Press conference, Perth - HMAS Toowoomba

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

The Hon Matt Keogh MP

Minister for Defence Personnel

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

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Stephanie Mathews on 0407 034 485

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13 December 2023






SUBJECTS: Return of HMAS Toowoomba, Brisbane and Stalwart; UN Conventional on the Law of the Sea; Hamas-Israel conflict; United Nations General Assembly resolution; international approach to situation.


MINISTER FOR RESOURCES, MADELEINE KING: Good morning everyone. My name is Madeleine King, I'm the Federal Member for the federal electorate of Brand. I want to welcome everyone here at HMAS Stirling on Garden Island in the amazing city of Rockingham, which is my hometown. I'm really pleased to be here today alongside colleagues to welcome the crew of HMAS Toowoomba back from their deployment and it's really my honour to be here with Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, but also Acting Prime Minister of course, Richard Marles is here today and Minister for Defence Personnel, Matt Keogh. It really is a marvellous day when crew come back, come back in time for Christmas to see that families just in time for school holidays, so I just want to thank all those personnel that make Rockingham and all the surrounding suburbs, their home. Really, Merry Christmas, and thanks for serving our country so well, and also being such an important part of the community of Rockingham and with that, I'll hand over to the Acting Prime Minister.

ACITNG PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Thank you. It's great to be here with Madeleine King, our Resources Minister, and here today as the Member for Brand and also to be here with our Minister for Defence Personnel, Matt Keogh and Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, the Chief of the Navy. And it is an honour really to be standing aboard HMAS Toowoomba as she returns from a regional presence deployment. A deployment which has been undertaken with HMAS Stalwart supply ship, and HMAS Brisbane, an air warfare destroyer both of which will be returning to Australia in the coming days before Christmas. And their deployment in the region has been a matter of great honour for our country. They have been engaged in upholding the rules based order within the region in which we live and that is at the heart of our national interest, that we're an island trading nation, very much dependent upon the rules of the road on the high seas- freedom of navigation and the work of HMAS Toowoomba and her and her crew was about asserting that rules based order within our region which goes to the heart of our national interest. And this is risky business. This has been an eventful deployment and we could not be more proud of this crew and the way in which they have worn our nation's uniform and served Australia. And it is great to be here on this day on their return. You can see the faces of families who we've been speaking to this morning, the excitement that they feel about seeing loved ones that they've not seen for three months and it's really wonderful that they are able to be home before Christmas. So we just want to give out an enormous thanks to this crew for the work that they've done, the service that they provided our nation and to really enjoy this fantastic day as they have been reunited with their families.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL, MATT KEOGH: Thanks Richard. Our defence force personnel are our most important capability and we know that's come to the fore with the deployment of Toowoomba as well as Stalwart and Brisbane. Toowoomba returning today, it's great to be not just with the personnel but with their families being able to talk to brothers, girlfriends, husbands and wives waiting for their partners, their family members to come home, certainly with long lists of things that they want them to do now that they're back home, children, that they're all eager to see, children that have been waiting as well with list of things that they want to do with their mums and dads. Now that they're back, back home, largely living here, in the city of Rockingham but also some that will be flying back to Sydney and other parts of Australia just before Christmas. So, it's so wonderful to see the joy in the faces of our defence force personnel coming home after three months away. For many of the people that were on HMAS Toowoomba, they're away for several months at the beginning of the year as well. So, this is a really important time for families to reconnect. It's been great to share their stories and speak to the families about their experiences waiting for their loved ones, our defence personnel to come home. And knowing the great work that they've been doing while they're away and to see the joy and eagerness of the children's faces- being able to spot out you know, mum and dad standing on the side of the ship as the ship has come in today. And for us as a government, it's really important to support our personnel and to support their families as well because we know that the families of our serving men and women do make a sacrifice in supporting their members, looking after the home front. And we provide that support. We make sure we look after them. And we've been expanding that support through health care and housing support as well. And we'll continue to work with families and listen to them about how we can support them, to support our defence force, to support our Navy so we can keep doing the great work that it's been doing over these last three months on these ships, but also as it does every single day on behalf of Australia.

