Doorstop Interview, Robertson Barracks, Darwin

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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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14 December 2023

SUBJECTS: Operation Kudu; US request for assets in the Red Sea; US Congress voting on AUKUS legislation; Geelong Ministerial Office vandalised; Embassy in Ukraine; Israel-Hamas conflict

MEMBER FOR SOLOMON, LUKE GOSLING: Good afternoon everyone and welcome out to Robertson Barracks, the home of the 1st Brigade, and on a very special occasion, which is welcoming back the men and women of Op Kudu. I'm Luke Gosling, the Federal Member for Solomon. And particularly as a veteran, it's with great pride that I was able to visit these outstanding Australians as they were training members of the Ukraine forces over in the UK. And it's so good to have them home. And it's awesome to have the Acting Prime Minister, Richard Marles with us today. Richard, thanks for coming to be part of this important event.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Thank you. Well, great to be here with Luke Gosling, our wonderful member for Solomon, but also really great to be here with Major John Moulton. John has been the Commander of the most recently returning rotation from Operation Kudu, which has been in southern England, training new recruits to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And it is an enormous privilege for me to have been able to see Operation Kudu in operation earlier this year. Right now, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are very much a civilian army. And I was able to see people who had literally come off the street, someone had been a clerk, a building worker, a truck driver, and were being turned into soldiers in circumstances where they were about to fight in a conflict, which is today looking a lot more like World War One than World War Two. And the professionalism of the Australian trainers who were able to impart critical knowledge, which would save lives was profoundly impressive to see and actually deeply poignant. John has been doing that work over the last three months and today, we will come back his rotation thank them for their service, and very much thank John for his leadership in that service. Today, we're also announcing that Australia's commitment to Operation Kudu will be extended for another year, and extended but also expanded. From the middle of January, the next rotation will go to England to provide this training, it will be a larger contingent, which will engage in training of junior non-commissioned officers and junior officers as well. And that will be a very important contribution that we continue to make to Ukraine's efforts to resolve this conflict on their terms.

I'd also like to say earlier today, I was at Charles Darwin University, where I saw just the most impressive technology being brought to bear. Charles Darwin University is at the cutting edge of technology, cutting edge of technology in relation to defence. In the last few weeks, we have announced additional university placements under the banner of AUKUS for particular skills that have been required in terms of what we need to be doing with AUKUS. Charles Darwin University received 110 places in relation to that in mechanical, electrical and engineering. And it speaks to the quality of that university and the quality of the training, which it is providing. I might leave my comments there. John would you like to say anything?

MAJOR JOHN MOULTON: So I just wanted to comment on the wonderful work that a large number of people from the Darwin region have been doing over in the UK to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In particular, I just want to talk about how proud I am of our soldiers and our junior leaders that have been doing that work. They've spent a significant period of time away from family and friends to be able to support the Ukrainian people. And the training that they've been delivering has been absolutely outstanding. So I just wanted to comment on that.

MARLES: Thank you. Any questions, firstly on Operation Kudu, then questions of the day.

JOURNALIST: Where over there in the UK training, is there any possibility we could become involved in the actual conflict?

MARLES: No, our commitment right now is in relation to the training of Ukrainian recruits, in Britain. We've obviously had an E-7 which has been operating out of Germany and not flying in other Ukrainian airspace. But those are the only commitments or deployments that we're currently making in relation to this conflict. And our focus is very much on that training.

JOURNALIST: Was the extension of Operation Kudu in response to any prompting or requests from part of Ukraine, or how was that prompted?

MARLES: Well, it's really, I guess, in response to what's happening. I mean, this is a conflict, which has become very much entrenched in the lines that are forming or have formed now in Ukraine. We thought that this would be an enduring conflict, and that's what has turned out to be the case. We've made clear that we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes for Ukraine to resolve this conflict on its own terms. An important part of that is to be able to provide this training to see that the wonderful skills and professionalism that are in place in the Australian Army can be imparted to new recruits to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

JOURNALIST: Has a request being passed on from the US about sending warships to the Red Sea? And if so, will we fulfil that request?

MARLES: So a request has been made through the Combined Maritime Force in Bahrain at an operational level. Australia has been part of the Combined Maritime Force for a long time, we've got personnel who are embedded there right now. And in the past, we have had navy vessels deployed to that region. We will consider this request in due course, but I would note that the focus of our naval efforts right now are on our immediate region. Yesterday, I had the honour of welcoming back HMAS Toowoomba, which had been engaged in a regional presence deployment in our immediate region. In the coming days, we will see the return of HMAS Stalwart and HMAS Brisbane, looking at ways in which we can assert freedom of navigation within our immediate region, where our sea lines of communication are at their most acute, where we see most of our trade pass is the focus of our existing naval efforts. And that will continue to be so but we will consider this request in the normal course.

