Doorstop interview, Robertson Barracks, Darwin

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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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30 January 2024

SUBJECTS: Strengthening northern bases; Defence housing; Defence personnel retention.

LUKE GOSLING, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: Good afternoon everyone, my name is Luke Gosling Federal Member for Solomon. It's fantastic to be out here on this beautiful wet season day at Robertson Barracks. To be with the Commander, Brigadier Doug Pashley and his men and women of the 1st Brigade and of course, it's always awesome to have my mate, the Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans, Matt Thistlethwaite, up from Sydney. Matt is a frequent visitor here to the top end and he's a good friend of the Territory, and fortunately, because we have lots to announce up here in the Territory if you know what's come out of the Defence Strategic Review and the extra funding, the infrastructure funding, going into the Territory. Today is another example of that, now around 24 million going into mainly here at the 1st Brigade, but also some out to Howard Springs for maintenance but I'll let Matt, give us all the details, it's just fantastic to have you up here again.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thanks, Luke. Luke Gosling is the go-to guy in the Labor caucus for all matters around Defence in Canberra, himself a veteran and I thank Luke for his service to our nation. It's wonderful to be back here at Robertson Barracks and I want to thank Brigadier Pashley and the troops that I met this morning to show me around the base so that I could see some of the important infrastructure work that’s taking place to ensure that we upgrade important places such as this. The Albanese Government is investing $24 million here at Robertson Barracks, and Howard Springs to upgrade the base, to make sure that the infrastructure is modern and fit for purpose and that we're supporting our troops to ensure that they're ready to serve our nation. These are important infrastructure upgrades, medium to small scale ones, that improve the liveability of an important base such as this, and this morning I was fortunate to go and visit the health facility and the dental facility that's going to get a new upgrade, we’re constructing a new facility for the very important work of the Military Working Dogs that support our troops in combat. And of course, new cladding and new air conditioning and a new system for the health facilities and the gymnasium to ensure that our troops are as fit as they possibly can be, and are ready to serve our nation. This is one of 65 projects throughout the country that the Albanese Government is investing in. $356 million worth of investment in every state and territory to ensure that our bases are fit for purpose, and that our troops are the best prepared that they possibly can be to defend our nation. As well as these small-scale investments that we're making in infrastructure here, we're doing the big stuff as well. Basically, across the whole of the top end most of our bases are getting major upgrades. From the wharf facility at HMAS Coonawarra, to a new runway facility over at RAAF Base Curtin, to new facilities over at Scherger, and the Greenvale Training Area, Shoal Bay facilities and those sorts of important military facilities along the top end, all of those are being upgraded by the government as well. So these are important investments. They create jobs in the local community. And this morning, I was fortunate to meet some of the contractors that are performing this infrastructure work here at Robertson Barracks. Its work will create about 230 jobs in the local community, small to medium sized enterprises, partnering with the Department of Defence to deliver these infrastructure upgrades. And remarkably, for all the work that's occurring here at Robertson barracks, indigenous businesses are being engaged. And that is fantastic. A great investment, a great partnership from Defence with indigenous businesses in the local community to create high skilled, important jobs, and even apprenticeships, for new people coming through in the trades as well. So this is a great investment. I'm very proud to be here with my good mate, Luke Gosling, and we're happy to take some questions if anyone has any.

Journalist: So the 24 million, how much will be spent here at Robbo and how much does Howard Springs (inaudible), need to make it fit for purpose?

Assistant Minister: Of the 24 million, 22 million will be spent here at Robertson Barracks on those three important jobs that I mentioned earlier. And the further 2 million will be spent at Howard Springs, basically to upgrade the air conditioning system. You all know that there's pretty harsh conditions here in the north and you need to make sure that air conditioning systems that are pretty important to the liveability and comfort of people that are serving in the north, are functioning, so they'll get a regular upgrade. And that's important to ensure that those facilities are liveable.

Journalist: And the remaining 22, that's not going to accommodation here is that that's a different part of the estate project?

Assistant Minister: Yeah, there's more projects to come into the future. and I'll be coming back up to announce more projects as they come online. The 22 million here that we're announcing today is for the upgrade to the medical and dental facilities, the Working Dog facilities and the gymnasium upgrade.

Journalist: Can you explain the importance of investing in Defence in the NT?

Assistant Minister: It's vitally important. The Defence Strategic Review indicated that we need to as a government as a defence force, invest in better facilities across the whole of the north. And over the past six months, I've visited a lot of those facilities. From HMAS Cairns in the North of Queensland where we're just about to start a wharf upgrade, I've travelled down to the Greenvale Training Area where work is are about to start on an upgrade to that important training facility that we co-share with the Singaporean military to ensure that the ongoing partnership that exists between our two militaries is first rate. Then you come over here to the Northern Territory, basically, most of the bases in the Northern Territory are receiving upgrades. A couple of months ago I was down at Tindal to see the runway upgrades, the apron upgrades, the new maintenance facilities, the new energy systems that have been constructed to support that base. And then I've flown over to RAAF Base Pearce where they're getting a runway upgrade and brand new facilities over there as well. These are vitally important strategic assets for our nation, and all of them are being upgraded by the Albanese Government.

