Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

Release details

Release type

Related ministers and contacts

The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

Media contact

Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

Release content

30 October 2023

SUBJECTS: Hamas-Israel conflict; Australia-European Union FTA; AUKUS / submarines; HMAS Stirling.

MATTHEW DORAN, HOST: Time now for our political panel. And we're joined today by Labor frontbencher, the Assistant Defence Minister, Matt Thistlethwaite. He's in Townsville today. And Liberal frontbencher, the Shadow Environment Minister Jonathon Duniam, who joins us from our Hobart studio. Gentlemen, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. Matt Thistlethwaite, I want to start with you on this issue of the UN resolution and the criticism that's been levelled at the Government by Peter Dutton. Why was it decided that Australia wouldn't vote in favour of this motion? Can you explain that to our audience?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, it's simply that the Australian Government followed the process that was undertaken in the Parliament, and we followed the resolution that was passed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, moved by him, seconded by the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament. And that resolution clearly said that it condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel, it called for the immediate release of hostages and it defended Israel's right to defend itself, as well as pointing to humanitarian law and ensuring that the humanitarian law is upheld. That's the reason why the motion that was put at the UN moved by Jordan didn't reflect what the Australian Government's position was, and that was enunciated in the motion moved in the Parliament. So, in many respects, we just followed proper process and followed the views of the Australian people as enunciated by the motion in the Parliament.

DORAN: Well, Jonathon Duniam, there's the explanation from a frontbencher within the government. What's your response to that?

JONATHON DUNIAM, SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Well, to suggest that Australia's position is clear on this serious and sensitive issue by abstaining from a vote is, I think, farcical. The reality is, yes, there was a resolution in our Parliament, a clear and bipartisan resolution in our Parliament to condemn Hamas. Now, yes, the resolution in the UN did not reflect exactly those words, but to take the weak position that has been taken and then to describe criticism of that position as playing politics, I don't think he's right. You only have to look to the statement by the six Prime Ministers and the Zionist Federation and the Jewish community across our country to know that the position the Australian Government has taken is the wrong one.

DORAN: Jonathon Duniam, isn't that just picking up on the sensitivities that are at play here from Australia's Jewish community and the Israeli side of this conflict? The Prime Minister has come out and condemned the attacks by Hamas. The Foreign Minister has done the same. They've said that they stand with both the Jewish and Palestinian communities. How is that not clear? Or how is that weak of the Government to have laid all that out on the table and then have this situation where at the UN there is something which the Government is sort of describing as a technicality at play?

DUNIAM: Well, I think that the abstention is not something I think that at the UN says much at all, particularly in a crisis of the nature we're seeing in the Middle East. And I would have thought that it would have been better for Australia to vote against the motion if they had objections to it and then worked with other nation states to propose a motion that actually reflected what we believed. That's something they could have done, they chose not to, and instead abstained. I don't think that is strength at all.

DORAN: Matt Thistlethwaite, is it a bit embarrassing to have a seat at this forum in the United Nations and then not really actually join in and put your voice to this cause?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the motion calls for humanitarian aid and support for civilians and innocent people who are trapped in Gaza. And that's something that is consistent with the position that was taken by the Australian Government and the Parliament. So, we don't deny that. And to vote against that doesn't reflect what was passed in the Parliament. And it also makes it a lot harder when the Australian Government is trying to work in the context of getting the 88 Australians that are still trapped in Gaza that do want to leave. It makes it harder if you're going to the UN and voting against the resolution that actually supports something like that. And that's why the Foreign Minister has been consistent with the motion that was passed by the Parliament, the approach that was taken in the UN and in calling for a humanitarian pause to the Israeli military action to allow essential food, water, sanitation, fuel supplies into Gaza. But importantly as well, to allow Australians and other internationals who wish to leave that area, the innocent civilians, to be able to get out as quickly as possible. And that's the responsible thing to do to uphold that approach through the UN. And that's what we did.

DORAN: May not be bipartisanship on this issue, but it does seem another issue that's doing the rounds today, where there is some agreement between the Government and the Opposition is that of the EU Free Trade Agreement. Jonathon Duniam, is it welcome to see Australia sticking to its guns here at the negotiating table with what seems to be a particularly tricky set of negotiations?

DUNIAM: Well, yeah, definitely a protracted and tricky set of negotiations, and I think it is the right call to walk away from a dud deal. I would have been absolutely gobsmacked if the Government had have signed up to a range of measures that would have penalised or disadvantaged any sector in our economy, including and especially our farmers. But I suppose while it's good that we did stick to our guns, it's disappointing we don't have a deal and I suppose the job now is for the Government to make sure that we do get a good deal after the European elections have been held. The onus is on them to do it and that's what Australian farmers, amongst other sectors, are asking for.

DORAN: Matt Thistlethwaite, are we going to get to a situation where if the EU is not prepared to back down at all, and neither is the Australian Government, that this may end up just having to be put on the back burner forever?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It may be the case we shouldn't simply sign a free trade agreement with any nation or group simply for the sake of signing a free trade agreement. We have to defend Australian values and importantly, producers and employees in the Australian economy. And the view of the government is that what the European Union is asking goes too far, particularly when it comes to the naming of products that are well known on the Australian market and the Australian consumers use on a daily basis and of course, ensuring that we're getting better access and benefits for Australian farmers and the agricultural sector. And that hasn't been the result of those negotiations to date. So, we remain committed to trying to get an agreement, but we won't just sign an agreement for the sake of signing an agreement.

