8 January 2024
SUBJECTS: Operation Kudu; Australian Defence Force assistance to Ukraine; ADF recruitment; Medicare bulk billing.
MATT BURNELL, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR SPENCE: It's great to be here my name is Matt Burnell I'm the Federal Member for Spence and today's a really auspicious day where we send off our fifth contingency for Operation Kudu I'm joined today by the Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite and on that note I'm going to hand over to him to say a few words.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ACTING MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thanks Matt Burnell, the Member for Spence, himself a veteran. I thank him for his service to our nation. Matt brings a very important firsthand perspective to the government on defence policy and issues. I'm very pleased to be back here at Defence Base Edinburgh to farewell the 90 troops who are heading off to the UK as part of Operation Kudu to let them know that the Australian government and the Australian people are proud of their service and that their service is making a difference with Ukrainian infantry in defending their homeland from Russia's acts of illegal aggression. We're proud of the troops that are about to head off to the UK because they are standing up. They're standing up in the defence of the Ukrainian people and helping with the assistance of the training of Ukrainian soldiers. They're standing up to Russia's illegal act of aggression and illegal invasion of Ukraine and most importantly they're standing up to the important principles of freedom of liberty and the right of Ukrainian people to live in peace, also they're making a difference. 370 members of the Australian Defence Force have already been to the UK this is the fifth rotation under Operation Kudu and the training that our soldiers are providing to Ukrainian infantrymen and women is making a difference and we're seeing that on the ground in Ukraine with the great job that Ukrainian military are doing in defending their homeland. Finally, I'd like to pay tribute to members of the Ukrainian community, the locals who've joined us here today. It's an important symbol of the solidarity that exists between the people of Australia and the people of Ukraine and our two militaries. You would have seen the Ukrainian Minister bless these crosses, these crosses will be taken by members of the Australian Defence Force to the UK and provided to their compatriots that they'll be training Ukrainian soldiers as a symbol of the solidarity and the bonds that exist between our two nations and importantly as a symbol of hope that the Ukrainian people will be successful in the defence of their nation so that they can finally once again live in peace and freedom. I'm now going to hand over to Brigadier Orders who will make a few comments and then we'll take some questions. Thank you.
Brigadier Tim Orders, Commander 9th Brigade: Thank you, Minister, and thank you for your attendance here today. As the Minister said, we are very proud today to mark an occasion that sees us standing shoulder to shoulder with the people and the armed forces of Ukraine. And what today marks is an extension and also an expansion of that mission that sees the Australian soldiers deploying today, continuing their training mission in the UK, but also to include junior leader and small team training. And really, that's a recognition of the expertise and the talents of our Australian army and the soldiers that were on parade today. They really are world class and we're incredibly proud to farewell them today and to have them represent the Brigade, the 9th Brigade, the 7th Battalion, the Australian army, and also the community of South Australia and a nation. It's fantastic to have elements of the Ukrainian community here with us today to provide that symbol of solidarity that the Minister spoke of. So, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
MINISTER: Any questions about this or defence matters and then we might move on to other things. Okay.
JOURNALIST: There’s been claims that the Federal Government has received request from Ukraine to use Australia’s unwanted Taipan helicopters, but it has been decided to destroy those helicopters or disassemble them. Why has that been the decision of the Federal Government if we’re so interested to support Ukraine?
MINISTER: The Taipan helicopters have been decommissioned by the government and the Australian Defence Force after a number of issues, most recently the tragic accident that occurred in Talisman Sabre, where, unfortunately, a number of members of the Australian Defence Force perished. Australia is one of the largest non-NATO contributors to the resistance effort in Ukraine. Already we've devoted $910 million worth of expenditure. About $730 million of that is on military equipment. It includes 120 Bushmasters, it includes a wedgetail aircraft, it includes many artillery vehicles, it includes artillery and howitsers. And, of course, it includes humanitarian support. So, we make decisions as a government, based on the advice of the Australian Defence Force, working in cooperation with the Ukrainian military, about what is the most appropriate support that we can provide, and we'll continue to do that.
JOURNALIST: And what will happen with those Taipan helicopters now? Will they be decommissioned?
MINISTER: Well, they'll be decommissioned in the ordinary process. I think it's worth noting that there's an ongoing safety investigation that's being conducted by the Civil Aviation and Military Safety Authorities. That will run its course and findings will be made. But those helicopters will be decommissioned in the ordinary course. They're being replaced by Blackhawks. We've received the first batch of those Blackhawks and they're currently in the process of commissioning and training. We want to make sure that safety is first when it comes to not only the helicopter fleet, but all equipment that's used by the Australian Defence Force.
JOURNALIST: Ukraine is also relying on its allies to continue providing support for what could be years to come. Would you say Australia's in with them for the long haul on this?
MINISTER: Most definitely. Australia is one of the strongest supporters of the people of Ukraine and their military and their effort to resist the illegal and unprovoked aggression and invasion by Russia. And we'll continue to provide that important support. We're regularly meeting with the Ukrainian Ambassador, we regularly have dialogue between our militaries and that support will continue. And Operation Kudu is an important part of that. This is the fifth rotation. They'll be off to the UK for three months to provide that important training, but there'll be further rotations that will last through to the end of 2024 and beyond if it's required.
JOURNALIST: Australia's embassy in Kiev still, it’s not operating at the moment. Is there any update on when that might open?
