Television interview, Sky News

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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dpm.media@defence.gov.au

02 6277 7800

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25 February 2024

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
TELEVISION INTERVIEW
SKY NEWS – SUNDAY AGENDA
SUNDAY, 25 FEBRUARY 2024

SUBJECT/S: Australian-Indonesian relationship; Australian-Indonesian Defence Cooperation Agreement, Borders; Defence, Surface Fleet Review, Andrew Hastie and Angus Taylor at odds over defence spending, Labor increasing Defence spending; Brereton Report; Dunkley byelection; tax cuts

HOST, ANDREW CLENNELL: Well, joining me live now from Geelong is the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles. Richard Marles, thanks for your time this morning.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Pleasure, Andrew.

CLENNELL: I might start with your visit to Indonesia late last week to meet the Defence Minister and presumptive next President, Prabowo Subianto. Was this aimed at working on stopping more asylum boats after an asylum boat arrived a couple of weeks ago? And did you offer any financial help to the Indonesians to help get on top of the people smuggling trade?

MARLES: Well, the focus of this trip, Andrew, was the Defence Cooperation Agreement that we've been working on very closely with Indonesia. In fact, it's been my third visit to Indonesia in the last nine months. And as both Prabowo Subianto and myself said after our meeting, we hope to be in a position of signing a Defence Cooperation Agreement between our two countries in the coming months. And if we do that, it is a complete game changer, really, in terms of our national security, our defence cooperation, it would be the most significant Defence Cooperation Agreement between our two countries, the first at a treaty level. So, that's been the focus of my engagement with Indonesia for some time and was the focus of this trip. We certainly spoke about the question of people smuggling and human trafficking. It's a shared challenge for both nations, and I'm not going to go into the detail of it, but I think that the important point to understand is that we both feel that in terms of meeting the collective challenge on this issue, that we need to be cooperating at a level that we've never done before, and that is what we are doing. And as a result of the deep cooperation that we have with Indonesia, we are able to stop ventures coming to Australia before they ever hit the water. And we are able to do so much more when we see this as a shared challenge between both of our countries, which we do.

CLENNELL: So, did you put any more money on the table off of that?

MARLES: Well, we've had a Regional Cooperation Agreement with Indonesia for a very long period of time, which does provide support into Indonesia. And that's been the case across governments of both persuasions. We'd had no specifics in relation to that question and I'm not about to go into details, but what we did make clear was that the degree of cooperation that we have is central to the joint challenge that we both face. So, this wasn't a meeting about financial support. This was a meeting about how we can work more closely together and a renewed commitment that we'll do that.

CLENNELL: How concerned is the government this one boat coming in about a week and a half ago will lead to more boats coming? And what do you make of the Opposition’s criticism that you've cut funding in terms of surveilling our border?

MARLES: Well, that criticism is just frankly a lie. I mean, it is actually not true. We've increased funding to the support of our border.

CLENNELL: Why do the budget papers show otherwise? Why do the budget papers suggest-

MARLES: Well, that is not what the budget papers show. I mean, the budget papers demonstrate that we have increased our work in this area, increased our expenditure in this area, and what we hear from the Opposition time and again is simply peddling mistruths about where the government is spending money-

CLENNELL: Sorry, Deputy PM, but might have increased them into this year or whatever, but the forward estimates appear to show it tailing off in Home Affairs and Border force. Why is that the case?

MARLES: The government has increased expenditure on our border. No ifs, no buts. It's a matter of record. And the fact that the Opposition is desperately trying to say otherwise says more about the way in which the Opposition goes about its business than it does about the reality of border protection in this country. We are really focused on ensuring that our agencies, Australian Border force, have the resources they need to keep our borders safe. That's why we have increased funding to them in respect of this. And that is the important point to make. We're not sanguine about the future. We take this in a really vigilant way and we are very seized of the issues when they occur. So, not for a moment am I telling you that we are sanguine about it. But in our focus, we are determined to make sure that we have the strongest borders possible. We have maintained every border setting that was under the former government and we have increased our expenditure towards it.

CLENNELL: All right-

MARLES: And we do see ourselves working very cooperatively with our neighbours in relation to this shared challenge.

CLENNELL: Mr. Marles, I don't want to labour the point here, but I've got in front of me budget expenses for border enforcement. It says 2023-24 $1.27 billion, 24-25 forward estimate $1.08 billion, then 25-26 1.078 billion, then 26-27 $1.087 billion. So, when it comes down from $1.27 billion, how is that increasing your commitment? Or have you allocated funds since the budget?

