Radio interview, 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: Extension and expansion of Operation KUDU; Defence personnel in the NT; Hamas-Israel conflict; Migration strategy.

KATIE WOOLF, HOST: As always, there is plenty on the agenda, but let’s get into it because as I mentioned, the Acting Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles is in the Northern Territory today to announce plans to increase Australia's commitment to the Ukraine. Mr. Marles is set to travel to the Robertson Barracks in Palmerston to welcome home the latest rotation of the 70 ADF personnel from the United Kingdom. And he joins me on the line right now. Good morning to you, Acting Prime Minister.

RICHARD MARLES, ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Katie. How are you?

WOOLF: Yeah, very well. Thank you so much for your time this morning. Now, Minister, when are you heading out to the Robertson Barracks to welcome those personnel back?

MARLES: Look, we'll be heading out there later this morning and it's going to be a real honour, actually, to meet them on their return. I had the privilege of seeing one of the earlier rotations in Britain earlier this year, working with new Ukrainian recruits and they were doing the sort of training that might occur at one level on any given day out at Robertson Barracks. But in another level, this was completely different because this was training being provided to people who were new recruits who started this year in civilian life in Ukraine, but had put up their hands to engage in a conflict which has a very high casualty rate. And there was a level of seriousness and gravity about what our Australian personnel were doing in training these people, which was actually very poignant and they are making a difference. They're certainly giving people the skills to stay alive and to be able to keep in the fight in Ukraine and they are playing a really important role. And so in welcoming them back today, we're also announcing that we're extending our commitment to this program by another year. We previously committed to doing this training through the course of 2023. We'll now do this through the course of 2024 as well, in a slightly expanded way. So, we're very pleased to be able to make that announcement.

WOOLF: What will extending that commitment mean? Obviously, it does mean extra Defence personnel going over and helping out and doing that training, as you've touched on, but I'm assuming additional financial support?

MARLES: Well, there is a cost to this, obviously, and this was reported in MYEFO yesterday. So, it's about $186 million over the course of the two years. So, that includes this year and next year, the extended training will include some training for young or junior officers. Right now, the training that we are doing is literally to non-commissioned personnel. So, soldiers, as they are coming into the Ukrainian forces, we will be doing some junior officer training as well next year. So, it's a slightly expanded range of training, but it's the kind of infantry training that you would see at one level each and every day out at Robertson Barracks. But this is very proximate, when I was looking at the people who were doing the training there in Britain, what kept coming really forward in my mind was the idea that the exercises that they were doing there, they would be doing for real in just a matter of weeks. And in that sense, the gravity of this is just on a completely different scale to their daily work here in Australia. And when I was speaking to the Australians who were doing this you know, they very much felt the significance of the moment and the difference that they were making. So, it's really useful. There are skills that we've got to give to these new recruits. I think that's also probably a point to understand where the war is now at in Ukraine, we really are talking about a civilian army. We're talking about people who are coming off the street and putting their hand up to engage in this fight. And so being able to impart this knowledge from people who have been professional soldiers for a long time in the Australian Army is a really useful and important contribution that we can make.

WOOLF: Now, as you've said, it is such an important thing to do. I know that we have spoken to Defence personnel on this very subject and on this very training on the show before, and speaking to them really gives you that firsthand account of just how important this training is. When you talk about the next rotation, though, heading off, when are they due to head off and are we going to see those increased numbers then?

MARLES: Yes, so we'll see increased numbers from the beginning of next year. They're basically three month rotations, so we've had four through the course of this year and that will be the tempo going into next year. To put some numbers on it, whereas we've had about 70 people going over per rotation this year, next year it'll be 90. So, it will be slightly expanded. And that picks up that junior officer training that will be done in addition to the recruit training that has been done through the course of this year. But those increased numbers will pick up from the beginning of next year.

WOOLF: Now, when you talk about those increased numbers, I guess we are indeed helping out in that conflict. But there are a lot of people wondering why, when we're talking those increased numbers as well, why are we not having more numbers here in the Northern Territory? And with the extra hundred troops to Darwin after the DSR, surely we need more here than anywhere else?

