Radio interview, MIX 104.9 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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31 January 2024

SUBJECTS: Defence investment in NT; RAAF Darwin solar farm; Defence personnel in northern bases.

KATIE WOOLF, HOST: The Assistant Minister Matt Thistlethwaite is in the top end over the next couple of days, inspecting facilities targeted in the Commonwealth's $2 billion Defence budget, sorry, the Territory Defence budget, that is. And the Assistant Minister joins me on the line right now. Good morning to you.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE:  Good morning, Katie. Great to talk to you again.

WOOLF: Yeah, great to have you on the show. Thank you so much for your time. Now tell us, we know that there is that funding boost for the Robertson Barracks and Howard Springs south facility. What kind of upgrades are required?

ASSISTANT MINISTER:  Yeah, we're investing $24 million in upgrades, particularly Robertson Barracks, where we're upgrading the medical and dental facilities, a new training facility for the military working dogs, and upgrades to the gymnasium as well, the air conditioning unit there. And over at Howard Springs, a new upgrade for the air conditioning. We all know how important air conditioning is in the top end, and these are all small to medium scale infrastructure projects aimed at improving the liveability of bases here in the north and ensuring that our troops get the support that they need when they're undertaking this important training to defend our nation.

WOOLF: Have we got quite a few people living or staying out there at that Howard Springs facility now?

ASSISTANT MINISTER:  It tends to get bigger when you have surge capacity associated with the exercises that take place here in the north, in particular, Talisman Sabre, Pitch Black and others. There's a small number of people that are housed there at the moment, Defence staff, but it tends to be used a lot more when we need that surge capacity. When you've got a large number of troops coming in, particularly the Marines, the United States Marines that come as part of the rotational force.

WOOLF: And from your perspective, why are some of those upgrades necessary? I know it's not just Howard Springs, but also the Barracks. Why are they necessary?

ASSISTANT MINISTER:  Well, they improve the liveability and the facilities on bases that support our troops, and we know that our troops training in the top end do a wonderful job. How strategically important it is to the defence of our nation. And the government wants to make sure that they have the best facilities possible. So, these upgrades will improve some of those facilities and make sure that the troops have the best experience they possibly can when they're training here in the north. And ultimately hopefully that they choose to base themselves here longer term because this is a pretty strategically important area with a number of important bases for the defence of our nation.

WOOLF: Yeah, and look, you know, we want those troops here. We certainly are hoping that it helps to build on our population as well. But it was being reported a bit earlier this morning that we're getting around 100 additional troops. Meanwhile, Townsville is getting about 800.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we are going to grow the number of Defence Force personnel here in Darwin, particularly in this region. And that's on the back of the recommendation of the Defence Strategic Review. And what we're focusing on is improving the littoral capacity of Defence here in the Darwin region in particular. So, there's a number of investments that the government's undertaking, HMAS Coonawarra, Larrakeyah Barracks, Robertson Barracks and Tindal that support that. So, you will get more troops here in the area. The other important point, Katie, is that a lot of these projects are done in partnership with local industry, local businesses that win these contracts and employ locals. And the fantastic thing about the announcement that I made yesterday at Robertson Barracks is that every one of the subcontracting businesses involved is an indigenous business and supporting apprenticeships, traineeships and local jobs, particularly indigenous youth, but other youth as well, in the local community.

WOOLF: So, all of that $24 million, all of that work is going to local contractors?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's right. All of it involves local contractors. There's a principal contractor and they subcontract out electrical work, construction work, security work and other work associated with those projects to local businesses and that creates jobs in the local economy.

WOOLF: Just going back to those numbers with the troops, why are we getting so many less than Townsville?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, that's based on the recommendations of the Defence Strategic Review and that's because the focus in this area is very much on littoral capacity. It makes sense, given that you've got that highly skilled and highly trained north force that operates in this region. They know these waters and the coastline better than anyone else. Over in Townsville, that's very much a training facility based on combat readiness, for the Army in particular, but also for the other services as well. So, a lot of that equipment associated with that combat readiness, our infantry fighting vehicles, our heavy lift capacity associated with the Army, our helicopters are based there. So, we're making changes based on the recommendations of the Defence Strategic Review. But I think it's important to note that the Defence force personnel will grow in the Northern Territory. It's not reducing, it's growing. You're seeing transfers of Army personnel from Adelaide predominantly to Townsville and some to Darwin as well. So, the Defence Force presence in this region will grow and contribute to that great tradition of a garrison town here in Darwin.

WOOLF: Look, I understand what you're saying and certainly not holding any grudges towards Townsville. I lived there for several years. But I suppose what I'm getting at and what I'm wondering is, are we also seeing this happen because the liveability of Townsville for maybe some of those Defence members, they're seeing it as a more liveable place than Darwin. I mean, are we being impacted by the issues of crime that we have here in the top end?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I would definitely dispute that. All of the troops that I speak to when I visit Darwin and the Northern Territory, Tindal and other places, when I ask them what their experience of this area is, they love it. And I met a gentleman yesterday, a Major at Robertson Barracks, who was on his fourth posting here in Darwin, a young fellow in his early thirty s who grew up in Tasmania. And I said to him, why are you back? And he said, because I love the place. And I think that's an experience that many of our ADF personnel have. They might be a bit apprehensive about the weather conditions when they come here, but when they come here and they meet the locals, they become ensconced in the community. They absolutely love it.

WOOLF: Well, that is good to hear. I do hope that we see those numbers increase. I know that we are going to see an increase, but, yeah, the more the better, I think is the way a lot of locals are feeling because we want to see that population growth. But look, I do want to ask. I know this morning you are out. Well, looking at the new solar farm, is that at Robertson Barracks or where is that?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm at RAAF Base Darwin at the moment. We've just cut the ribbon on a large scale solar farm that will supply a significant portion of the energy needs here at the base. It'll power about 40% of the base's energy needs. And importantly, Katie, it will save and reduce carbon emissions by about 2000 tonnes in the first year alone here in the local community. It also saves about $130,000 a year on electricity costs for the Australian Defence Force. And that is important because it means that we can invest in better facilities for our troops and better capability. So, I'm really proud to be here on behalf of the government today to launch this solar farm. I'm here with some of the workers who've been involved in the construction, the wing commander from the base and some of the base personnel and it's been a fantastic morning launching this important project.

WOOLF:  So, around 9,000 solar panels. It sounds like it's going to be massive.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It's huge. It's the largest solar installation and renewable energy project in the Northern Territory to come online, and that's something that we're pretty proud of. But it's not the only one. Another one at Robertson Barracks and Hart's Range. They'll come online later this year and we're also scoping Tindal. And when you think about it, the Northern Territory in the top end really makes sense for renewable energy projects, particularly in defence, because Defence is the largest landowner in the Commonwealth, so they have an abundance of space and you've got plenty of sunshine and renewable energy in the north.

WOOLF: Well, Matt Thistlethwaite, the Assistant Minister for Defence, always good to catch up with you when you're in town. Thank you so much for having a chat with us this morning.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks for having me on, Katie.


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