MINISTER: Look, we're continually assessing that situation. We need to make sure that the government caters for the safety and the well being of our embassy staff, regardless of where they are throughout the world. So, we're constantly making sure that we assess the situation to make sure that we can provide a safe workplace for all of our embassy staff, no matter.
JOURNALIST: There are Australian citizens known to be fighting Ukrainian armed forces and Israeli Defence Force. What’s the Government’s message to any other Australians who are looking to serve in those forces?
MINISTER: Well, obviously we caution anyone that is considering fighting for another defence force. Obviously, people are dual citizens and can make their own decisions. But the advice of the Australian government is that Australians should not travel to these zones at the moment because of the potential harm that can be caused to life and liberty, but also because they are active war zones. And the advice of DFAT and the Australian government is not to travel to those zones at the moment.
JOURNALIST: What about suggestions that the ADF’s ability to recruit foreign citizens to fight for Australia, are there any potential risks to that proposal?
MINISTER: Yeah, we know that we need to grow the Australian Defence Force over the next decade. The Defence Strategic Review indicated that we need to make sure that we have a growing defence force that has the preparedness and the training to defend our nation in a worst case scenario in the future. And that's why the government is putting in place a number of initiatives to encourage not only recruitment to the Australian Defence Force, but also retention as well. And the Minister announced a $50,000 bonus for members of the Australian Defence Force who have completed their required training to continue on for a number of years. Three years. That's an incentive that was announced and became operational last week. We're also conducting a number of investigations at the moment about how we improve the support for Australian Defence Force members and their families. In particular, we know that in the modern day workforce, we've got a tight labour market. It can be a challenge for families to have to move on deployments on a routine basis to uproot their families, to move their kids to new schools if they've got a partner that's working to find new employment. These are all challenges in a tight labour market that the Australian Defence Force and the government has to deal with. And that's why we're conducting a review of defence housing at the moment to make sure that it caters for the needs of the Australian Defence Force members. And we provide as much support and flexibility for defence families to encourage people to join the Australian Defence Force and to see it as a rewarding and fulfilling and long career in the defence of our nation.
JOURNALIST: So not actively looking at recruiting non-citizens?
MINISTER: It's something that's being considered at the moment, but it's not a priority in terms of the suite of measures that the government has already announced that support recruitment and retention in the Australian Defence Force.
JOURNALIST: A couple of other issues. New figures show wages are growing under Labor, but economists warn if they go too high, we could have higher interest rates for longer. So, can voters trust Labor on the economy?
MINISTER: Well, finally, Labor's getting wages moving again and we promised to do this at the last election. We've had a decade of stagnation of people's real incomes and part of our suite of policies to help Australians deal with cost of living has been getting wages moving again, supporting an increase to the minimum wage, supporting an increase to aged care workers wages, and instituting new legislation that supports gig economy workers, that supports people who've been employed by labour hire companies to make sure that they are paid fairly and that they have reasonable wages and conditions. We make no apologies for supporting wages growth in the Australian economy. It's an important factor in ensuring that Australian families and households can deal with cost of living pressures.
JOURNALIST: And the government's spending more than $30 million to crack down on abuse in kids sport. Will this solve the problem?
MINISTER: Look, this is an important initiative that's been announced by the Sports Minister today. It's a $36 million commitment to improve the integrity of sport throughout Australia. And as a Father of four daughters who love their soccer, who are involved in swimming and surf lifesaving, we need to be doing more to encourage younger members of our community to take up sports, particularly female members. And this integrity package is very much aimed at promoting the assistance and the involvement of First Nations Australians in sport. It's very much aimed at promoting the involvement of women and ensuring that they have support and that there is integrity around the involvement of those groups within sport in Australia. This is an important initiative that will pay dividends into the future for Australian sports people.
JOURNALIST: Moving from sport to health, how concerned are you that less than a quarter of GP’s nationally are bulkbilling?
MINISTER: Well, we've had a decade of decimation of Medicare by the previous government and it's going to take time to rebuild Medicare. But the Albanese Government is completely committed to ensuring that we rebuild Medicare. That's why we're investing three and a half billion dollars in Medicare. By tripling the bulk billing incentive for juniors and concession cardholders, we want to lift those bulk billing rates once again. We're also investing in 56 Medicare Urgent Care Clinics across the country. One of those is in the electorate here of Spence down the road at Elizabeth, and they're taking much needed pressure off hospital emergency departments and ensuring that people can get the care that they deserve when it's non life threatening without having to wait for hours in a hospital emergency department. So, we're going to continue to invest and to rebuild Medicare, but it's going to take time.
JOURNALIST: You’re saying it’s taking pressure off the hospital emergency department but we know as of just a few days ago, a man died because he waited 10 hours for an ambulance. How are things changing in the next couple of weeks, given this is an election promise?
MINISTER: Well, I've got an Urgent Care Clinic in my electorate that I've visited on several occasions and I know that it's making a difference through the feedback that I'm getting from members of our community regarding their non-life threatening care. Going to the Urgent Care Clinic, instead of having to wait 5 or 6 hours at an emergency department, being seen in 40 minutes to an hour and getting the care that they deserve. We're going to see more and more of these opened up throughout the country. More and more medical professionals being involved in working in the Urgent Care Cinics and getting better results for Australians when it comes to their health care.