Doorstop interview, RAAF Base 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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1 February 2024

SUBJECTS: Solar base opening; Defence capability; renewable energy in Defence; Environmental Defenders Office.

LUKE GOSLING, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: G’day everyone, thanks for coming down here to RAAF Base Darwin this morning for another great announcement, particularly in the renewable energy and the resilient space for power on this base, but what is a great announcement for our whole community. Good morning, everyone. So my name is Luke Gosling I’m the Federal Member for Darwin and Palmerston. I'm a veteran and I've had a lot to do with this base over the years. And it's always great to have my friend and colleague Matt Thistlethwaite, the Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans in town this morning. We had a great announcement out of Robertson Barracks yesterday $24 million, $22 million on Robertson Barracks, and then an additional $2 million for some maintenance works out at Howard springs, a great announcement and another one here today.

This is all part of the $2 billion out of the Defence Strategic Review that has been marked for works in the Northern Territory, and obviously, some more across northern Australia as well. Today, we're here to basically cut the ribbon, it's the commissioning of the RAAF Base solar project, which is really important for resilience in this base itself, but also, less of a draw on our community power resource. So 40% of the bases power can come from this solar farm here at the Darwin RAAF Base. So it's great news, but I'll let the Assistant Minister give you a bit more detail about that and we're happy to take questions. Thank you.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thanks, Luke. Thanks for coming in. It's wonderful to be back here at RAAF Base Darwin and I want to particularly thank the workers who joined us here this morning who had been involved in the construction of this project and will maintain this project into the future. Thank you for the incredible work that you've done in constructing the solar farm.

Clean solar energy is now flowing into RAAF Base Darwin to provide a significant proportion of the base’s energy needs. Reducing carbon emissions and saving about $130,000 a year for the Defence Force on electricity costs. So that saving can be reinvested in better facilities on the base for our troops and stronger capability for the Australian Defence Force into the future. This is a really important project that the government is very proud of and I'm very proud to be here today to formally kick off and to cut the ribbon on the new solar farm here at RAAF Base Darwin. It’s a 3.2 megawatt project that will provide about 40% of the base’s energy needs. It will cut carbon emissions by about 2,000 tons per year, helping clean up the environment in the local community here. It's created hundreds of jobs in the local community in the construction phase. And most importantly, it's one of several projects here in the Northern Territory that will provide energy savings to the Australian Defence Force, clean renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions in the local community. The other projects are at Robertson barracks and Harts Range and they will come on line later this year.

This is all part of a $64 million program called the Defence Renewable Energy and Energy Security Program and we're looking at investments in solar and batteries and renewables in Queensland, in the Northern Territory, in Western Australia and South Australia as part of this program. It's a an important initiative because the Defence Strategic Review identified that climate change is now a serious national security threat to our nation, and in harsh environments, such as this one in the top end where you have a significant wet season and the risk of climate change for important assets such as the RAAF Base is significant. Ensuring that we can maintain energy security through renewable energy projects such as this is really important to the capability and the protection of our nation into the future and ensuring that our troops can continue to train to do their job to serve our nation. So I want to thank all of the partners that have been involved in this particularly Lendlease, the construction work, the energy partners that have been involved in this and will continue to operate the program. We look forward to continuing this partnership at other defence bases throughout the country. And I'm really proud to be here and looking forward to cutting the ribbon. We're happy to take some questions.

JOURNALIST: How many solar panels are there in the farm?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: 9,000 solar panels in this farm. It's a 3.2 Megawatt project and it supplies about 40% of the energy needs from the base and it can feed into the grid in the local community as well.

JOURNALIST: Will we continue to see more of these solar farms built with the defence industry in the future?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's the ambition and the Albanese Government is very keen to invest in more solar projects and more renewable energy projects on the Defence Estate. Defence is the largest landowner in Australia. And we have a lot of land that is in areas that are perfect for renewable energy projects such as the top end and the Northern Territory, and we're keen to ensure that we're scoping out and making further investments and Robertson Barracks is almost completed, Harts Range is almost completed, and they will come online later this year. We're doing exploratory work at the moment at Tindal as well, and other bases such as Learmonth and Curtin in Western Australia and in Edinburgh in South Australia are being looked at as well.

JOURNALIST: This is going on another issue the Australian reporting today that our armoured vehicle fleet is vulnerable to killer drones requiring major upgrades to protect Australian personnel from growing battlefield threat. Why have we been left in this position wise hasn't enough been done.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I dispute that assertion. The government is making investments in our armoured vehicle fleet to ensure that our troops have the best capability possible and do have the capacity to combat all types of potential attacks and that includes the threat of drone attack. The Australian Government and Defence Force are making significant investments in the uncrewed vehicle capability of the Australian Defence Force. The Ghost Bat project is a partnership between Boeing Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force, to develop a drone capacity that will include heavy payload capacity and artillery as well. That technology is being developed right here in Australia. In Melbourne. I visited the factory. It's creating jobs in manufacturing and high skilled high tech jobs has the potential for export as well. And then, you know, at the lower end of the scale, we've got wonderful companies like Sypaq down in Melbourne that I visited in fisherman's bend, that are supplying cardboard drones at the moment to Ukraine. And we're investing in those capacities right from the top end and the heavier uncrewed vehicles right down to the easily deployed lighter vehicles as well.

