1 November 2023
SUBJECTS: Townsville & Cairns visit; Defence Housing Australia; Magnetic Island; PFAS contamination; Lavarack Barracks & RAAF Base Townsville; Republic.
ADAM STEPHEN, HOST: Townsville, some are saying now, is the new army capital of Australia after an announcement earlier this month to see an additional 500 personnel relocate to the north. The announcement, part of Australia's strategic Pacific plan, has been largely welcomed by the garrison city, though questions do remain about where the houses are going to come from to be able to house those personnel. Assistant Minister for Defence, Veterans’ Affairs and the Republic, Matt Thistlethwaite is with us this afternoon. He's been in Townsville this week, hosting a Defence housing roundtable. Assistant Minister, thanks for joining us.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: G'day, Adam, thanks for having me on the show.
STEPHEN: And what came out of these discussions?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we had a roundtable yesterday with probably about 80 members of the Australian Defence Force covering Army, Navy, Air Force, and it was a wide ranging discussion on what we can do better as a government and as a Defence Force to improve housing options for members of the ADF. As you mentioned, there's going to be an increasing presence in Townsville for particularly Army, with the 3rd Brigade growing, and we need to make sure that we can adequately house those people. So, what we're looking at is more flexibility for ADF members, forms of allowances to provide them with more options for housing, rather than simply having to look at living accommodation or DHA housing. We're looking at things like shared equity schemes from Defence being able to partner with ADF members, even salary sacrificing of mortgage repayments. And at the moment, the Government's undertaking a review of Defence housing across the country and those recommendations will be handed to the government early in the new year and we'll act on those as quickly as possible.
STEPHEN: DHA has come under some criticism in recent months for many vacant properties in Townsville that have sat idle in the midst of a housing crisis. What can be done about this?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, it is a concern. It's a matter that I discussed with the Mayor of Townsville on Monday, Jenny Hill and I'm going to go back to DHA. We've identified some properties down around the river there that are family accommodation. We estimate that about 60 per cent of those are vacant. I understand it's because some of them are in a state of disrepair and uninhabitable. But in my view, given that you got additional troops coming into Townsville over the course of the next couple of years, DHA should be looking to renovate those properties and make them habitable, or looking to completely redevelop for family housing, because there's going to be a growing need. So, I'll go back to DHA now and try and work on a plan that we can get onto that as quickly as possible.
STEPHEN: So, obviously, there's been some thought put into already how these new personnel, some 500 new people that will relocate to Townsville, how they'll be accommodated in the city. It sounds like there's a lot more work, though, to be done in respects to that. It hasn't just been housing that you've been holding discussions on, you've been talking about PFAS contamination as well whilst in North Queensland. I understand you even took a trip to Magnetic Island. What took you to the hidden gem of North Queensland?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: It is the hidden gem, isn't it? It’s magnificent out there, my first trip out there, I was going out there because I met with members of the local community who were concerned about the fact that Defence was selling off a holiday property there. It's a property that's been long term leased to Defence Holidays Queensland. Unfortunately, it's fallen into a state of disrepair. It's cabin accommodation on one of the pristine points there. And what we've done is Defence have subdivided the property so that the overwhelming majority of the property has been handed back to Queensland National Parks and will become public national park. Pristine bushland in that special part of Magnetic Island. The remainder, which is the four cabins that are there, I went and visited those. They're certainly not inhabitable. The local community are concerned about any future development there. Defence want to dispose of them, a sale on the open market, but understandably local residents are concerned about any development there. So, what we've agreed to do is put the disposal on hold and try and work on a solution with the local community. I certainly recognise just how special and unique that bushland is there, going down onto the beachfront there. So, we want to try and work on a solution that's a win-win for the community and for Defence.
STEPHEN: Hearing here from the Assistant Minister for Defence, Veterans’ Affairs and the Republic, Matt Thistlethwaite. You were in town talking about PFAS contamination at Lavarack Barracks, also RAAF Base, and we know that contamination has spread onto some neighbouring properties and private land. What was the main message you were delivering to people that attended the sessions?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: It was to give residents an update on what Defence is doing to alleviate PFAS contamination and runoff from the RAAF Base and Lavarack Barracks. Basically, we know that the PFAS sites on the Base are typically around the fire stations and the fire training grounds and some of the aviation hangars. And Defence is undertaking a process called soil stabilisation, where that land, where the PFAS is located, is excavated, carbon is added to the soil, it's basically charcoal, and then it's replaced and capped. And once that process is undertaken, we found across the country that greatly reduces the surface water runoff from a Defence base that ends up getting into drains and into local waterways and results in restrictions on the amount of fish and other seafood that can be caught because of that. So, that's the process that's been begun. It's probably halfway through, but be completed towards the middle of 2025 and that will hopefully eradicate that problem of surface water draining off those bases with contaminated PFAS in it and affecting the lives of local residents. So, we gave them an update about that, but anyone that wasn't able to attend those forums can certainly get in contact with Defence and we'll make sure that a Defence representative will come out and give that person a one on one briefing about what's going on and how their properties have been affected.
STEPHEN: And Assistant Minister, you obviously have the Defence and Veterans’ Affairs portfolios, but you're also the Assistant for the Republic. The Minister for the Republic. How does the recent referendum impact any future appetite, do you think, for a referendum on a head of state in Australia?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: It certainly makes it a lot harder, there's no doubt about that. However, the Labor Party has a longer term vision for Australia as a mature and independent nation, and it's in our platform that we begin a discussion with the Australian people around having one of our own as our head of State at some time in the future. Now is not the right time for that. The focus of the Government is on alleviating the cost of living pressure that Australians are facing, and the first 18 months of our government have been releasing policies to deal with that. But in the longer term, we do believe that Australia is no longer a British nation, we're no longer British subjects, we don't have British passports anymore, we don't have God Save the King as our national anthem, as we did when we Federated. We're now Australians and we govern ourselves and we make our own decisions and we do that well. And at some stage in the future, we'd like to begin a conversation with the Australian people about our independence and maturity and having one of our own as our head of state.
STEPHEN: He’s been in the North this week with a variety of different meetings that have been held. Matt Thistlethwaite, thanks for joining us on Drive.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: It's a pleasure, Adam. Thanks for having me on.