7 February 2024
SUBJECT/S: Australian Army’s helicopter fleet; Independent analysis of Navy’s surface fleet; Chief of the Defence Force appointment; Defence acquisition; Yang Hengjun; Bigger tax cuts for more Australians.
KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me live in the studio now to talk about things out of Canberra is the Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles. I want to start in your area– portfolio responsibilities, that being Defence. You've announced today moves to close the capability gap left by the grounding of the Taipan helicopters. How soon will we see these additional aircraft in Australia?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, good to be with you, Kieran. It has been a challenge since we announced the permanent grounding of the Taipans back in September and we'd previously said that we would be speaking with the US government about seeing whether there could be an expediting of the delivery of the Black Hawks, which were always intended, but obviously with the permanent grounding of the Taipans there was the prospect of a capability gap–
GILBERT: So you’ve got three sped up?
MARLES: We had three at the end of last year, which was actually the original schedule, but we've now got an additional three during the course of this year, which will mean that by the end of this year we'll have twelve. Previously it was going to be nine by the end of this year. And three of those will be in place by the end of March. So that's bringing forward a significant number and does go a long way to closing that capability gap.
GILBERT: And a British training helicopter as well?
MARLES: Yeah. So, it's the H135 Junos, five of those. The importance there is about making sure that our air crews are able to fly the Black Hawks as quickly as they can. Obviously, with the grounding of the Taipan there aren't helicopters to fly and to maintain currency in flying hours, so what these Junos will enable is for those flight crews to keep their hours up, which just means that when the Black Hawks arrive and are in place we're able to get them flying as soon as we can.
GILBERT: And you're, as Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, you feel they're safer? Given the concerns around Taipan, you feel this is a better course of action?
MARLES: Well, I mean, we made the decision some time ago to move from Taipans to Black Hawks. That was fundamentally a decision made on the basis of reliability. Obviously, we needed to speed that up in having grounded the Taipan fleet, so we're very much looking forward to having the Black Hawks in place as our permanent capability. But we're really pleased that we're able to bring some of that forward so that the gap, which was always going to have to be managed, but became a much more acute issue once we had announced the grounding of the Taipan fleet, we're able to do something around that capability gap.
GILBERT: I spoke to you as well at the end of last year, speaking of capability gap, about the surface fleet review. I think you got it in September of last year.
GILBERT: What's your thinking on the timeline of that? The release and the response?
MARLES: Yes, indeed. So, we'll be releasing the review itself and the government's response to it very shortly. It is a really significant piece of work and the decisions that go with it are as big a decisions, really, as we make. Probably next to the decisions that we made a year ago in relation to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. But beyond submarines, our surfacve fleet is the most expensive assets that we have within the Australian Defence Force. So this is a really big call.
GILBERT: When you say shortly, we're talking a couple of weeks or?
MARLES: Well, it's very shortly. But the point I'd really make is this: we inherited the oldest surface fleet that Australia has operated since the end of the Second World War. That was the legacy of the way in which the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government managed Defence and specifically managed the surface fleet. We've seen significant programs which have not been properly funded by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, and that includes in respect of our surface fleet and in relation to Hunter. And so dealing with that is a pretty difficult problem, and that is the problem that we need to be working on. We've had time to do that, time measured in months, not years. But we want to make sure that we take all the time we can to get this right. We've said– we said in September that we would be announcing this in the early part of this year and that's what we'll do.
GILBERT: Okay, so sounds like it'll be very soon. A few other things I want to get you on before we talk about the politics of the day. The Chief of the Defence Force, he's been serving for several years now. You extended his term as CDF. I believe that's due to wrap up soon. Are the wheels in motion for his successor?
MARLES: Well, the normal processes around this are playing out as you would expect. You're right, we extended General Campbell's term through until the middle of this year and that'll be a six year term, and that's the longest term that's been served since Angus Houston. So we are in the process now of being in a position to go through the renewal and the succession of the Australian Defence Force and they’ll be announcements that will be made in due course.
GILBERT: On to the Defence bureaucracy. Some criticism from Paul Dibb, among others, in the last couple of days about Defence bureaucracy being bloated and driving the pace of some of the acquisitions here, and it's too slow. What do you say to that critique?
MARLES: I mean, it's a critique which has been made of Defence forever. I think the point I would make is that in coming to office, the very first thing we have sought to do is provide strategic focus for our Defence Force and indeed our country, in the face of the most complex strategic circumstances that the country has experienced, really, since the end of the Second World War. In doing that, which we did with the Defence Strategic Review, what came out of that was an urgency for reform, and that includes very much in relation to the public service. Making sure that there is a culture of excellence, making sure that procurement is happening as quickly as it can, and we are very much in the process of doing all of that. Now, governments have talked about this in the past, but we really do need to be making sure that we are moving at a faster pace. And when you look at the decisions that we've taken in less than two years, it has really been a watershed in Defence policy, and not just policy, but action as well – we've seen a restructure of the Army, obviously we're announcing an expedition of the acquisition of helicopters today, we're meaningfully funding a guided weapons missile industrial base in this country for the first time and there have been more announcements and action than that. But we do need to be moving at a faster pace and we will.
GILBERT: Yang Hengjun given a suspended death sentence by China, how big a setback is this in our relations with Beijing?
MARLES: I mean, we are very troubled by this decision– I mean, to be frank, we're appalled by this decision and we've made that very clear to the Chinese government and we will continue to make that clear to the Chinese government, and we will continue to advocate on behalf of Dr Yang. We’re very much thinking of Dr Yang at this moment, we're also very much thinking of his family. Our focus right now in terms of his welfare is around consular access to Dr Yang. But this is an appalling decision and we are making that very plain in all the representations that we are making to the Chinese government.
GILBERT: Does it set back the efforts to heal relations between the two countries?
MARLES: It is clearly an appalling decision and one which the Australian government– we are very seized in respect of this decision and we are making that clear to the Chinese government. But I think the point I would make in the context of the broader relationship: we've talked about stabilising the relationship with China and people can see what has been achieved in relation to that. But part of that is working with China where we can, but it is absolutely being clear of contesting China where we must and this is an example of that, and it's not the only example. So we will continue to be very forthright in our engagement with China where Australians are concerned or where our national interest is concerned, clearly. And that has to be a part of how we move forward with China.
GILBERT: Finally, I know you've got to go. It's a busy day for you and I appreciate your time. The tax changes. Has this got the government back in the game? There was a sense that you were a bit punch drunk off the back of the Voice referendum loss. Is this getting you back in the game?
MARLES: I wouldn't characterise it quite in those terms, but I think the point I'd make is that really, from the time we came to government, we've seen persistent cost of living pressures, it has been a focus of the way in which we've engaged in government, in terms of the budgets that have been handed down. $23 billion worth of initiatives to help support easing the pressure in cost of living. But the most significant thing we can do is to have tax relief and we have been fighting for working Australians to bring about that tax relief. And I think the Prime Minister has demonstrated an enormous amount of courage to bring forward this set of tax cuts which do put the focus on working Australians. Now, deep down, the opposition clearly have the same view, because if they had a different view, then the only credible place they could be is to be voting against this and to be rolling it back, and that is not what they're doing.
GILBERT: Deputy Prime Minister, thanks for your time.
MARLES: Thanks, Kieran.