Television interview, ABC Breakfast

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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21 February 2024

SUBJECT/S: Surface Fleet Review, Julian Assange, Election speculation

HOST, MICHAEL ROWLAND: Let's get more now on the overhaul of the naval surface fleet and bring in the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles. He's in Adelaide this morning. Minister, good morning.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Good morning Michael, how are you?

ROWLAND: All of this will be great for the surface fleet in the decades ahead, but in the short-term, the size of the fleet as you know will diminish by a quarter with two of the Anzac class frigates being taken out of action by 2026. What will any likely adversary think about that, in your view?

MARLES: Well, we have inherited a declining fleet from the former government. It's not quite right to say it would be a quarter, but certainly HMAS Anzac was in a terrible state in coming to government so any government in our situation would be needing to retire HMAS Anzac as we did yesterday but it's precisely because of that that we have sped up the acquisition of new warships, of new surface combatants. The former government didn't have a plan for this. Their plan for the first of our service combatants would have been to see that in service in 2034, which would be the first of the Hunter class frigates. That will happen but in addition to that, what we announced yesterday was the acceleration of putting into service a general purpose frigate, the first of which we will see in the 2020s. So actually from this moment going forward, what you will see is an increase in the surface fleet capability of the Royal Australian Navy and that is being accelerated dramatically.

ROWLAND: Ok but in the short-term, two out of the eight Anzac frigates are out of action by 2026. That is a quarter of the Anzac class frigates. Does that leave a gap in your capability, in your view?

MARLES: Yes but we do need to be careful, Michael, in terms of the facts that we have three Air Warfare Destroyers as well. Right now, we have - prior to yesterday we had 11 warships in service. We are announcing the retirement of one of those and we are announcing the acquisition, an accelerated acquisition, of a general-purpose frigate which will come into operation much sooner. When you look at what HMAS Anzac was able to do and what the new general frigate will be able to do, we will see an evolving capability. I mean, I'm not - there is definitely a challenge there and we need to be getting our surface fleet into shape as quickly as we can. That's why we are talking about the speediest acquisition of new ships that this country will have seen.

ROWLAND: The head of the ADF last week revealed the true extent of the recruiting crisis for the ADF, a crisis from anybody's perspective. He said we are at 4,000 people below fighting strength, or seven per cent. My question based on that is - all these ships are great, how on earth are we going to crew them all?

MARLES: There is a challenge in relation to our serving personnel. It's also worth, though, making the point that the separation rate in the Navy specifically is below the long-term average and, indeed, the separation rate across the Defence Force is declining, that is to say we're able - we're retaining of more of who we have. Recruiting numbers are starting to turn around but there is definitely a challenge in relation to encouraging more Australians to serve in our Defence Force. But I actually think that's why yesterday's announcement was also important. I mean, for a young person who is looking to join the Navy now, they have the prospect in the next decade or so of working aboard an Australian crewed nuclear-powered submarine or a state-of-the-art general-purpose frigate or the most high-tech antisubmarine warfare capability in the world - that is what is now in train and will be in place over the course of the next decade. That affords a really exciting career for anyone who is seeking to join the Navy on this day and so we really believe that the certainty that comes from the announcement that we made yesterday, the fact that we didn't just announce the vision going forward in relation to the surface fleet, but we put the money up to make sure that it will happen and that sets yesterday's announcement apart from what we have seen under the former government over the last decade. There is actually real money there, this is going to happen and it will be reflected in this year's budget. And people can now look forward and actually see where we're going. We’ve got a strategic purpose behind our Defence Force. There is rigor and there is direction and there is purpose in what we are doing, and that will encourage people to join our Navy.

ROWLAND: Australia will always work closely with America, our closest ally which leads me to my next topic and that is Julian Assange. We had his brother, Gabriel, on the show earlier and he said given America is our closest ally, that country should, in his words, do Australia a favour and step in, drop those extradition proceedings to ensure Julian Assange comes home. Would you like to see that happen?

MARLES: Well, the advocacy that we have made on behalf of Julian Assange is, what anyone thinks about what Julian Assange has done in the past, his situation needs to be brought to a resolution. That's really the point here. You can't have somebody who's indefinitely being incarcerated. The advocacy that we provided both to the UK and the US governments is in respect of that. What we want to see is resolution. Obviously we respect the independence of both the UK and the US judicial systems and we are very respectful of that, but in respect of an Australian citizen who is incarcerated overseas, we are very simply saying that this has been a long time now and this is a circumstance which needs to be resolved.

ROWLAND: Is it good enough for any Australian citizen to be in this situation?

MARLES: Well, no, and that's why we're advocating on his behalf. Julian Assange has been in this situation for a very long period of time. You just can't incarcerate people indefinitely. There needs to be a resolution and that's the advocacy that we have been providing to both the US and the UK government.

ROWLAND: And finally, according to a leaked staff message, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff Tim Gartrell told staff in the PMO, in his words, "we have an entered an election year." That's nice to know. When is it going to be this year?

MARLES: I think there is a lot of hyped up excitement about this memo? The government is planning to serve its full term. The Prime Minister has been very...

ROWLAND: That's not what Tim Gartrell said to staff.

MARLES: Well, that's not right, Michael. It's 2024, next year is 2025.That will be the completion of a 3-year term. That means we are within a year and that's the only point I think that is being made in that memo. If people want to read more into it, they can go down that rabbit hole. That's not where the government is at. We are planning to serve the full term. That's what the Prime Minister has repeatedly made clear and that's where his ministers are focused.

ROWLAND: Yeah, but as we saw with the stage three tax cuts plans can always change, can't they?

MARLES: We are working to fulfil our term. You know - I reckon when it's all said and done, history is going to make this really clear. An awful lot has been read from nothing at all here in terms of this memo. So if people want to wander down that rabbit hole, be our guest. That's not what we're doing. We're focusing on governing and completing our term.

ROWLAND: Richard Marles, appreciate your time this morning.

MARLES: Thanks, Michael.


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