Television interview, Sky News Afternoon Agenda

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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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23 October 2023

SUBJECTS: Israel-Hamas conflict; Prime Minister’s visit to the US; Port of Darwin

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: First, though, let me go live to the RAAF base in Amberley, Queensland. Joining me is the Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles. Mr Marles, thank you for your time, as always. Can we turn your attention to the Middle East? Have you got an update for us on the status of the more than 70 Australians that are in the Gaza Strip right now?

RICHARD MARLES, ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, good afternoon, Kieran. Look, I don't have much more information that is in the public domain. There are 77 Australians, permanent residents and their immediate family, who we are in contact with and who we are doing everything we can to try and assist them to safety. Obviously, we are encouraging them to move to the south of Gaza in accordance with the warnings that have been issued by Israel. We're also working with the international community to try and establish that humanitarian corridor which would enable people to leave Gaza. But at this point, that's not in place. Although, as you've seen in the media, we've now seen two humanitarian convoys go through the Rafah crossing from Egypt. I mean, they're in obviously, a really difficult situation and we will be doing everything we can to try and shepherd those people to safety.

GILBERT: The prospect of a broader regional war is a real one. I want to just read to you this comment from Iran's Foreign Minister. He says; ‘I warn the US and its proxy, Israel, that if they do not immediately stop the crime against humanity and genocide in Gaza, anything is possible at any moment and the region will go out of control.’ Iran is talking up a big game. How worried are you about a regional- a region wide conflict here?

MARLES: Well, obviously, it's a volatile situation and those comments reflect that. That would be a very adverse step for Iran to take to involve itself. Clearly, we, along with the rest of the international community, are urging others not to become involved in this. We need to be doing everything we can to stop an escalation of this beyond the immediacy of Gaza. But we watch this with the same bated breath as everyone in the international community is. It's clearly a volatile situation.

GILBERT: Mr Albanese is in Washington. He's got the first face-to-face talks with President Biden after the President's visit to Israel. There is a lot on his plate there in Washington. One of the things is to get those AUKUS pieces of legislation through the Congress. Have you got any sense of hope, as the PM has just touched down in Washington that Congress will play ball?

MARLES: Oh, yeah. I mean, we've been working closely with congressional leaders. Ambassador Kevin Rudd has been doing an amazing job in that. Obviously, we are in touch with the Administration constantly. I met with Ambassador Kennedy last week. I was speaking with Secretary Austin in the last few weeks. And we understand that legislatures, we are legislators ourselves, come with a lot of heat and light and there's always a lot of heat and light around the Congress and we're seeing that particularly now, given the situation with the speakership. But ultimately what we take comfort from is that Australia as an ally and the AUKUS arrangements in particular, enjoy bipartisan support across the spectrum of American politics. And we are being constantly reassured from everyone across the spectrum of American politics of that. And with that in mind, we do have a sense of confidence that when the time ultimately comes we will see the passage of the legislation which is required to enable this to move forward. I think this is part of the inevitable process of moving legislation through the Congress, but we'll just keep focused on working with the congressional leadership, working with the administration and as I say, we take heart from the enormous support that there is across American politics for Australia.

GILBERT: So, you're confident that that deal will get done? What's your view when it comes to representations being made on behalf of Julian Assange? The Prime Minister said enough is enough. Are you expecting progress to be made with President Biden?

MARLES: Well, look, I'm not about to pre-empt what the Prime Minister may or m ay not say to President Biden on a range of issues. But as you've indicated, we have consistently been advocating now since coming to government that in the case of Mr. Assange that this has been going on for a very long period of time, that we really are at a point where it does need to be brought to resolution. And that is the way in which we've been advocating both to the United Kingdom and the United States.

GILBERT: On the broader visit to Washington right now, it comes just a week or two ahead of Mr. Albanese's visit to Beijing. Would the White House be comfortable with Australia's normalising of relations with China?

MARLES: Of course. And we talk to the United States about what we are doing with our relationship with China, as in fact we do with all our friends and partners around the world. Because part of doing diplomacy in a sober, in a professional way is to be transparent about what our intent is and what we are trying to achieve. And I think countries understand that China is our largest trading partner, that we do have a lot of equities in place with China. And when we say that we value a productive relationship with China, we do. And that makes sense. And in fact, I think America would say similar things about their own relationship with China. And so it is completely understood why we would be taking the steps that we are. And we are very open with all our friends and allies about the pathway that we are taking with China. Now, in saying that, and we make this point as well to China, we retain a whole lot of anxiety about various issues of security when it comes to China and it's part of the complexity of the relationship that we have with China. But that's all the more reason to be making sure that we engage in excellent diplomacy and that's what we're seeking.

GILBERT: On a separate but I guess a related matter; the report on the Port of Darwin was released by the government late last week, suggesting safety would not be compromised by the ongoing lease with a Chinese owned company of the Port. But don't, as Defence Minister and as well as Deputy PM, don't we need that facility as part of that planned expansion of our military presence in the top end?

MARLES: Well, we obviously have other facilities in Darwin- at Larrakeyah, where we do have defence assets there. But I think more broadly, in relation to the Port of Darwin, we made clear when we were in Opposition, this is not a decision that we would have taken if we had have been in government at the time. But you inherit government as you find it. That's why we sought to seek a review about the ownership of the Port of Darwin, to look at what is the best way forward now given what had happened in the past. And what's come back, is that with safeguards, we can maintain the current ownership arrangements in a way which doesn't compromise our security. So, we accept that. We will obviously continue to monitor that. But I mean, you are right that the broader improvements in our northern bases, including around Darwin, Larrakeyah, but also in northern West Australia and northern Queensland, are very central to our future force posture.

GILBERT: In terms of the corporate and leasing arrangement, though, is it fair to say the government will and is keeping a close eye on how that is carried out to ensure Australia's security and our position there in the north is not compromised?

MARLES: 100 per cent. And that's very much part of the way forward here, is to continually monitor that and continually to monitor that from the point of view of our national security. And we believe that we can do this. And that's a critical part of the report which has been released. As I say, this is not a step that we would have taken had we been in government at the time, but it is what we inherited and we believe that with constant monitoring, with a total focus about our national security, we can manage the situation as we now find it.

GILBERT: Finally, your Shadow Defence Minister, the opposite number Andrew Hastie said that the Prime Minister is not in control of the message out of Cabinet, that it's divided when it comes to the Middle East. There are too many messages coming out of the Cabinet in terms of the response to the crisis and war in the Middle East. Is that a fair critique?

MARLES: I don't think that's a fair critique at all. And actually, I think it's really important at this moment that we understand that this is not about domestic politics and we really should be raising this above domestic politics. This is about an unfolding tragedy in the Middle East. I mean, we've made very, very clear from the moment that Hamas initiated its attacks against innocent Israeli citizens that this was an act of terror. It was an act of terror not against combatants, but it was an act of terror against innocent people. And that means it was murder, that Israel has an absolute right to defend itself in those circumstances, and that means moving against Hamas. Obviously, in doing that, we have joined the international call that the rules of war be adhered to. Now, we have been very clear about all of that from the get go. And it seems to me that actually, when you strip it away, is the position of all the major parties in Australia. We should just take that and be doing everything we can to supporting Israel in this situation, but also in speaking up on behalf of innocent civilians, be they Israelis or Palestinians.

GILBERT: Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles. Appreciate your time.

MARLES: Thanks, Kieran.


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