CHIEF OF NAVY, VICE ADMIRAL MARK HAMMOND: Good morning. What a great navy day. This is one of the best parts of the job, I have got to say. I couldn't be prouder of this ship's company, or all three ships companies. It's been a very busy year for the Royal Australian Navy. Toowoomba, Stalwart, Brisbane and many other ships, submarines, patrol boats, helicopters and attachments are all in the process of slowing down, reconnecting with family and partners- and my wife, Jodi likes to say, our power at sea is derived from strength at home. And what you're witnessing here is the strength that underpins our success at sea. The friends and families gathered here to welcome their ships company, their family member, their friend home. This is what it's all about. I look forward to seeing Toowoomba reset, re-energize and then get ready to go to sea again in January because that is what we do. This ship has conducted a couple of deployments this year, and as you heard the Acting Prime Minister say, they have been at the forefront of reinforcing the international rules based order upon which our economic prosperity and therefore our wellbeing and national security potential ultimately depends. So again, what a great navy day.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about the Navy divers, how are they doing and what (inaudible)?

VICE ADMIRAL MARK HAMMOND: Good morning. The question about the three divers who were in the water during that unsafe and unprofessional conduct in the South China Sea, they're doing fine. I've spoken to them today. In fact, that whole dive team, they were more than three involved in clearing the fishing nets and the debris from the propellers, and they’re doing great.


JOURNALIST: How dangerous is it?

VICE ADMIRAL MARK HAMMOND: It is unsafe. Ultimately when you put high pressure, high intensity sound into the water, you can physically feel it. So it is an unsafe act. There's a reason we have processes and protocols which are internationally recognized such as flying flag out to indicate divers are down and communicating what we're doing on VHF radio. So, it's unsafe, it’s unprofessional and I hope we don’t see it again.

JOURNALIST: China has responded to Australia's claims about the incident saying they are rude and ridiculous. Are sailors in danger given that China is unapologetic about what happened?

MARLES: We have made our position very clear to China, we did so in the immediate aftermath of this incident. As the Chief of Navy has just said, this was unsafe and unprofessional. There will be interactions between militaries, between navies on the high seas, we all understand that but the expectation is that those interactions happen in a professional and a safe way. That's our expectation in respect of the way in which China ought to behave. Certainly that is the way in which we engage and we behave in doing what we can lawfully do in asserting the rules based order- freedom of navigation- on the high seas. And we will continue to do our work, undeterred in asserting the rules based order in the region. There is risk that is clear from what has occurred. It's been clear for some time but we will not be deterred in doing what needs to be done to assert Australia's national interest, which is the maintenance of freedom of navigation and the rules based order in our region.

JOURNALIST: But China has been very dismissive of that position. So are sailors in danger of another incident?

MARLES: Well, all I can say is; our national interest lies in the rules based order being maintained. Our national interest lies in freedom of navigation on the high seas. With most of our trade goes through the waters where we assert freedom of navigation, where we assert the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That is risky work, but we will continue to do it. And we will continue to do it undeterred.

JOURNALIST: China has used a water cannon against the Philippines vessel as well as the ramming, so what do you make of that behaviour?

MARLES: Yeah, I mean we share the very grave concerns that have been expressed by the Philippines in relation to this incident. Once again, it is absolutely essential that militaries, that navies engage in manners which are safe and professional. And that is not what has occurred in that incident as well. The Philippines, as every country has a right to engage in freedom of navigation and to engage unhindered on the high seas and we very much share the concerns that have been expressed by the Philippines.

JOURNALIST: Is that what these Indo Pacific engagement missions are about -asserting or making it known to China and that we are in these waters and that we want to maintain freedom of navigation? 

MARLES: Well it’s absolutely about asserting the rules based order and the rules of the road of sea. That's what this is about. And freedom of navigation is completely central to that and that really matters to us as a country. The vast bulk of our trade goes by sea and as a nation, we derive an increasing amount of our national income from trade. We are an island trading nation, so there is nothing more fundamental to our prosperity, to our economic growth and our economic development that being able to rely upon trade and trade at sea. And that's why we assert the rules based order at sea. That's why we assert freedom of navigation and that's why the work that has been done by this crew over the last three months is so important but what is also clear is that this is work which is becoming increasingly risky. We understand that but we will continue to do this undeterred but what it means is that on a day like today, when this crew returns, they absolutely deserve the respect and the admiration of our country because they are wearing our nation's uniforms in difficult times and at times dangerous circumstances and their service is greatly appreciated.

