Radio Interview, The Ben Fordham Breakfast Show

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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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17 October 2023

SUBJECTS: Hamas-Israel conflict; Voice to Parliament; Heston Russell defamation case.

BEN FORDHAM, HOST: Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence and he's on the line this morning. Thank you so much for joining us.


FORDHAM: Good. Can you give us an update, first of all, on repatriation flights? You've got some new details for us?

MARLES: Yes, so there were a couple of other flights that have taken place overnight our time, from Ben Gurion, which is the Tel Aviv airport, to Dubai. I haven't got confirmation yet, but I think they've both landed in Dubai. 194 people are aboard them, including 98 – or 96, I think – people from the Pacific Islands. So, it's about just under 100 Australians. Obviously we're helping other friends in terms of leaving Israel. What that means is that in total about 600 Australians have left by assisted flights that we've put on, and probably another in total, 700, just up to 700 people, we've assisted out of there in flights –

FORDHAM: Is that it now, as far as the rescue flights? Because it's getting close to the time when this ground operation is about to begin.

MARLES: Yeah. So, we don't have any more flights planned, and I should say there have been empty seats on a number of these flights over last night and the night before. It was slightly better last night in terms of the people taking up the offer of using the flights, but we don't have any more planned. We will be keeping Defence assets, RAAF planes, in the region depending on how this obviously all develops. So, there is a presence that we're going to maintain for a contingency, but there aren't any more planned flights at this stage.

FORDHAM: This is the Defence Minister, Richard Marles, joining us. Minister, have you seen this video of the terror group holding babies as bargaining chips?

MARLES: I saw a clip of it on TV. To be honest, as you speak, Ben, I'm struggling to watch the stuff which we're seeing on TV and on our devices. The whole situation is just so appalling. The acts that Hamas have engaged in over the last ten days are of the most profound evil and their actions have seen, I think, north of 1,400 innocent Israelis lose their lives. As you said, we now know that 199 Israelis in the unspeakable position of being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, it's hard to imagine a worse fate than that. And as you alluded to, where this all now goes is I think we'll see innocent Palestinians lose their lives –well, we have seen innocent Palestinians lose their lives – in the course of this as well. And Hamas stands in absolute condemnation. We condemn them in the strongest possible terms. And clearly Israel has a right to defend itself. That means they have a right to move against Hamas and they obviously have a right to protect and to liberate their citizens.

FORDHAM: Both sides of the chamber condemned the horrific terror attack yesterday, but the Greens pulled a stunt. The leader, Adam Bandt, moved an amendment to accuse Israel of war crimes. Were you disturbed by that move yesterday?

MARLES: Well, we obviously voted against that, and yes I think it really couldn't miss this moment more. I mean, what we are seeing is a country in Israel which does have a right to defend itself. In light of what occurred the weekend before last. We should also say there are 10,000 Australians who call Israel home and live in Israel. There are a lot of them who are dual citizens. What that means is that there's a whole lot of people in the Australian Jewish community here in Sydney, Melbourne, elsewhere in the country who have friends and relatives and I've met a number of them who are really hurting at this moment. I mean, this is an issue which is reverberating around the world, clearly, but it's reverberating into Australia as well. And really the position that the Greens took yesterday was completely despicable.

FORDHAM: I want to talk to you about the Voice referendum and what happened over the weekend. I know there's a lot to unpack, I don't want to go through the whole thing with you chapter and verse, but has the Labor Party now given up on the idea of recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution?

MARLES: We won't be moving forward with constitutional reform now. I mean, that's what the Australian people voted for on the weekend. Obviously, it's not what I'd hoped for, I voted yes on the weekend. But the Australian people always get it right and they've made clear their desire not to move down the path of constitutional reform. We completely respect that –

FORDHAM: But they weren't voting specifically against recognition in the Constitution. They were wedged because it was a two pronged question.

MARLES: I think it's pretty clear that Australians were not voting for constitutional reform. Our focus now, it's not about having referendums on the Constitution anymore. What is clear to me is that Australians were not voting against reconciliation, we need to be doing more there. And I think, actually I take a positive out of this, which is that I think there is a renewed call to action in relation to closing the gap. If you look at the arguments from both yes and no, I think everyone was saying that the idea that a group of our fellow citizens, by virtue of their birth, living shorter and less healthy lives, is fundamentally unfair and we need to be doing more to address that. So, I hope that really what comes from this now is a greater call to action to do more in relation to closing the gap.

FORDHAM: What a travesty, though, that we've missed out on this chance to recognise Indigenous people in the Constitution because of the approach taken by your boss.

MARLES: Well, obviously I don't accept that Ben. It was the Abbott Government, which I think rightly said that when we're looking at recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, we should ask them how they want to be recognised. Now, that was the right question to ask by the Abbott Government at that time, and it led to a really long process. Hundreds of meetings, thousands of people, which ended up with the meeting at Uluru and the Uluru declaration. When that comes back and says that what Indigenous Australians want in terms of recognition is in a practical way, of having a voice to Parliament. So, we listened and that was the intent. What we've done is simply heed that call. In a way, what we were doing was finishing the process that had been begun at that point and in some respects earlier by the Howard Government who first moved down the path of recognition.

FORDHAM: We'll agree to disagree on that one because at the end of the day, we know that these things don't get up without bipartisan support and the Prime Minister pushed ahead anyway.

Can I ask you, as Defence Minister, about the Federal court awarding $390,000 in damages to a war veteran, Heston Russell. He sued the ABC over a series of stories that wrongly accused him of a war crime. The Federal Court says he was defamed. What do you take out of this?

MARLES: Well, obviously I'm limited in what I can say and given this has been before the courts, but clearly there is a decision now of the courts and that needs to be applied. And no doubt Heston Russell, this is a significant moment for him. There is a broader context, I don't mean in relation to Heston Russell –

FORDHAM: Is there a lesson to be learned by the ABC and other media outlets in making allegations of war crimes without evidence?

MARLES: Well, I think there's always a lesson in these matters that when any media outlet is reporting anything, it needs to be done with diligence and in accordance with the facts and the truth. And that's at the heart of defamation law, and that's the case that Heston Russell's just won.

FORDHAM: We appreciate your time, and we think of everyone in the Middle East at the moment. Thank you for jumping on the line.

MARLES: Thanks, Ben.



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