MARLES: Well, what the DSR made clear was that, if you like, the platform from which Australia can project and the ability to project was a key thesis, a key principle within the DSR. The platform for Australia's projection is Australia's north. That's kind of obvious, but the DSR made that very clear. And so it does speak about the need for an increased commitment to northern Australia and that obviously includes Darwin. And we're seeing that. I mean, we're seeing that with the consolidation of the infantry brigade here in Darwin. We're seeing that with an increased investment of infrastructure into bases around Darwin. So, that emphasis on the north, and we also see it in north Queensland and northern Western Australia, is very much a part of what the DSR is about and it's very much a part of what the Government is seeking to do in terms of providing a focus to our Defence Force which gives us the capability to project. So, looking forward, Darwin is a critical part of Australia's defence capability. And Darwin really we need to be seeing, and we do see as very much a national asset.

WOOLF:: I mean, do we need more here, though? I guess that's the main point. And that is something that people are really asking us this morning on the text line as well. We talk about bolstering those numbers and you're seeing that, I guess, in other parts of Australia, places like Townsville, which I can understand. But that is really the question from Territorians this morning. Should we have those numbers increased further than what the Government has committed to?

MARLES: Well, as I say, there is an increased commitment to Darwin, an increase in terms of personnel, an increase in expenditure on infrastructure. And that does come out of the Defence Strategic Review and it comes out of the Government's response to it. And we are taking those steps, I think, going forward that's only going to continue to grow because this is where we need to be postured. We need to have a Defence Force which is northern faced and has a growing presence here. And that's exactly what the Government is doing.

WOOLF: I mean, is it correct, though, that we're still going to have fewer troops here than what we did ten years ago?

MARLES: Well, I think the answer to that question is we are increasing our troops from now and we are consolidating 1 Brigade in Darwin and that begins the process of growing numbers here. I mean, it is right that there were numbers that were taken out of Darwin a decade ago, but we're in the process of growing those numbers now.

WOOLF: Minister, on the conflict in Gaza. I know the Federal Government has, well by some Israel and Jewish groups, been condemned and the federal opposition as well, for backing this UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, in a move that placed Australia at odds with its closest allies; the US and I know that Britain abstained. But Australia was among 153 nations to back the non binding resolution, which Israel said would embolden Hamas and which the Coalition lashed as being a cynical ploy to save inner city seats from the Greens. Why did the Government take this step after the US opposed it?

MARLES: Well, I think the starting point here is that what we're seeing in the Middle East is an unfolding tragedy and the focus of our international efforts has been around the preservation of innocent lives, be they innocent Israelis or innocent Palestinians. We've had a focus on humanitarian concerns and that's been consistent, and that's been also pretty consistent with the position of other countries around the world, which would include the United States. If you look at the positions in detail that have been taken by our closest friends and allies, you do see an enormous amount of concern for humanitarian issues, for the preservation of innocent lives. And those concerns are being expressed by the United States as well. Now, we took a position in relation to the General Assembly vote a couple of nights ago. We take each resolution on its terms. We on this occasion issued a statement jointly with Canada and New Zealand, two countries with whom we have a lot in common, both five eyes countries, which expressed our position and in expressing our position made clear our condemnation of Hamas and the terrorist attacks which occurred on the 7 October, made clear our support for Israel's right to defend itself, but also made clear that in defending itself, there needs to be a focus on humanitarian issues and the preservation of innocent lives. Now, that position has been consistent and I think every country who is dealing with this gets the complexity and the difficulty. But the messages are pretty clear. Yes, Israel definitely has a right to defend itself. What Hamas did was absolutely appalling. But in defending itself, there has to be a focus on the preservation of innocent lives and moving towards a ceasefire would do that. But we have also made clear, and made clear a couple of nights ago, that any ceasefire cannot be one sided, that there needs to be the release of hostages by Hamas. And again, that is a position that we have consistently put. So, if you look at what we've done in the last 48 hours it is consistent with what we've been saying, really, from the outset of this latest issue and I think you can see consistency in the position–

WOOLF: It does seem as though the party is divided on this. I mean, the move obviously follows Labor MP Josh Burns' declaration on the ground in Israel this week that a premature ceasefire would only allow Hamas to regroup to attack. I mean, is the party divided on this? And where do you stand when you have got different members saying various different things?

