Radio interview, ABC RN Breakfast with Sally Sara

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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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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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22 December 2023

SUBJECTS: Australia’s contribution to the Combined Maritime Forces; Red Sea; Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide; Veteran support over the holiday season.

SALLY SARA, HOST: Matt Thistlethwaite is the Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans’ Affairs and he joins me now. Minister, welcome to Breakfast.


SARA: The opposition has accused the government of being an international laughing stock by rejecting the US request. What do you think?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we haven't rejected the United States' request. There's 39 nations that are part of Operation Manitou to provide peace and stability in the Middle East and East Africa. Australia is one of those nations. The United States has asked nations to increase their contribution and that is exactly what Australia is doing.

SARA: But we're not sending a ship.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: We've decided that the most appropriate course is for Australia to increase its personnel contribution. So, we'll send six personnel to Operation Prosperity Guardian, and we'll double the number of personnel to Operation Manitou in Bahrain. We will at all times, Sally, act in what's Australia's best interest. And the Defence Strategic Review outlined that the priority for our maritime operations at the moment should be freedom of navigation and peace and prosperity in our region, particularly in the South China Sea where two thirds of Australia's trade passes through to get to Australia. So, we think that what's in Australia's best interest is to provide that staff contribution to the Middle East, but continue our maritime focus being on our region.

SARA: Our allies, of course, are a very important part of our strategic interests and defence within our region. Is sending six personnel enough when we get a request for help from our biggest ally?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, that's the request that was made and that's the request that Australia has met…

SARA: [interjecting] So, you're saying there wasn't a request for a ship?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, there's been numerous requests and…

SARA: [interjecting] Was a ship requested, Minister?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: There's been numerous requests, and this is the most appropriate request that Australia found was the most appropriate way to meet that request…

SARA: [interjecting] Sorry, just to clarify, Minister, was the US requesting a ship or are you saying that they were requesting six personnel?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: The US has made requests regarding naval operations, the US has made requests regarding staff. We've made a decision that the most appropriate response for Australia is to send additional personnel. And I think it's also worth noting that in 2020, the former Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, announced that Australia would reduce its naval presence in the Middle East to deploy more resources to our region. And that was the right call at the time. We're continuing with a tradition such as that by providing a focus on our naval resources being within our region and particularly protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea where two thirds of Australia's trade come through.

SARA: As you're saying, Minister, you're framing it as an issue of priorities, focusing on the most important regions for Australia. Does that mean that we don't have the capacity to be doing that task and also sending a ship elsewhere?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the Australian Navy have indicated that if it was required, a ship could have been provided to the Middle East. But the government has decided that what is in Australia's best interest is to focus on our region, and that is done in partnership with our allies, with the United States in particular. But more recently, we've begun naval cooperation with the Philippines and HMAS Toowoomba, HMAS Brisbane and Stalwart were recently within that region, working cooperatively with some of those new partners. So, we're expanding the cooperation that we have within our region and making sure that that's the focus. You can add to that the work that Australia does with our Pacific neighbours through our Guardian Patrol class vessels and the work that they do patrolling our region. That's the focus for Australia, and that was what was clearly outlined in the Defence Strategic Review and we're meeting those commitments.

SARA: Minister, I want to just bring you briefly to the other part of your portfolio, and that is Veterans' Affairs, particularly at this time of the year, but every other day of the year as well, the issue of Defence and veteran suicide is a very, very important one, and I know it's an important one to you in your portfolio. Will the Federal Government support the establishment of a standing commission to make sure that the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide when it delivers those final recommendations, to make sure that those recommendations are put into practice, will you consider that?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the Royal Commission issued an interim report. There were seven or eight important recommendations that the government has accepted and we're getting on with implementing. Obviously, I can't speculate on what the final recommendations will be, but to date, we've taken very seriously the recommendations that have been made by the Royal Commissioners and we're in the process of implementing. And the final recommendations, when they're handed down in the middle of next year, will get the serious consideration of the government and no doubt the parliament. And we'll do everything we can to make sure that we implement those recommendations as quickly as possible.

SARA: Do you think it would be a good idea to have some kind of body, even if it, for example, has got a sunset of ten years, just to really grind away and make sure that these recommendations are not only accepted but put into practise?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, other nations have taken that approach, most notably the United Kingdom. And I know that the Royal Commissioners have travelled to the UK to see how similar bodies operate in that region, but again, I can't speculate on what they'll recommend. They may recommend something like that, they may not and we'll wait and see what those recommendations are. I'd also just like to add, Sally, that over this period, the holiday period, can be a difficult time for a lot of veterans throughout the country. It can be a time of isolation, of anxiety and depression. And the government's calling on all Australians to reach out to a mate that's a veteran during this period and check in on them. You may help someone, and you may even save a life.

SARA: It can be a very difficult time of year for many. Matt Thistlethwaite, thank you very much for joining RN Breakfast.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks, Sally, and Merry Christmas to you and your listeners.


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