MARLES: Andrew, in any area of government expense, there's a funding profile. That funding profile relative to what we inherited from the former government, sees an increase. That's the point I'm making. I mean, they're saying we've cut funding to the border relative to what they plan to expend. That is not true. We have increased it and that is the point that needs to be understood here. And obviously, as we go forward, all of those circumstances get reviewed based on what challenges we face. Point here is we're increasing our expenditure to the border and we are utterly focused on it. And we're not sanguine about the challenges that we face, but we are confident that we're meeting them.

CLENNELL: All right. One day before the Prime Minister said he didn't know about the asylum seeker boat, the Sky News presenter Sharri Markson said she got an email suggesting- an anonymous tip, by the sound of it, that there was an illegal arrival on the Thursday night. Did you know on the Thursday, the last sitting day of parliament, about this boat?

MARLES: Well, the last thing I'm going to do is start commenting on anonymous tips which have been sent to journalists-

CLENNELL: Okay, but let's stick to the point here. Did you know on the Thursday?

MARLES: I mean, I didn't, but nor am I about to go through a process of commenting on any and every anonymous tip that goes to a journalist. The critical point here, if we stick to the point, Andrew, is that this boat came and those who arrived were dealt with. They are now on Nauru. The process worked as it is meant to work. So, in that sense, Australians can look to the way in which this government acted and know that the border was kept with security in the context of how this system is meant to work. And those people who came here are no longer in Australia. They are in Nauru. Now, we will, as I say, continue to maintain every setting on our border that we've inherited from the former government. And the Opposition obviously want to do everything they can to be talking about this issue and they don't mind what mistruths they spread along the way. But in the national interest, if we had a focus on that, our borders are strong. We are working with our neighbours in the most highly cooperative way, and we are resourcing what needs to be done on our borders.

CLENNELL: All right. I wanted to turn now to this big announcement during the week you made concerning naval plans for the Australian Defence Force- 11 new frigates and six potentially uncrewed new warships. You also have to make a decision this year around a new Chief of the Defence Force. Given the way the ADF is heading, a concentration on Navy, is the Chief of Navy, Mark Hammond, now the front runner for that role?

MARLES: Nice try. I'm not about to go walk down that path in terms of who's going to be the next Chief of the Defence Force. But it is true that General Angus Campbell, who has served us so well over such a long period of time, he will have completed a six year term when it's done, which is longer than the normal period of those serving in the role. His time in the position comes to an end in the middle of this year. We're well down the path of determining the successorship and we'll have an announcement in that period of time, but I'm not about to go into the details of that now.

CLENNELL: All right. How can we be certain the government will deliver on these 11 frigates and when will you make a decision on who's building them? When do you pledge we'll have the first one?

MARLES: Well, firstly, we can have confidence about this because we're funding it. That's the first point. What happened in the announcement that we made on Tuesday was we also, at the same moment, made an announcement to increase defence spending by $11.1 billion over the decade. And we did that because the cost of this plan is $54 billion over the decade. The allocation in the budget prior to this announcement for our surface fleet was $43 billion. So, we announced the $11 billion which fills that gap. Now, the point of labouring on that in the answer is that what we saw under the former government was announcement after announcement, which was a vision of the future, but the money just wasn't there. We heard them announce a $35 billion guided weapons enterprise and they attached $1 billion to it. This is $54 billion worth of expenditure over the next decade. And $54 billion is now in the budget for that. And so that's the single most significant reason why Australians can have confidence that this will happen. This is not make believe. This is not one of those fancy announcements from the past. This is real. And the hard work in terms of winning the money for this and prioritising this in the context of the whole budget, has been done. And that stands in stark contrast to the way in which the Liberal Party went about their management of defence. In answer to the question about when we will acquire the first of the general purpose frigates; we've inherited an ageing fleet from the former government. And we inherited an ageing fleet without any plan as to what to do with it and how to evolve it. HMAS Anzac, specifically was in a terrible state, and we announced on Tuesday that she will not sail again. And the process of her being decommissioned will now occur. But what the former government proposed was that the first new surface combatant that our fleet would see would be in 2034, which would be the first of the Hunter class frigates. What we've now said is that over that period of time, we'll put four new surface combatants into operation, four times as many. And the first of those, in answer to your question, will occur in this decade- the 2020s- an extremely rapid acquisition of a significant surface combatant. But we need to do that because we have to evolve the capability of our Navy, and we have to do it quickly.

CLENNELL: All right. And the potentially uncrewed vessels you announced, six of them. If there were a war, would they be uncrewed? What discussions have you had with the Americans about acquiring these?

