Radio Interview, ABC - RN 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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4 March 2024

SUBJECTS: Dunkley by-election; ASEAN Summit; AUKUS; Indonesian presidential election; Prabowo Subianto; Right to disconnect.

SALLY SARA, HOST: The federal Labor government held on to the seat of Dunkley at Saturday's by-election, but not without a swing against them towards the Liberal Party. There's been no shortage of political spin and analysis on the results, with both major parties claiming some success. But there will be pressure to deliver more for voters by the next federal election. Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence. Minister, welcome to RN Breakfast.


SARA: Very well. Labor suffered a swing of 3.7 per cent. What lessons do you think the Government needs to take from Dunkley?

MARLES: Well, I think every time there is an election, it's an opportunity for the Australian people to speak, in this case, the people of Dunkley. And we will be very careful in hearing that message and we'll go through these results in a lot of detail to really understand what is being said here. We want to learn everything we can from this result. I mean, it is a matter of historical fact that there tends to be swings against governments in by-elections. But that said, we do want to understand exactly all that's happened here. But in the same breath, the fact that our primary vote held up, given how popular Peta Murphy had been as a local member, I think says a lot about the campaign that Jody Belyea ran. We feel very confident about our Prime Minister and he was a big part of the campaign. He was there the day before and the day of the election. That is in stark contrast to the Leader of the Opposition, who really had a very small presence in the campaign, wasn't there on election day at all. And I think it is clear that the policies that we put in place around cost of living, particularly Labor's tax cuts, were well received. But we will continue to work very hard on cost of living issues right through until the next election.

SARA: In the federal budget, how much of a consideration will you be giving as a government to cost of living, particularly when you look at some of the booths from Dunkley in areas where people are really battling at the moment?

MARLES: Yeah, I'm obviously not going to go into the federal budget, but I think it is right to say that cost of living pressures are the issue which is facing Australians right now. I mean, we all know that we've seen a globally high inflationary environment and we're not immune from that and people are doing it tough. It is at the heart of why we put in place our tax cut policy, which does see the vast bulk of Australian taxpayers better off as a result of what we're putting forward. But that's not by any means the only policy that we've had in relation to cost of living; more affordable childcare, cheaper medicines and the like. And we will be thinking each and every day, right through until the next election, about how we can continue to ease the burden of cost of living pressures.

SARA: Richard Marles, let's go to the ASEAN special summit, which is being held in Melbourne this week. What's the Government aiming to get out of this? What do you look to happen?

MARLES: Well, firstly, it's very historic what we are seeing in Melbourne today. Other than Myanmar, of course, we will have every ASEAN leader here over the course of the next two days as part of our bilateral summit between Australia and ASEAN. And that says so much about the place that Australia holds in ASEAN’s consciousness. Obviously, from Australia's point of view, we've got hundreds of millions of people in Southeast Asia to our north. There is a huge economic opportunity there. We do have a significant economic relationship now, but we can do more. And in a security sense, really, Australia's national security lies not so much on our coastline, but much further to the north. The defence of Australia doesn't really mean that much unless we have a stable, a secure and a safe Southeast Asia. And so greater security cooperation, greater defence-to-defence cooperation with countries in Southeast Asia is very much on our agenda, has been again, over the last 21 months, and we'll be looking to do more.

SARA: Realistically, are you expecting any kind of breakthrough on Myanmar at all?

MARLES: Well, Myanmar has been a topic of conversation within ASEAN itself, of course, and we have been having those conversations with ASEAN itself. We want to see a return to democracy in Myanmar and ASEAN is very, very focused on what it can do to bring about a return to democracy in that country. We will clearly talk with ASEAN about that, but it forms a pretty significant regional issue within ASEAN, of course.

SARA: Is AUKUS still possible if Donald Trump comes to power in the US?

MARLES: Yes. And the reason I say that is because when you look at the support across the political spectrum in the United States, for Australia, for our Alliance, but obviously for the AUKUS arrangement specifically, it is there. And we saw that on display at the end of last year when legislation passed through the United States Congress with the support of the full spectrum of American politics. Republicans and Democrats alike–

SARA: But there was some push back. 

MARLES: Well, I actually think when you step back and have a look at it, there was fulsome support across the political spectrum. I mean, yes, there is heat and light in any legislative process in the United States, but when it came to the crunch, there was support for Australia, but support for the AUKUS arrangements across the spectrum. And that does give us a sense of confidence that no matter what the result is in the presidential election at the end of this year, going to enjoy the support of any future American government.

SARA: The incoming Indonesian leader, Prabowo Subianto, do you think that he has a clean human rights record?

MARLES: Look, I think– we will work very closely with Prabowo as the next president of Indonesia. And I think Prabowo is a strong friend of Australia. I think we can work very closely with him. I mean, these matters have been dealt with a lot in the past. Our focus in dealing with Prabowo as the next president of Indonesia, a country which is so clearly important to us, is on building further the bilateral relationship from where it is today. And I think right now we are enjoying a relationship with Indonesia which I think is actually at a high point under President Widodo. He's very close to Prime Minister Albanese. And I think we can look forward to a Prabowo presidency of Indonesia and our relationship with that country growing even stronger.

SARA: So, do you think that the human rights concerns, they've been dealt with fully, in your view?

MARLES: I think the focus of our relationship with Prabowo is as the next elected president of Indonesia and taking our relationship with that country to the next step forward, which I'm very confident that we can do under Prabowo’s leadership. He is a strong friend of Australia. He knows our country well. He studied here, has a deep affection for Australia, and that augurs well in terms of the future of the Australian-Indonesian bilateral relationship.

SARA: In your own department, the Department of Defence, when we look at the public service, the civilians in the Department of Defence, do they have a right to disconnect?

MARLES: People in Defence do have a right to have periods where they are not on call. Obviously, national security is something which happens around the clock, but if you want to get the best out of people, you need to give people an opportunity to have time, where it is their time and they're not on call. So, the answer to that question is yes.

SARA: Minister, thank you very much.

MARLES: Thanks, Sally.


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