JOURNALIST: Chief of Navy can you delve more into the roles on board and the tasks that they conduct?

VICE ADMIRAL MARK HAMMOND: Sure, so HMAS Toowoomba is a multipurpose frigate. She has performed multiple roles over the last 12 months. During this particular deployment she supported Operation Argos, which is the United Nations enforcement operation with respect to illegal shipments to North Korea. That was one of the most important operational elements of her mission. She has also conducted exercises with a lot of our partners throughout the region; including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Canada and the United States. That is a key role with respect to reinforcing our diplomatic partnerships throughout the region. We are a relatively small navy, we have a lot of navies who like to work with us, who seek us out and it's important that we're able to interact with them, to operate very, very smoothly, very easily and very quickly with as many partners as possible. So diplomacy, and the deterrence piece, particularly around North Korea, and as the Acting Prime Minister said, reinforcing the international rules based order. It's been there for about 80 years, everybody has pretty much adhered to and accepted it. We are very fundamentally connected to the sea in every sense as a nation. So that's been one of the most important roles here. 

JOURNALIST: Have the crew and their families been told they're not allowed to speak publicly about the sonar incident?

VICE ADMIRAL MARK HAMMOND: No, I have given no such order. But generally speaking today is about reconnecting with family. So that's why we're here to be able to talk to you about the important issues of the day. My preference is for our sailors, for Australian sons and daughters who have been away from their families, brothers and sisters, and my preference is to give them the space to reconnect with family and we're happy to take your questions about the important issues. 

JOURNALIST: Acting Prime Minister, the Israeli Ambassador to Australia has said the vote in the UN today will embolden Hamas. The Israeli Jewish lobby groups have said it will create uncertainty and confusion. Can you explain Australia's latest position and what does it- how do you respond to those suggestions that it will embolden Hamas? 

MARLES: We are seeing an unfolding tragedy in the Middle East- it began on October 7, in terms of these incidents, we have an appalling terrorist attack by Hamas and we have condemned that in the strongest possible terms. We have acknowledged Israel's right to defend itself in the face of that. Innocent Israeli lives and innocent Palestinian lives have been at the forefront of our thoughts and our actions from the moment that this occurred. This has been driving the positions that we have taken. We have been seeking ways in which the humanitarian situation can be advanced and that’s why we added our voice to the establishment of a humanitarian pause. During the time of that pause there was a lot of really important work that was done, not least of which was the release of hostages. What we have said since then, is that in working towards a sustainable ceasefire, this must be done on the basis of it not being one sided, and that Hamas must release unconditionally all the hostages that it holds. Now the vote that we took last night is entirely consistent with the position that I've just articulated, that we have been articulating from the very start. We supported an amendment to the resolution last night, which references the terrorist attacks which occurred on October 7. We have included a statement with our vote last night, a statement that's been made in concert with Canada and New Zealand to articulate Australia's position. But our position has been consistent and has been consistent in the terms that I've articulated and looking at improving the humanitarian situation, minimising the loss of innocent lives has been at the heart of the decisions that we have taken.

JOURNALIST: As is consistent though previously we didn't support because there was no acknowledgement of Hamas’ responsibility and now we are supporting even though there's still no acknowledgement of the massacre.

MARLES: Well, we take each resolution on its own terms and there have been changes in this resolution compared to previous resolutions. And as I say, we supported an amendment to last night‘s resolution which did reference the October attacks by Hamas and we have made clear in the statement that we have issued with both Canada and New Zealand our position in relation to the October 7 attacks and that is that they were terrorist attacks, which should be condemned and we have condemned in the strongest possible way.

JOURNALIST: Should Israel agree to a ceasefire only if Hamas agrees to release those hostages?

MARLES: We've made it really clear that in moving to a sustainable ceasefire, it can only be done in a way which is not one sided and that does involve the release of the hostages which Hamas are holding. 




Deputy Prime Minister’s Office: | 02 6277 7800

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