Television Interview, ABC News Breakfast

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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

Defence Media

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8 January 2024

SUBJECTS: Australian Defence Force assistance to Ukraine; Red Sea; Republic.

MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: More Australian soldiers leave for the UK later today to help train Ukraine's defence forces as the war approaches its second anniversary next month. Australia has committed to expanding its support for Ukraine throughout the year. The acting Defence Minister, Matt Thistlethwaite, joined us a little earlier from Sydney airport.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ACTING MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: I'll be farewelling about 90 members of the 7th Royal Australian Regiment from the Defence Base in Adelaide this morning and they'll be heading off to the United Kingdom as part of Operation Kudu. And that'll take to a total of 370 Australians who've been involved in the training of members of the Ukrainian infantry. They're mainly doing infantry training in urban and forestry environments. There's also a small number that will be participating in a young leader’s program, so training the next generation of young leaders of the Ukrainian military. So, it's an important role that the Australian troops that are heading off today will be performing.

ROWLAND: We are fast approaching the second anniversary of this conflict, seemingly intractable, with no sign of it ending anytime soon. In your view, is the West, including countries like Australia, doing enough to help Ukraine?

MINISTER: Well, to date, Australia has been involved in providing about $910 million worth of support to Ukraine. Of course, this is an illegal and unprovoked invasion that Russia undertook and Australia has been one of the largest non-NATO supporters of the effort of the Ukrainian military to resist. And it involves things like about $730 million worth of military aid in the form of 120 Bushmasters, a Wedgetail aircraft, howitzer guns, artillery, as well as the on the ground support that we've been providing for aid for Ukrainian communities to recover. But Australia has been one of the largest non-NATO contributors and that contribution and that support will continue to make sure that Ukraine can defend itself and that its sovereignty is upheld.

ROWLAND: Okay, let's turn to another flashpoint where Australia could help out. That's Yemen. We have the attacks from Houthi rebels continuing at pace over the New Year's period on cargo ships. Are there any circumstances under which Minister, Australia will reconsider its decision not to send a warship to help out there?

MINISTER: Well, we joined a number of other nations on the 3 January this year in condemning the attacks that have been occurring on commercial shipping. In that area, we've been pretty forthright in saying that Australia has been part of that international effort to combat that. We are making a contribution. We'll be tripling the contingent of Australian troops that are heading there. But at the moment, the government has made a decision that in terms of our maritime priorities, Australia's priority is to work within our region, particularly in the Asia Pacific.

ROWLAND: Even though the tax on these cargo ships affect countries like Australia?

MINISTER: Well, we are making a contribution and we're making that contribution through personnel that are working in leadership roles there and working in coordination roles. And as I said, our priority is our region. Two thirds of Australia's shipping and imports and exports to our country come through the Asia Pacific. And that's why the government sees the freedom of navigation exercises that we're undertaking in particularly the South China Sea, as fundamentally important to protecting those sea lanes for Australian industry.

ROWLAND: Before we go, I want to turn to your other portfolio. You're also the Assistant Minister for the Republic. Minister, you were quoted over the weekend as saying Labor is now unlikely, if re-elected, to hold a referendum on whether Australia should become a republic. Why is that?

MINISTER: At the moment, Michael, our priority is cost of living pressure for Australians, and all of our policies have been directed at assisting Australians to get through that difficult period. Our cheaper childcare, our energy rebates, cheaper medicines, fee-free Tafe. It's all about assisting communities and households with cost of living. Having said that, longer term, it's part of the Labor platform that we believe that we should have an Australian as our head of state. The current method of selecting our head of state is undemocratic. It doesn't represent modern Australian values, and that's something that we want to begin a discussion with Australians on in the longer term. But at the moment, our priority is cost of living relief.

ROWLAND: Just to clarify, longer term, therefore, does not mean, if re-elected, next term for Labor.

MINISTER: Look, I'm not going to put a timeline on it, Michael. At the moment, our priority is cost of living, and that's the appropriate thing for the government to be concentrating on.

ROWLAND: You don't really need to be Assistant Minister for the Republic, If it's being booted down the road here, this republic can.

MINISTER: Well, I'm not giving up. I'm certainly committed to and still passionate about Australia, hopefully having one day one of our own as our head of state and I'll continue to perform that important work as an Assistant to the Attorney-General. We know that, unfortunately, the Voice referendum wasn't successful, but we're not giving up. It's a longer term priority, but at the moment, the priority of the Albanese Government is cost of living relief for Australians.

ROWLAND: Acting Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite there.



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