22 December 2023
SUBJECTS: Australia’s contribution to the Combined Maritime Forces; Special Purpose Aircraft; St Vincent’s cyber incident; MRH-90 helicopter fleet; Hamas-Israel conflict.
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: In response to the activities in the Red Sea by the Houthi rebels, yesterday I announced on behalf of the Government that Australia would be tripling our contribution to the Combined Maritime Force and that will occur within the next month. This is a significant contribution that Australia is making. It is consistent that the deployments that Australia has in the Middle East. It is consistent with the contributions which are being made by our friends and allies. It is, for example, more than what is being committed by Canada. The United States is deeply appreciative of the commitment that we are making. That said, Australia's strategic focus remains in our region. Our region is where we have our greatest security anxiety. Our region is where we have the bulk of Australia's trade. Our region is where our national interest lies. And our region is where our assets will be. And that is the focus of the Albanese Government in the way in which we deploy the Australian Defence Force. This year has seen intense activity on the part of the Australian Defence Force within our region. Indeed, last week I welcomed back crews from HMAS Toowoomba, who along with HMAS Stalwart HMAS Brisbane has been involved in regional deployment missions in parts of the region, including the East China Sea. Now yesterday, the shadow minister, Andrew Hastie described Australia's strategic focus on the region as being academic. Well, I don't think the crews aboard HMAS Toowoomba, Stalwart or Brisbane would regard their activities as being academic. I don't think that anyone who is watching the increased competition that we see within our region as being academic. I don't think any of the businesses which have goods aboard merchant vessels going to countries like Korea and Japan, two of our top five trading partners, would regard our region as being academic. Our region is where our focus must be. And if you really look at what the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister are saying, they are essentially making an argument for Australia's military commitments to return to the Middle East. And that demonstrates how utterly clueless they are about Australia's national interest and where our strategic focus must be. The Liberals always follow the politics. They never pursue defence policy. And the fact of the matter is that this flies in the face of what the Liberals said themselves back in 2020. It flies in the face of the Defence Strategic Update, which they commissioned in that year. It flies in the face of the Defence Strategic Review. The urgency of this moment is that Australia must maintain its strategic focus on our region. Nothing would make Australia weaker than to diminish that focus and leave our principle effort from being within the region. The Albanese Government is a serious government which is committed to Australia's national interest and Australia's national interest lies within our immediate region; in the northeast Indian Ocean, in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, in the Pacific. That is where the focus of our engagement will be. We will not pursue the politics as the Liberals do because the Liberals always pursue the politics, they never pursued the policy. The Liberals are defence dilatants.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) about the decision not send a warship. What did the Biden administration specifically requested to the Albanese Government?
MARLES: Well, there was a request in relation to the more than 30 members of the Combined Maritime Force for what contributions could be made, including personnel and that's what we have done. We are tripling our contribution to the Combined Maritime Force and America is deeply appreciative of what we are doing. But we work very closely with the United States around the deployment of our military assets. And the expectation of the global community, the expectation of the United States as to where Australia should do heavy lifting is within our region. Within places like the South China Sea, like the northeast Indian Ocean, like the Pacific. And that’s we're our focus will be, and where our focus is maintained.
JOURNALIST: China has welcomed the decision not to send a warship as proof we're shifting away from the US, what's your response to that?
MARLES: Our decisions are made on Australia's national interest. If you look at every piece of serious analysis about where Australia's national interest lies, about where our focus needs to be, it is in the region and that is where our focus will be. We are seeing increased competition within our region. It is where our national security anxieties lie and it's where the principal effort of Australia's national security focus will be. And that is utterly in line with what is expected of us by the international community, including the United States.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible). Why is the material on your domestic flight and comcar travel not a security issue, but the VIP flights are?
MARLES: All that we do is consistent with security advice about not revealing patterns of behaviour, and patterns of life and all the trips that have been taken in relation to my work and those of other ministers of government are completely in accordance with the guidelines.
MARLES: We have been far more transparent in terms of information than has been our predecessors. It’s the actually the actions of our government which has been putting this material in the public domain. But we have acted completely consistent with both the security advice and the guidelines around the use of these entitlements.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible). Is it acceptable given the cost of living pressures voters are currently experiencing?
MARLES: As I say, our focus is very much on adhering to the guidelines and all the travel that we undertake is in accordance with that. We obviously completely understand the pressures that Australians are facing in relation to cost of living. That’s why the focus of measures that we've taken, really since coming to Government; putting downward pressure on energy bills, putting in place more affordable childcare, putting in place cheaper medicines – most of which has been done in the face of opposition from the Liberal party – has all been focused on cost of living. But the most significant thing that we can do in relation to this is conduct a war on inflation, and that is what we are seeking to do. And that is done through prudent economic management, which is why we’ve done something that the Liberals did, and that’s deliver a surplus.
MARLES: Look, I’m not briefed on that incident sorry, Andrew, so I can’t comment.
MARLES: I’ll need to take that on notice and come back to you.
MARLES: We will come back to you on that Andrew.
MARLES: Sorry, can you repeat the question. I’m struggling to hear.
MARLES: We made the decision in relation to the grounding of the Taipan fleet. We are looking at all the options available for maximising the value which sits within the Taipan fleet.
MARLES: The last thing I’m going to do is amplify or respond to Hamas press releases. I am surprised those questions are being asked and that people are seeking to do that. At the end of the day, we are making our decisions on the basis of Australia’s national interest. Let’s be completely clear, from the moment of the October 7 attacks we have utterly condemned the activities of Hamas and they stand condemned and we continue to do that. Hamas is a registered terror organisation as seen by Australia. Their behaviour has been utterly abominable and we stand in complete condemnation of Hamas.