JOURNALIST: Does the request for any specific warship or was it just any vessel of the Royal Australian Navy?

MARLES: It is a request through- at an operational level. And as I say, we'll consider that request in the in the normal way. I want to emphasize the focus of our efforts is on our immediate region. And the regional presence deployments that have been engaged in over the last few months have been critically important in terms of asserting Australia's national interest in freedom of navigation. And in all the decisions that we make, obviously, Australia's national interest will be front and centre.

JOURNALIST: What's your response to the news that the US Senate has given the green light to the transfer of AUKUS submarines?

MARLES: We're very excited by that news. There are still some processes to go within the US Congress, so we will be respectful of them and react appropriately when a final determination of the US Congress is made. But obviously, the passage through the Senate last night of the relevant legislation is a very significant step forward in the right direction. And we are very confident that the legislation will ultimately pass the United States Congress which will enable AUKUS to continue to move forward and create the seamless defence industrial base that we are seeking to do across the US, the UK and Australia. Which, if it can be achieved is a once in a generation achievement. But there are still some steps to go and we will see how they play out in the coming days.

JOURNALIST: Your office in Melbourne was vandalized overnight. What's your response on this type of activity?

MARLES: Office in Geelong. Look, I think, to be honest, I think the least said about this event, the better. Perhaps what's most important for me to observe is that in moments like this, my focus is on the health and safety of my staff. I've been in contact with them and they are in good shape.

JOURNALIST: Will Australia reopen its embassy in Ukraine, given virtually every other nation has put diplomats back in the country?

MARLES: We have appointed a new Ambassador to Ukraine. The opening of the embassy is in part a question of security but it's obviously also in part a question of how we can properly resource an embassy there based on what security restraints exist, and taking all of that into account right now. The decision remains to have the embassy located in Warsaw but this will be a matter which is under active consideration.

JOURNALIST: Why is Australia calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, given terrorist organization and Hamas still holding innocent Israelis hostage right now?

MARLES: Well, let's be clear: We have been completely consistent throughout this whole affair. Firstly, in having humanitarian issues front and centre in all of our efforts diplomatically. What happened on October 7 was an outrage. What we saw was a terrorist attack by Hamas, which we condemned in the strongest possible terms. And we saw the loss of innocent Israeli lives. And we saw the targeting of innocent Israelis. And on that basis, that was an act of murder. And we made that really clear at the start, along with the right of Israel to defend itself. Since then, we've also made it clear that in defending itself, it is critical that Israel acts in accordance with the rules of war. And that front and centre in the way in which Israel goes about its business must be the protection of innocent civilian lives, and the maintenance of humanitarian concerns. And we have been consistent in our advocacy around that. It was on the basis of that, that we were calling for humanitarian pause. And in that humanitarian pause, we were able to see much good achieved, including the release of a number of hostages that had been taken by Hamas. In calling for a move towards a ceasefire, we have made clear at every step that that cannot be one sided. That part of that must be the unconditional release by Hamas of the hostages that they took. And that remains the position of the Australian Government- form part of the statement that the Australian Government made in combination with Canada and New Zealand in describing or explaining the vote that we took in the last 48 hours. So our position has remained consistent here. We want to see humanitarian concerns, obviously placed front and centre. And might I say, that's part of the American advocacy in this space, as well. But we've also been really clear that any ceasefire cannot be one side.

JOURNALIST: Do you think Israel's acting proportionately, in its response at the moment, do you think it's actually within the rules?

MARLES: What we are making clear is that we need to be moving towards a humanitarian ceasefire, which is not one sided. And that's the position that we have taken. And we have taken that position because we seek to advocate on the part of humanitarian concerns, and we seek to advocate for the protection of innocent lives be they Israeli or Palestinian.

JOURNALIST: The Israeli Ambassador, he said that ceasefire that your Government vote in favour of will embolden Hamas. How will a ceasefire support- or how will the ceasefire support Israel's campaign against Hamas?

MARLES: Well, we have consistently reiterated Israel's right to defend itself. We have consistently reiterated our condemnation of Hamas, and we have consistently reiterated the need for Hamas to unconditionally release the hostages which it holds. We seek to promote the protection of innocent life. We are not alone in doing that. In taking the step that we took in the last 48 hours, we made our statement in combination with New Zealand and Canada. That our voice on behalf of protecting innocent civilians is a voice that you see across the world right now. And clearly, that has to be front and centre in terms of Israel doing the work it is doing. Thank you.


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