DORAN: Matt, thanks for that. I am curious, it seems like it's been long known that the EU's agricultural framework is very complicated, the sort of subsidies are given to farmers, the rules that are imposed. Was this always just going to be too difficult, do you think?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, you enter into free trade negotiations in goodwill, and you hope that that goodwill can break down some of those barriers and you can eventually reach a compromise. There's always give and take on free trade agreements. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to get to that on this one yet. And I think full credit to Don Farrell, the easy thing to do would have been to say, yes, we'll chalk up another free trade agreement, but no, he's stuck to his guns. Importantly, he's consulted with the agricultural sector and asked their views and we've basically been their representatives speaking up for what we believe is the right thing to do by Australian industry and the Australian economy.

DORAN: Jonathon Duniam, I know that you said that the onus is now on the Government to try to find some sort of resolution here, some sort of deal that is palatable. But again, do you also think that this could be a situation where there is never going to be a palatable solution for Australia here?

DUNIAM: Well, there are obviously red line issues for us as a Government and we should never compromise on anything that is of importance to any sector in our economy, be that agriculture and farming or any other sector. So, the right call on that front, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't push hard and try and get our way. As my colleague has said, these are negotiations. You give some, you take some, and there'll be things we can offer that they need from us. And in return, we should be demanding the things that we feel we deserve, particularly on behalf of farmers.

DORAN: I want to take you to one last topic before we let the two of you go. And it's quite fitting that we have the Assistant Defence Minister on a day where a former Minister, albeit of a different political persuasion to you, Matt Thistlethwaite, has weighed into the submarine discussion. What do you make of Alexander Downer's comments about this being a fairy tale and an example of pork barrelling in the great state of South Australia?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, it's bizarre coming from a South Australian. Quite simply, I would have thought Alexander Downer would be standing up for South Australian industry. This is a great opportunity to grow the industrial base, particularly in South Australia, but more broadly throughout Australia, and the Government is getting on with the job. And you saw last week the Prime Minister in the United States starting to clear the way for some of the changes to legislation that are required in the US to allow that technology transfer on this important technology coming to Australia. But the most important thing is the jobs that will be created. 20,000 jobs over the course of the next decade will be created around AUKUS, pillar one and pillar two, and that will revolutionise our industrial base, the training opportunities. We're setting up a training college in Adelaide in South Australia, to train the next generation of engineers, scientists, technicians that will deliver this capability into the future. And I would have thought that a former Defence Minister and a proud South Australian would be standing up for South Australian industry and their abilities to deliver that into the future.

DORAN: Jonathon Duniam, is he out of touch with the modern Liberal Party, the current Liberal Party?

DUNIAM: Well, look, former Ministers and diplomats and South Australians no less, are entitled to their opinions. Certainly, in terms of the Coalition, we have a view that we must stay the course and do so in the best interests of Australia, sticking to the deal that we have and making sure that on the way, it continues to be a good deal. So, while Mr Downer has made his point, we think that sticking to the arrangement that was struck up under the Coalition is the best way to go. While we're at it, though, it would be good for the Government to get on and expedite the development and upgrades at HMAS Stirling with the impending visit of foreign nuclear subs. I think that's something the Government could focus on now and make sure we are fit on all fronts when it comes to our submarine capacity.

DORAN: Well, Matt Thistlethwaite, is that something that's on the agenda?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I was in Stirling a couple of months ago and I can tell you the work is in progress. There is massive infrastructure work going on at Stirling, the construction of a new wharf, the upgrade to accommodation facilities and building new accommodation facilities, new top secret facilities at the wharf, and then there's the next phase of development that will come in the coming years to accommodate the nuclear propelled submarines. There is going to be a huge amount of work go on in Stirling and a pipeline that will last for the next ten to 15 years, as well as Henderson and as well as Osborne down in South Australia. There's a huge capital investment coming in Defence.

DORAN: Just one last question on this to you, Jonathon Duniam, because I did want to give Matt Thistlethwaite the right of reply before throwing this one back at you. The situation that Alexander Downey is highlighting is the fact that these massive Defence projects, and this is the largest one we've ever seen, but massive Defence projects are incredibly costly, and they have a tendency, shall we say, to be over budget, be delayed, things like that. And that is why this is something that should be concerning for Australian taxpayers. He does have a point there, doesn't it? There's a lot of pressure on this to all fit according to a very set out sort of time frame.

DUNIAM: Look, all major projects, large in size, large in budget, do have a risk of blowing out, both in timeline and in budget. But I suppose the job of an opposition is to make sure the Government gets on and do exactly what they said they would within budget and on time. So, that's what we'll be doing. I understand there are risks associated, but I don't believe that just because there is a risk, it's a reason not to venture forth and continue to stick to what I believe is a good deal in the best interests of Australia. So, I'll be keeping an eye on the Government, along with my colleague Andrew Hastie, to make sure that the Government does the right thing regards budget and timing of this massive investment.

DORAN: Briefly on that, Matt Thistlethwaite, given the history here of large Defence projects in Australia, are we going to expect a bill to skyrocket beyond the $368 billion we're already potentially on the hook for?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It's a large multibillion dollar investment. And I would say that, look, it's not just the Defence Department and Government that faces these challenges, it's Australia in general. Look at the building companies that have gone bust over the course of the last couple of years because of the massive increase in the cost of goods associated with the pandemic. Sometimes there are unforeseeable circumstances that push up costs. There's not much you can do about that except get on with the job. And that's why we plan, that's why we put contingencies in.

DORAN: Well, Matt Thistlethwaite and Jonathon Duniam, thank you both for joining us on Afternoon Briefing. It looks like Matt Thistlethwaite’ s got the pick of the location there, much sunnier than it looks in Hobart. Gentlemen, thanks for your time.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm in sunny Townsville. Thank you. Thanks, Matthew. Thanks, Jonno.


Other related releases