt, I think we'll proceed with a conversation with you because we've had this unfolding news, Cheng Lei, I guess you were probably as surprised as anyone to hear the Prime Minister make that announcement?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Certainly were, Greg, pleasantly surprised. This is a wonderful announcement that the Prime Minister has recently made. And as we heard, the Foreign Minister Penny Wong is on the tarmac at Melbourne with Cheng Lei's children about to greet her safely home to Australia. A joyous day for Cheng Lei and her family. But I think it also importantly highlights, Greg, the fact that the Albanese Labor Government has been deeply engaged in reestablishing relations with China. And we've seen over recent months the re-establishment of that relationship and the benefits that flow from that in terms of the lifting of restrictions on Australian exports. But this brings to an end a very difficult chapter for Cheng Lei and her family and welcome her back to Australia and no doubt she will be with her family and friends tonight.

JENNETT: And what is the conclusion that we should draw about normalisation of relations with China? Does this complete or almost complete that process now?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think the important conclusion is the importance of ongoing dialogue, that China is our largest trading partner, it's a very big nation within our Indo Pacific region and an important neighbour. And the government's been, had, a concerted effort to ensure that when we were elected, that we re-established relations as quickly as possible and that we get the relationship back onto a normal, even keel once again. And that's in the process of happening, it will be further assisted, I believe, by the Prime Minister's visit later in the year. But I do agree with Sussan Ley that there are still others that are still detained in China. And whilst we celebrate Cheng Lei, there is more work to do. I also want to pay tribute to and thank the Australian consular officials, people that work behind the scenes, Greg, and do a wonderful job to ensure that all Australians that travel overseas are safe as possible. And they've done a fantastic job in this case.

JENNETT: I'm sure there's a fascinating story to be told about exactly what went on with all of those officials working around the clock, I'm sure. Great day and great piece of news to reach us there. Matt Thistlethwaite, we also discover via the Prime Minister that there will be these evacuation flights out of the Middle East. I'm pretty sure he indicated there, didn't he, that this will be on commercial aircraft. Does that mean there will be no Defence involvement? Or are there further layers of contingency planning around this that May involve Defence?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: As background, Australia stands with Israel at this difficult time and there's been several conversations that have gone on between Australian officials and the Israeli Government. The Foreign Minister has spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, our Defence Minister has spoken with their Defence Minister and they've made offers of support. At this stage, the Israeli is comfortable with the position that Australia is in terms of support and the Government has negotiated with Qantas for them to undertake some repatriation flights and they will take place this Friday. There'll be no cost to those individuals that are on those flights and they'll be brought back to Australia safely and we'll continue to monitor the situation and offer any assistance that we need to ensure that Australians that want to come home return as safely as possible, as quickly as possible.

JENNETT: Okay, thanks for filling out some of that granular detail. I guess we'll wait and see on the response how many more flights might need to be scheduled. We'll keep an eye on that. Matt Thistlethwaite, this is probably our last conversation before the Voice, and our audience would be very familiar by now with the position that you're adopting. You've been campaigning very strongly on it, as the Assistant Minister for the Republic, so much hinges on that cause, dependent on what happens this weekend. Does Labor maintain its ongoing commitment to, quote, unquote, modernise the constitution come what may? And I think that includes the creation of a constitutional commission. Will that happen notwithstanding the result on Saturday night?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, firstly, Greg, obviously Australians are now voting and will know on Saturday night what the response of the Australian people is to this very reasonable request. It's an idea that comes from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It's their request to Australia to have them recognised in our constitution and establish a Voice so that we can listen to Aboriginal Australians and get better results. We think it's a reasonable proposal and obviously we're campaigning as hard as we can to encourage the Australian people to vote yes. Despite whatever happens on Saturday, it’s part of Labor's platform to modernise the constitution. We realise that the founders of the constitution intended it to be a document that evolved and matured and grew as Australia grew, and that's why they put Section 128 into the constitution, making it, albeit as it is, tough as possible, to change it. Regardless of what happens, we will continue to promote the idea and the ideal of modernising the constitution, but importantly, doing that in consultation with the Australian people. So, no doubt a fair bit of analysis of what happens after and we'll look to further reform into the future, but we'll do that in consultation with the Australian people and that's the important thing about reforming the constitution.

JENNETT: All right, well, I'll tell you what, Matt Thistlethwaite, we're going to book you in for a follow up conversation along these lines sometime into next week. You're a very generous contributor to this program, so we'll get you back and explore whatever twists and turns lay ahead after Saturday night's result comes through. Sorry we couldn't team you up with other members on the panel, but we lost nothing for having you flying solo with us today. Matt Thistlethwaite, thanks so much for joining us.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks, Greg. I look forward to chatting next week.


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