31 January 2024
SUBJECTS: Defence investment in NT; RAAF Darwin solar farm; Defence housing.
ADAM STEER, HOST: Last year, the Albanese Government released a long awaited strategic review into Australia's defence capability. It was only the third time in four decades that such a review had been completed. And for Darwin it meant a share in the $3.8 billion over the next four years for northern bases, a drop in the ocean perhaps, compared to the federal government's plan to spend $19 billion to improve six priority areas. Well, yesterday $24 million of that funding was announced for Darwin based defence sites, including Robertson Barracks and Howard Springs. The federal Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite, is in Darwin. Assistant Minister, welcome to ABC Radio Darwin. Welcome to the top end of the Northern Territory. You headed out to Robo yesterday. What's the $24 million going to be used for?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: These are important investments in infrastructure that improves the liveability of bases for our troops. So, I announced yesterday $24 million that will be spent on upgrading medical and dental facilities at the Barracks there as well as a new military working dog facility, the training facility there, which is really important for supporting our troops in combat. Upgrades to health facilities, including the gymnasium, a new air conditioning system, new cladding for the walls there to improve the liveability of that, as well as upgrades to air conditioning systems at Howard Springs. And all of this is aimed at, they're small to medium scale infrastructure projects, aimed at improving the experience that troops have on our bases here in the top end.
STEER: Last year we had a tragic training incident where three Marines lost their lives. Several more were injured. It threw our emergency services in the top end into chaos with the hospital going into code brown, air ambulances, all being diverted to the crash. Is part of this investment in that medical procedures at Robo? Is that a direct result of that?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, this was scheduled for some time because it is in need of an upgrade and there's been upgrades to building regulations regarding the seals around buildings to improve their liveability. But credit to the first responders here in Darwin for the excellent work that they did last year in the wake of that tragic accident. And I met with the Commanding Officer of the Marines in the wake of that to express our support and sympathy on behalf of the Australian people. The first responders here did a wonderful job.
STEER: Absolutely. But what needs to be invested in Darwin to ensure the city can both service military and citizens at the same time? Because that didn't occur.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's really important and that's part of what we were announcing yesterday. And I toured the facilities there yesterday - the medical centre at the Barracks and it’s first rate. And any troops that serve there get some of the best medical attention they could possibly get, including emergency attention if it's required. But these particular Marines were transferred straight to the Darwin hospital, and they did an excellent job and certainly had the facilities and the skills and experience to cater for a situation like that. But it is a wake up call for the territory government and for the federal government, because if something bigger does happen, given that we're having all of these exercises on a regular basis here and there's more and more troops coming through, I think we need to be alert to that fact and start preparing for the case where there may be bigger casualties and we may need to ensure that we're better trained in the future.
STEER: Does that mean some type of hospital base, some type of defence hospital?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, all of the bases do have defence health facilities and they're akin to what you see in an emergency department in a territory or a state based hospital, and they're very, very good. And you have some of the best trauma doctors and experienced doctors that can deal with emergency situations in the country that work at these bases.
STEER: Yeah, but if that was the case, why were those patients transferred to RDH? Clearly RDH had superior technology or superior facilities to help with those people.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think it was the closest facility, so it was an emergency situation and that was the decision that the medical professionals made.
STEER: Five to nine, eight. Excuse me, on ABC Radio, Darwin, don't panic. It's only five to eight. Your special guest this morning, Federal Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite. This morning you're going to head back to Robo to open a new solar farm for the base. What's the thinking behind the transition the base over to solar? Will this be energy that feeds just back into the base, or will it be feeding into the grid?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm heading to RAAF Base Darwin this morning where we're launching a solar farm there. It's a 3.2 megawatt system, 9,000 solar panels, and that will provide about 40% of the base's energy needs and it will save about $130,000 a year for the base in electricity costs. And that's obviously savings that Defence can make to invest in better facilities for troops and in capability into the future. So, this is a really important investment that we're launching today. It's one of a few here in the top end, another one at Robertson Barracks and another one at Hart’s Range. They'll come online in the first quarter of this year as well. And these are part of the Defence's Renewable Energy and Energy Security Programme and it's aimed at reducing carbon emissions. This particular project reduces about 2,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year. So, that's a cleaner environment for the people in the Top End and an energy saving as well.
STEER: Yeah, but is that power feeding into the grid or just powering the base itself?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: It predominantly powers the base, but if there's any leftover, it can feed into the grid. So, it feeds into the grid as well.
STEER: You heard earlier from Ian Satchwell. He's the Senior Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on the change in movement of defence families.
SATCHWELL: Townsville will get about 800 new Defence personnel this year, 2024, along with their family members, and that's going to give Townsville a pretty good population boost. So, Darwin is getting comparatively fewer additional defence personnel, only about 100 in part. That's because the leakage of Defence personnel and their families from Darwin is higher than it is from Townsville. So, Defence is being really pragmatic and say, well, we'd preference Townsville to put our Defence personnel over Darwin because people are less likely to leave.
STEER: Is that true, Minister?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, it's not. It's a decision that Defence made based on where we want to have capability situated throughout the country. And the decision regarding Townsville is one of ensuring that Defence combat capability and the hardware associated with that combat, such as tanks and military fighting vehicles, will be situated there and some of the airlift capacity as well. So, Blackhawks and Chinook Helicopters. But very much there's an investment in Darwin that's going on around improving littoral capacity. So, Darwin will get about an additional 100 troops. So, it's not true that -
STEER: It’s a drop in the ocean compared to the 800 that Townsville is getting.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: But that’s because that capability is being based there and Darwin will be very much focusing on a littoral capacity. And that's because that's where the skill and expertise here, and we see that with North Force at the moment, where you have that knowledge and that skill that exists within that highly trained and highly skilled force around patrolling the waters in the north of Australia and providing that littoral support and capacity. And that's why we're upgrading facilities here. We upgraded the wharf at HMAS Coonawarra, upgrades to Larrakeyah Barracks, the upgrades that I announced yesterday at Robertson Barracks. Tindal’s getting a massive upgrade in terms of the airlift capacity coming out of there. So, these are all strategic decisions that are being made about where we're basing capability. It's not anything to do with moving families or moving particular troops to a particular area because of the weather or anything like that.
STEER: So, can we expect a bigger build up in the future?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: You're going to see about 100 additional troops come to Darwin, but also you're going to see, I think, increases in the rotational forces that are coming through here. As part of the US Force Posture Initiative, we're starting to see an increase in the number of annual and bi-annual exercises that are occurring, Pitch Black and others that will be occurring here in the non-wet season. And these are all important exercises that will see many more troops rotate through Darwin and continue that great tradition of this as a Garrison town.
STEER: Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite, thank you for your time this morning. Enjoy the rest of your time in the top end.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thank you for having me.