Journalist: How concerned are you that the Stuart Highway gets cut off – it’s the third year in a row it’s now been cut off because of dodgy weather, as well as that the railway. The Defence Strategic Review did talk about, you know, the importance of acceptability into the north. Is it a concern?

Assistant Minister: Yeah, it is a really important issue because the Defence Strategic Review did identify that climate change is now a major national security threat. And given that a lot of our strategic bases are in the north here, and are subject to the extremities of climate change, and you have a very rugged, wet season up here, making sure that those facilities are accessible and that they can function properly is really, really important and the government's been involved in upgrading some of those facilities across the north. When I travelled to Derby, in the north of Western Australia, the Fitzroy bridge had been cut off because of the flooding that occurred in the months leading up to that and that is being reconstructed. So we're keen to invest in infrastructure projects such as that to ensure that our bases are accessible and that they can work into the future.

Journalist: The review recommended about 1,000 troops be relocated from South Australia to Darwin and Townsville, how many will be coming to Darwin, and when will that start being relocated?

Assistant Minister: So those troops will start coming towards next year and it takes about four to five years for the transfer to be completed. That will involve combat readiness, particularly in the north here, and improve the capacity of our troops and the Brigadier and I have been speaking about some of the training that's occurring here at the moment, to improve the littoral capacity of the 1st Brigade and that's really, really important.

As well as that, we're looking at what the accommodation needs are going to be for those troops coming into an area like Darwin and Townsville in the future. And we're working closely with DHA, to make sure that the projections for housing requirements are being met and that we're investing in new housing in places like Darwin to ensure that when those troops do come, they've got places where they can live comfortably.

Journalist: How much do you expect the Defence population to increase probably over the next decade up here?

Assistant Minister: We're looking at around four to 500 troops increase over the course of the next decade. But Darwin is pretty used to this sort of thing, because we now have the marine rotational force that comes on a regular basis to this area and places like this have a surge capacity. That's why the government did the partnership with the Northern Territory Government to invest in Howard Springs as a facility that can accommodate that surge capacity when it comes. We're pretty confident that working with organisations like Defence Housing Australia, with the Australian Defence Force, that we'll be able to meet those demands into the future and provide comfortable living quarters for all those that are coming to the north.

Journalist: $24 million is a huge investment, are you hoping for more investment in the future?

Assistant Minister: We are making those investments as we speak. As I mentioned earlier, the Tindal Base upgrade is about to be completed. That's a billion dollar investment that's been taking place there. The wharf upgrades at HMAS Coonawarra, there'll be further living accommodation upgrades, RAAF Base Darwin is getting a runway upgrade at the moment. So these are large, multibillion dollar investments that the government is making here in the north. As well as that we're making sure that we're doing the medium, small scale infrastructure that's so important to the liveability and the accommodation of troops on bases such as this and that's why the announcement today is pretty important.

Journalist: When can we expect announcements around the accommodation (inaudible)?

Assistant Minister: Yeah, those will come over the course of this year. As I said, we're doing the planning work at the moment with Defence Housing Australia and the Australian Defence Force. We want to make sure that in pretty harsh conditions such as this in the north here, that people have access to air conditioning, that they have access to reasonable quarters when they come and base themselves here. And so far, I think the Defence has done a pretty good job in supplying those accommodation quarters. But we know with additional troops coming to the base here, with the additions that come with the Marine Rotational Force, Darwin is now an integral part of a lot of the multinational exercises that take place like Talisman Sabre, Pitch Black and others, we're going to need better facilities into the future and we'll make those investments when they’re needed.

Journalist: (inaudible).

Assistant Minister: Yeah, obviously, some allegations have been made regarding Wing Commander Pearce. My understanding is that she is still performing that role. Those allegations will be investigated, according to the normal policies and procedures of the Australian Defence Force, and at some time in the future a determination and decision will be made. I can't comment any further than that the investigation has to run its course and everyone has to be offered natural justice.

Journalist: Who is doing the investigation? You said the normal course of investigation, what is that?

Assistant Minister: Well there are normal procedures that the Defence Force, like any organisation in Australia follows when allegations such as this are made, and there are policies that have to be followed. And appropriate people with the expertise and the experience to investigate these matters are put in place and that's going on with this investigation.

Journalist: Is there a general timeframe that this could take?

Assistant Minister: I can't give you a timeline at this stage, but these investigations need to run their course according to the policy and everyone has to be offered natural justice and that will occur as well.  anything about one of the moments that have landed her under investigation,

Journalist: (inaudible)

Assistant Minister: I can't comment any further other than to say that the allegations have been made, and the allegations will be investigated in due course.

Journalist: Just touching back onto Stuart Highway. Are you in a position to lobby additional funding from a Defence perspective?

Assistant Minister: Obviously, from a Defence perspective we want to see that our bases have appropriate infrastructure to ensure accessibility, but I know my mate behind me, Luke Gosling, is constantly lobbying not only for better infrastructure associated with Defence, but for infrastructure for the local community in the north here. So I might ask Luke here if he wants to add anything about Stuart Highway given he knows it a lot better than I do.