MARLES: Well, we have been in conversation with the Americans about this. It would be our intention to crew them, but we're talking about a capability that we are looking to bring into effect in the mid-to-late 2030s, running through to the mid-2040s. So, this particular platform is a way down the path. Having said that, these vessels are being developed by the United States. There are prototypes which exist today. So, we have a sense of confidence about their development. I mean, when you have a plan, Andrew, you do have to have an eye to the present. That's why, in terms of thinking about the general purpose frigate that we're bringing into service, we're looking at frigates which are currently operating in the water today, which have a production line building them today. But you've got to have an eye to the future as well. I mean, we're trying to develop a plan which does look into the 2030s and 2040s, and so we need to have a sense of where naval warfare is going to make sure that we are keeping pace. And the large, Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels will be an important part of making sure that our fleet is at the cutting edge of modernity as we go through the 2030s and 2040s and it is a really important platform, which will give us much greater vertical launch capacity, the ability to shoot missiles, and do so in a cost effective way.

CLENNELL: Let me play you some comments now from your counterpart, Andrew Hastie. In recent days, including on Sunday agenda.

ANDREW HASTIE: This government is a weak government on national security, it's weak on border security. This government is weak, and my call remains the same; if Richard Marles can't secure more money for the Defence force in May, he should resign.

CLENNELL: What do you make of that?

MARLES: Well, all that is, is empty rhetoric, Andrew. I mean, firstly, we have, as I said, announced money that will be in the budget in May- $11.1 billion over the decade, $1.7 billion over the forward estimates- and that's an announcement that will be reflected in the budget. But at last year's budget, we announced an additional $30 billion over the decade into defence. Now, that actually is real money, along with the $11.1 billion that we've now announced in respect of the surface fleet. You take all of that together, that takes defence spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP into the early 2030s. That's in the budget. What we inherited from the Liberal Party over that same period was a trajectory of taking defence spending to 2.1 per cent of GDP. Now, they're very, very different numbers. Right now, when Andrew Hastie has asked the difficult question about will the Liberal party support Labor's additional significant expenditure on defence, the consistent answer that comes back from them is they can't commit. Andrew Hastie should live by his own standard. Right now, their policy remains at a place of taking defence spending to 2.1 per cent of GDP through to the early 2030s- we're at 2.4. That's tens of billions of dollars difference. Labor higher, the Liberals lower, and they will not talk about taking defence spending any further. The Shadow Treasurer has talked about the Liberal Party having defence spending within the existing envelope that they took to the last election. That's 2.1 per cent. I mean, Andrew can talk about the rhetoric and use the words that he uses, but he speaks in the tradition of the Liberal Party when it comes to defence: all noise, no action. They're not about defence policy, they are defence dilatants. They rest on the laurels of the idea that they have a brand advantage in defence but when it comes to action, they have consistently done nothing. And that is where the Shadow Minister lies right now.

CLENNELL: All right. I wanted to ask now about this matter which has been on your desk for some time; there are maybe about ten commanders, as I understand it, who are waiting to see if they'll be stripped of their medals in relation to the Afghanistan war crimes report, they've written back to defence as to why they should keep their medals. When are you finally going to make a decision on this? Why is it taking so long? Are they getting their medals taken off them or not?

MARLES: Well, it is on my desk. On this question, time is relevant, but what's more important is that we get the answer to this question right. So, I'll be reviewing this thoroughly. I mean, this is really difficult, but when we came to government, what we said was that the Brereton Report, which examined the simply appalling allegations that were made in relation to conduct by some of the ADF in Afghanistan, that those recommendations be implemented to the fullest possible extent. That was not happening under former government, and that includes this question in relation to these medals – and progress has been made, I might say, in respect of this specific issue. It is difficult but notwithstanding that, it is important in terms of who we are as a country that we fulfil the recommendations of the Brereton Report, and that's what this government is intending to do and is committed to doing. In doing that, though, I will take all the time required to ensure that we get the answers to this question right.

CLENNELL: All right. What about Jacqui Lambie’s argument that Angus Campbell was serving in the Middle east at the time some of these alleged war crimes took place, and he should take some responsibility as well?

MARLES: Well, again, I'm not about to go over individuals other than to say in relation to General Campbell, but his time in the Middle east proximate to when these events occurred is something that has been examined in the public space before, and I'm not about to go over that any further. In respect of the question in relation to the recommendation which goes to command accountability, and specifically in relation to these medals, we intend to honour the recommendation of the Brereton Report, and that means considering this issue, and we will do so, and do so thoroughly, and it will take the time that it takes.

CLENNELL: Are the reports of recent weeks true that you hauled your Secretary, Greg Moriarty, and Angus Campbell in for a meeting and said you expected better from the department and you expected excellence? What was that in relation to?