MARLES: Well, I don't accept that the party is divided. I mean, Josh Burns is making a valid point, which is that a ceasefire cannot be one sided. And again, that's a position that we have been putting and put the other night in the statement that we made in casting our vote in the General Assembly. Ceasefires can't be one sided. There does need to be a release of hostages by Hamas. I mean, this is an issue which is complex and it's really easy for people to jump in and pick an aspect of what the Government has said or done and try and line it up against other points along the journey. But if you actually take the totality of what we have said, the positions that we have taken in all its texture, there has been a consistency from the start. We want to see a move towards a ceasefire. A ceasefire cannot be one sided. Hamas must release hostages, and that has to be a part of it.

WOOLF: So, Acting Prime Minister, does the Government still believe that Israel has a right to defend itself?

MARLES: We do, and we made that clear in the statement that we issued in casting the vote that we did in the General Assembly. Again, these are not positions which can be articulated in 20 words. These are positions which– it’s a deeply complex issue. And we made clear that Israel does have a right to defend itself because it does. What Hamas did on the 7th October was an outrage, an absolute outrage. Innocent Israelis were targeted and attacked and that made the acts that occurred then really acts of murder. And in the context of that, Israel absolutely has a right to defend itself. A position that we have consistently held and a position that we still hold. But in defending itself, it is really important that humanitarian issues are placed front and centre. We've seen a significant loss of innocent Palestinian lives and innocent lives being lost, be they Palestinians or Israelis, have exactly the same value. And that's a position that we've maintained as well. And really the position that we took in the General Assembly and in taking that position, we wanted to issue a statement so that we could explain our position in its full complexity, articulates all of what I've just articulated now.

WOOLF: Minister, before I let you go, a topic that we have discussed in, well, I think, I mean, it's something that we've spoken about on numerous occasions around the Northern Territory, and that is immigration. I know that the announcement was made that you are indeed halving those numbers. Are there any plans from the Federal Government – you know, we see as people move to Australia from other locations, and we see the strain that that has on those capital cities, but why not have people spend some time in regional Australia and really try to push to have people work in places like Darwin or places like Alice Springs? Even more remote?

MARLES: Yeah, look, it's a good question. And I think the starting point there is that in articulating a migration strategy, the first thing we are doing here is actually trying to think about our migration system in terms of the contribution it can make to our national economy. I mean, the very fact of having a migration strategy means that, in a sense, we're trying to grip this up in a way that hasn't been done previously. And certainly the issue of what kind of skilled migration we need and where we need it are really important aspects that we have thought about in terms of articulating the strategy. And we do want to have a migration system which is much more focused on being able to build our economy through having people come with the skills that our economy needs. Those are definitely issues that are all being considered. Across the board, it is a reduction in the intake, but that has to be seen in a context where in the last couple of years we've had record numbers of people coming in, which in part is a correction from the pandemic and the fact that because of the pandemic, we had borders closed for a couple of years. But we do need to get those migration numbers down to a more normal pre-pandemic number. But in doing that, we are definitely trying to make sure that the scheme is much more directed to providing our country with the skills that it needs to boost our economy.

WOOLF: I mean, would you look at incentivising, though, people heading to places like northern Australia? You know, we've got a skill shortage across a lot of different areas, even when you look at the health sector at the moment. Would you look at incentivising to try and get people that are migrating to Australia to actually spend time in places like northern Australia?

MARLES: Yeah, I mean, I think the question that you ask highlights the fact that when you look at the question of migration, you see really differing needs around the country. I mean, you're right in pointing out that the situation in Darwin is very different to the situation in Sydney. And there are programmes which do provide incentives now in areas like health, for doctors, for example. So, thinking about how this can work for low parities is definitely something that is in our thinking.

WOOLF: Well, Acting Prime Minister and also Minister for Defence, we really appreciate your time this morning. Richard Marles, thank you so very much for your time.

MARLES: Thanks, Katie.




Deputy Prime Minister’s Office: | 02 6277 7800

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