GOSLING: Yeah, the Stuart Highway and our rail line are obviously vital for resupply and movement of people and goods up here to the Northern Territory and if that is cut that becomes a big issue for Defence as well as for our communities. It is really, really important that when we're building back this infrastructure that we build it back so that it can withstand future adverse weather.

As well as my interest as a Federal Member representing the Territory, I'm also the Chair of the Regional Development Infrastructure and Transport Committee. And last year, I ran an inquiry into how we make our road systems more resilient to what we know is now happening with more frequent and more highly intensive adverse weather events. We've seen the highway cuts for the last three years in a row and what we want to do, and we've started addressing this with increasing the funding and roads to recovery. And I've made several recommendations to our government as a Chair of that Committee about how we can build our infrastructure back better so that it can withstand more intensive rainfall periods into the future.

Journalist: Another question for the Assistant Minister, what was behind the decision to base the ADF’s new missile unit in South Australia and not in Australia’s north?

Assistant Minister: So, we took the advice of the Defence Chiefs, and the Chief of the Defence Force. It's about ensuring that we bolster the combat and littoral capacity of the Australian Defence Force in the north. We will have seen that the changes in troops in Townsville and Darwin are all aimed at bolstering that combat and littoral capacity in the north. And that's taken off the back of the recommendation that comes from the Defence Strategic Review. Based in Adelaide, we have the Defence Science and Technology Group, which is the cutting edge of new technology. And Australia is in the infancy, but has big ambitions to develop a missile industry and a missile technology. And we found that the appropriate place to base that, given that you have the expertise, you have the infrastructure, and you have the resources, is in Adelaide. So it makes sense to have your combat capacity based in the north and long range fire development capacity being developed in an area where you have that expertise and that infrastructure and support.

Journalist: Is it hard to get troops up here? There’s some reporting a few months ago that you're having trouble getting troops to stick around Darwin. They come here for a while, do one rotation, once they have kids, you've lost them forever. How do you address that challenge?

Assistant Minister: I often ask troops, when I come up to places like Darwin and Townsville in the north, what they think about coming up here and I tell you what a common response I get is: I was apprehensive at first but now that I'm here, I love it and I want to stay.

And Brigadier Pashley lives in the community, close to where I live and I've known him for a while. Now he's away from his family but he's up here in the north doing a fantastic job. And he said a similar thing to me, that once people come here, once they get to know the town, the local community, they become entrenched, and they love the place. And that's why a lot of Defence people do stay on to buy homes in the local community. And why it’s well known as a great Garrison down here in Darwin.

Journalist: Are you worried about information based on the Iranian bombing of the American (inaudible), are you worried about an escalation in the Middle East and now the American troops have actually lost their lives? And what would you say to the US President?

Assistant Minister: Yeah, well, Australia obviously is part of that multinational force that's combating what's been going on with the Houthi rebels and the attacks on commercial shipping in a strategically important part of the world. Australia has tripled its involvement with a number of personnel working in management roles there and an important part of that strategic response. So we see it as a strategically important part of the world. Obviously, it's something that we’re monitoring closely, but we're very, very proud to be part of that multinational force that is doing a good job combatting what is a very dangerous and concerning situation.

Journalist: How much does the defence industry actually contribute to the Territory’s economy and is it the biggest contributor?

Assistant Minister: It is a huge contributor to the economy up here in the North, and you're starting to see a lot more Defence industry base itself here, because this is a well known Garrison town and because the US Force Posture Initiatives is occurring on an annual basis here. You're starting to see that interoperability improved that information exchange it's so important to the partnership that we have with many of our allies here in the North.

So I’ve come to Darwin in the past to address defence industry conferences here. I know that they're growing. I know that the employment and defence industry here in the north is growing. And it's a strategically important industry, for this community that's only going to grow into the future. And that's something that the government wholeheartedly support. Thanks. Thanks, everyone. Thank you.

GOSLING: Just a final point on that one, the Defence Strategic Review outlines spending in Northern Australia at 3 billion plus dollars. 2 billion of that is in the Northern Territory. What's really crucial is our relationships between industry here in the Northern Territory, and government. So that's why when we have visits to the north here, as we did with Defence Minister Richard Marles, recently, and now with Matt, as his Assistant Minister, meeting with industry, but also will be meeting with veterans. So with Matt’s Assistant Minister for Veterans hat on, we'll be meeting with veterans as well. This is where looking after people in the community become so important as well. And that's why the Albanese Labor Government has put $3.6 million into the Scott Palmer Centre, supporting accommodation for our veterans, but also about social infrastructure, whether that be pool upgrades that we've seen in Darwin and Palmerston, a youth engagement hub, and a new mens shed. You know, this is about more social infrastructure for people, including Defence members, which will make it a better place to live and Defence members will be happier while they're here. And more of them when they get out, will choose to make Darwin home. And that's a win win for everyone. Thanks very much.


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