JOURNALIST: That's the question raised in this story in the Australian today is given we have that capability right here in Australia. Why that hasn't been put in place already.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, in some cases it's been looked at, at the moment and I've launched particular types of technology that can combat drones and there's Australia technology that's been developed here. At the moment, the capabilities of the infantry fighting vehicles contain adequate hardware to combat drones, but technology is moving at a rapid pace in this environment, and that's why the government is investing in programs such as the Australia Strategic Capability Accelerator, which has had a program to partner with industry at the moment on drone and uncrewed vehicle technology and those tenders have been out for some time. They're coming in at the moment, and they're being assessed and then funds will start to be allocated by the government to invest in that technology. So I wouldn't say that we don't have that capacity at the moment. I would dispute that. But it's an evolving technology and something that the government is keen to invest in further in the future.

JOURNALIST: What's your response to former First Regiment Commander Fergus McLachlan who says that the Australian Defence Force was massively under done in their defence capabilities right across the surfaces?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Again, I would dispute that. I think that Australia has one of the most competent, well trained, and most capable air defence systems in the world. And we see that in the assets that we have not only here in the north, but across Australia. Many of those assets I visited a couple of weeks ago, I was at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland to check out the new technology being deployed there on the growlers and the other the other fighting aircraft that we have. We're investing in new capacity in airlift as well, the Blackhawks are coming online later this year. So, the government is making those investments when we need to and I would dispute that claim.

JOURNALIST: So, you said the solar farm will power 40% of the base. Are you hoping to increase this in the future? And is there an overarching goal that you're hoping to achieve for renewable energy in the Defence industry?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, later this year, we'll release the Defence Force Renewable Energy Program and that will set the goals that the Defence Force will have for emissions reductions and increases in renewable energy into the future and a lot of work is going on in that space at the moment. Although the government's overall target emissions reductions exempts the Defence Force, Defence is taking the initiative and ensuring that it's doing its bit to reduce its carbon emissions into the future as well. And that renewable energy program that will be released later this year, will specify those reductions that we're targeting. But projects such as this mean that those reductions are already happening at a number of bases throughout the country. And as I said, we're doing exploratory work at the moment to see whether or not projects such as the one that we're launching here today can be replicated at other bases throughout the country to reduce emissions and to reduce the energy needs that the bases have in the future.

JOURNALIST: Just a local issue, Luke. I'm just wondering what you made of the Federal Courts criticism of the Environmental Defenders Office and their conduct in the claim by Tiwi Islanders against the Santos Barossa project.

GOSLING: We've seen over the last couple of days a number of comments from different people about the work in the Environmental Defenders Office. I mean, I think what's important to realise here is that we need to have defence of our environment, but in a way that's not silly or, it's got to be sensible. I think what the court has done while I wouldn't comment on proceedings, is to send a clear message that if you're going to take action through the courts, it needs to be based on realities, it needs to be based on serious concerns. And I think what we need to do in the future is do what our Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has spoken about, is to get the balance here so that businesses that are making serious investments have the surety to go forward. And if there is a claim against that, that work, then it needs to be based on sound reasons. And that's about all I'd say on that.

JOURNALIST: The Northern Territory government says its reviewing its funding of the EDO and Peter Dutton said he’d scrap it’s federal funding. What are your thoughts on both of those issues?

GOSLING: I think there's a role for the EDO but I think it's right to investigate it or support the NT government looking at their contribution towards the EDO and seeing if the work that they're doing is appropriate and is appropriate for the stakeholders that we have here and then it's serving everyone's interests well, including the environments.

JOURNALIST: Should the federal government then do the same assessment? Given it funds the EDO to the tune of $2 million per year?

GOSLING: Yeah, well, they're obviously discussions that will be, will be had at the moment will be had between the NT government and the Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek. But yeah, we're returning to Canberra next week for parliament, and there'll be an opportunity to get a bigger sense of where we're going to in this regard.

JOURNALIST: So, you’ll raise it with Tanya Plibersek?

GOSLING: I won't take any orders from Peter Dutton, I'll tell you that.

JOURNALIST: Well Peter Dutton aside, Ministers look at the issue -

GOSLING: There's a number of issues that I'll be raising with the Environment Minister when we get back, including the timeline for some decisions on Lee Point.

JOURNALIST: What about the EDO?

GOSLING: That’ll be one of the issues I’ll raise with the Environment Minister. Any more questions? Thanks everyone for coming out.


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