Television Interview, Sky News

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ruairi Housego - 0461 540 012

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19 December 2023

SUBJECTS: Veterans support over the holiday season; Polling; Far North QLD floods; US request for assets in the Red Sea; Hamas-Israel conflict.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Let's bring in now for some reaction to that polling and some discussion of other news today, we've got the assistant Defence Minister, Matt Thistlethwaite. Thanks for your time. Lots to talk about, including the defence support in the wake of the flood crisis. I want to get to that in a moment, but just to pick up on Tom's analysis there of the news poll. Interesting number there, Peter Dutton, seen as more experienced, stronger, more decisive, but the least liked or least trusted of any leader going back to when the news poll started looking at these attributes. So, really a tale of two halves in many respects. What do you make of it?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Kieran, as you know, during the course of a government, polls go up and down. What we're focused on is policies and I think now in the context of looking at experience, there's no more experienced Member of Parliament than Anthony Albanese. He's certainly had the longest career in the Parliament and he's proven at delivering when it comes to policy outcomes. And look at what the government led by him has delivered. All the cost of living relief, cheaper childcare, cheaper medicines, fee free TAFE. We've got the housing policies through. A couple of weeks ago, we managed to secure the support of the Parliament for our reforms to workplace relations. We're taking stronger action on climate change. At the end of the day, it comes to the policies that the Australian people want a government to deliver and that's what Anthony Albanese is doing. He's delivering those policies for the Australian people.

GILBERT: Given the long track record in Parliament, were you surprised then by that result for the Prime Minister as seen as less experienced than the Opposition Leader?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, as I said, they'll go up and down those figures and those different characteristics. At the end of the day, what's important is that you've got a government that is stable, that is managing the issues affecting the Australian people. And the number one issue for Australians at the moment is cost of living. So, what we've done to a system is we've put in place energy rebates, we put caps on electricity prices, we introduce cheaper childcare, we introduce cheaper medicines, we're raising the rates of bulk billing around Medicare, fee free TAFE, support for housing. All of these policies are aimed at delivering for the Australian people and supporting them and I think that that's really what matters at the end of the day. And that's what Australians look to in their governments. They want stability and they want policy delivery.

GILBERT: As I mentioned in your intro, you are the Assistant Defence Minister. What's the latest advice you've got on the ADF support for those affected by the floods?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, Kieran, the members of HMAS Cairns and the 51st Battalion who are situated in Cairns are on the ground assisting local residents with the recovery. Defence has also sent four helicopters; two Chinooks and two AW139s to the region to assist. That gives a heavy lift capacity and a medium lift capacity and they've been involved in bringing in about 150 emergency services personnel. So, we've got boots on the ground there. You've got heavy and medium lift airlift capacity supporting people that are doing it tough and that need assistance with recovery and that support will go on as long as it's needed. I want to pay tribute to the members of the Australian Defence Force. We're coming up to the Christmas and holiday period. I think it's a great example of the fact that they're always on duty and that they're always there to help. So, thanks to the members of the ADF for assisting on the ground there.

GILBERT: The decision not to include an Australian naval vessel as part of a US led coalition effort in the Red Sea, what's the thinking behind that?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we're still considering that and the decision will be made in due course. Australia's maritime support is very much focused on our region at the moment, the Indo Pacific region, and we work very closely with the United States and other allies, predominantly on freedom of navigation exercises through the South China Sea. And you would have seen HMAS Toowoomba was up in the region a few weeks ago. There'll be further vessels that will travel to the region to support that freedom of commerce that is so important to the upholding of the rule of law within our region. So, that's the priority for Australia at the moment. Having said that, we do have ADF support and personnel that are involved in the Middle East in Operation Manitou. There's about five personnel that are involved in that operation. With this fresh request. There'll be a consideration given of that and a decision will be made in due course.

GILBERT: So, it's still possible we might send a vessel to be a part of that?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: The decision is still being made here and we're considering it and we'll make a decision in due course. Obviously, the government has to liaise with the Australian Defence Force, particularly the Navy in this case, and we'll make a decision in the due course.

GILBERT: Let me ask you about the reaction locally to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. There are concerns we could see the conflict in it, not just we've seen skirmishes, but an all out war now between Israel, potentially, and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. It's having a big impact on communities in Australia, including Australia's Jewish community. What's your message to those communities so invested in this conflict on the other side of the world? Obviously, it's not something we see often where an issue of international importance, a war of this magnitude, is felt so keenly locally, in a domestic sense.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, you're right, Kieran. Unfortunately, there has been some division in Australia regarding the war in the Middle East. My message to constituents in the community that I represent is that every Australian has the right to live in peace and to practice their religion and to go about their daily lives without the threat of conflict, without the threat of islamophobia or anti semitism. And there's no place at all for that in Australia. And over the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to work very closely with the local Jewish community. Unfortunately, there have been some antisemitic attacks on people's property and on them personally in the area that I represent. So, I've been attending shules, attended a number of Hanukkah celebrations with the local community, going to Hakoah Football Club matches, doing my bit to try and show my support for the local Jewish community. I met with some Jewish representatives yesterday, but equally, we've had some representations from people of Islamic faith about their concerns around islamophobia. And I've assured them that the government is supportive through upholding laws that ensure that Australians have the right to practice their religion and to live freely and peacefully.

GILBERT: Does the Jewish community feel like you let them down? In particular, that support for the resolution at the UN on a ceasefire, that Israel should support a ceasefire. Is that something that disappointed your constituents of the jewish faith?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I was at Hanukkah celebrations last week and no one expressed that view to me. As I've said to the Jewish community, we've been very consistent in the approach that we've taken as a government. Going back to the resolution that was moved in the parliament by the Prime Minister and seconded by the Opposition Leader that wholeheartedly condemned the actions of Hamas and called for the immediate release of hostages. We continue to do that every day and recognised Israel's right to defend itself. But that motion also importantly pointed to the fact that you have to uphold international law, and that's the basis upon which Australia acted in the United Nations, to ensure that we uphold international law, particularly humanitarian law, around the protection of civilians.

GILBERT: In a conflict like that, Greg Sheridan will be joining me shortly to discuss the latest in Gaza and the Middle East, so we'll have more on that in just a moment. Finally, I know you held a news conference earlier in the day and just. I need to finish on this note because it's an important message. You touched on the contribution of our veterans earlier in our discussion, but you're urging people, friends, family, loved ones, fellow servicemen and women, to check in on their mates over this festive season.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, thanks for raising it, Kieran. It's a really important issue. We know that Open Arms, the veterans counselling service, are coming up to their busiest period. This is the period where they get a lot of calls from veterans who are doing it tough. And we know that the holiday period is a time where Australians come together with family and friends. But for a lot of Australians, particularly a lot of veterans, they're on their own. They feel isolated, alone, and it can trigger trauma that they may have experienced through their service. So, we're asking Australians to think about any friends or mates that they have that are veterans and reach out to them over this holiday period and just check in on them, thank them for their service to our nation and make them feel a part of our society. And likewise, if you know a person or a family that's got an ADF member that's on deployment overseas at the moment and away from their family over Christmas, give them a call, their family and check in on them, thank them for their service. I think that we need to make sure that we stand by our service personnel and veterans over this holiday period when it can be tough for them.

GILBERT: Absolutely. Well said and we'll talk to you next year. Thanks for everything. And joining us throughout 2023, Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite. Appreciate it.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks, Kieran. Have a great Christmas to you and your listeners.


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