MARLES: That's not exactly correct in terms of how that meeting is characterised because it was not a meeting, particularly of the three of us. But let me be clear; I absolutely expect excellence, and indeed both the Secretary and the CDF have completely supported me in my call for that within the Department of Defence and within the ADF. And that has been communicated by myself to the broader senior leadership of the ADF and the Department of Defence. I don't think this is a matter of great controversy. It surprises me that the Opposition has sought to make it such.

CLENNELL: What's it in relation to? What's it specifically in relation to?

MARLES: Well, I think what we need to see in terms of the leadership of the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Defence, and I'm not just talking about the two leaders, but the broader leadership, is that all that we do is done with excellence. That advice is timely, that advice is accurate, that we are expecting of ourselves the same amount of excellence that we would expect of somebody who's in the infantry or somebody who is maintaining an aircraft, where there is excellence and complete competence-

CLENNELL: What hasn't been timely? What hasn't been timely? What hasn't been accurate? What sparked this?

MARLES: Because I think there are issues of culture within the senior leadership and the more general leadership of the ADF and the department which needs challenging. And that's something that, as I say, I've had complete collaboration with from both the secretary of defence and the CDF. There is an issue in relation to culture, and we should be seeking to have a culture of absolute excellence, and that is the point that I've made. I've also made this observation, Andrew, that in terms of diagnosing what the cultural issues are, I think this is less the problem of defence, albeit they have been- this is where it has flowed- as it has been what's happened in government and specifically under the former government. I mean, when you have six, really, seven different Defence Ministers churning through the portfolio over the course of nine years, that has an impact on morale, and it has had an impact on morale. When you go out and make all these fanciful announcements, $45 billion worth and there's no money behind them, it's obviously going to have an impact on morale- and it has. I mean, when you leave the country with the oldest surface fleet sailing since the end of the Second World War, which is what the former government did, that is going to impact morale. So, I think there were those issues within the ADF and within the department, and I can understand how that has happened. Going forward, though, we need to address that culture. And, yes, government has its part to play, and we are certainly seeking to do that by being very clear about where money is coming from, not engaging in the make believe of the former government. And we intend to have consistency and leadership from government in respect of defence. But the other side of that is that we also then need to challenge defence to meet the issue of that morale and make sure that there is excellence in all that is done. I think the Australian people would expect me to hold the defence force and the department to a standard of excellence, and I'm surprised that the Opposition regard that as a controversial proposition.

CLENNELL: All right, nearly out of time, Deputy Prime Minister. Do you expect to win the Dunkley by election this weekend? And if the government were to lose or there was to be a major swing against the government, what would that mean?

MARLES: Well, it's a challenge. I mean, the starting point here is Dunkley is on a 6.3 per cent margin and the average swing against governments in by elections is 7 per cent. So, you can do the maths. I mean, that's the starting point as we walk into this contest. So, this is going to be a really hard fight. But Jodie Belyea is doing a fantastic job representing Labor as our candidate. She follows very much on in the legacy of Peta Murphy. And what Jodie knows, and we all know, is that the fundamental issue in Dunkley is cost of living. Labor's tax plan will see more than 70,000 constituents in Dunkley receive a tax cut, taking home more of what they earn. The vast bulk of those are getting more than what they would have received under the Liberals plan. And that's in addition to what we've done with more affordable childcare, cheaper medicines, fee-free TAFE. The people of Dunkley know that in this government, you've got a government which is completely focused on the question of the cost of living. The household budget is the issue in Dunkley. What they also know is that Peter Dutton has completely vacated the space on cost of living. He literally wants to talk about everything other than the cost of living. Everything other than household budget.

CLENNELL: I feel like I'm getting that ad I played at the start of the issue. I think I'm getting that ad.

MARLES: Well, that's a matter of fact, Andrew.

CLENNELL: Look, just very quickly, on Sunday Agenda, a couple of years ago, an interview with me, you said that your instinct was that you wouldn't get in the way of Australians and a tax cut. Do you concede the change to the stage three tax cuts in terms of thousands of Australians does exactly that?

MARLES: No. I mean, this is a tax cut which sees Australians get more of a tax cut-

CLENNELL: And some less than was legislated and some less than was legislated, I have to say.

MARLES: But Andrew, the vast bulk of Australian taxpayers are getting more as a result of what we have done. I mean actually I think that position is consistent with what I said. We always understood how important a tax cut was going to be. We're delivering that and we're delivering that in larger number for the vast bulk of Australian taxpayers.

CLENNELL: Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, thank you so much for your time this morning.

MARLES: Thanks, Andrew.

ENDS

 

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