Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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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5 March 2024

SUBJECTS: ASEAN-Australia Special Summit; Melbourne protests; Hamas-Israel conflict; Cook by-election.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let's introduce our political panel today. And joining us, Labor frontbencher Matt Thistlethwaite. Matt is in Melbourne today and Liberal frontbencher Jonno Dunham. Jonno is in Hobart. Welcome back both to the program. Matt, you're obviously in or around this ASEAN-Australia Summit and we have seen these extra investment incentives put on the table to get Australian investment going into Southeast Asia. Yet aren't some of the countries in the region, I'm thinking about Singapore here, I'm thinking about Malaysia, maybe Indonesia and Vietnam, very advanced in infrastructure development. Why do we need to be incentivising that? Couldn't some of this money be better used here?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: For the simple reason, Greg, that ASEAN nations are very important trading partners for Australia. The ASEAN bloc of nations is Australia's second largest two-way trading partner. Trade between our nations was about $178 billion last year. And we know that AseaN is facing similar issues to Australia in terms of its vulnerability to climate change, particularly to sea level rise and inundation of infrastructure associated with that. So, we see this as an opportunity to strengthen those relations around that common purpose of tackling climate change. And this will bring benefits to Australia in terms of opportunities for Australian businesses to be involved in those investments and Australian workers to be involved in delivering those projects as well, so it will be a benefit for Australia.

JENNETT: Do you agree with that? Do the economic benefits stack up here in your assessment, Jonno Duniam? Obviously, you wouldn't want Australian firms and I'm not sure they would want to either, be investing in anything that didn't bring adequate and reliable, politically reliable too, returns?

JONATHON DUNIAM, SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Well, look, we've got to see the detail properly fleshed out here. And as an opposition, we'll be making sure we do a very good job of that, ensuring that what the government has signed up for here is what they say it is. But on the face of it, it seems like a very worthwhile pursuit. Those who've been involved in brokering this deal certainly were putting efforts of this nature in before the change of government. So, I think if it does do what the Prime Minister and the government have said it will do, that is secure jobs in our region to assist in the way that they've outlined, that is a good outcome. We all want this country to succeed and as Matt's already said, the quantum value of the trading block of ASEAN for the Australian economy I think is a very significant one we can't forget. So, to that end, I think it is something we should welcome, but we will have a close look at the detail. And more importantly, we will look at how this government goes at executing what they've announced today, because where the rubber hits the road is what's going to be most important, particularly in regional economies like the one here in Hobart.

JENNETT: I would expect no less from the opposition. Let's go to a sidebar issue around the summit that is happening, swirling around you, Matt Thistlethwaite. The Extinction Rebellion protests on the West Gate Bridge happened and they're threatening to do more in the middle of March. We've seen the South Australian Malinauskas government increase penalties because they grew angry and frustrated about these sorts of things. What needs to happen to head off repeats of this in the middle of the month as threatened?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, obviously, Australians have the right to protest peacefully about issues that they're passionate about. However, in this case, I think that those protesters do their cause and themselves more harm than good. Disrupting Australians, particularly while they're trying to go to work in an environment where cost of living is a huge issue, if you're a casual worker and you're trying to get to work where you're paid by the hour and you're blocked from getting to work by one of these protesters, then you're not going to have much sympathy for their plight or their issue. So, I think that they just do themselves more harm than good and they don't win the support of the Australian public and I think that's their problem.

JENNETT: Jonno, what do you think on that? I mean, I assume Hobart might be also in line for these protests that they're talking about from the 13th onward this month. To my question about penalties and public attitudes, might they need to be toughened?

DUNIAM: Yeah, look, these people are geese. They have achieved nothing apart from public infamy for themselves, for their organisation, and, as Matt rightly says, for the cause they seek to uphold. They haven't changed the world, they haven't changed laws. They make not a job of difference. The ridiculous thing is, all they seem to do is inconvenience people, stop them from getting to work, to hospital, to provide care for someone else. They get in people's ways, and they don't actually make a difference in this world. So, yeah, I think, sure, let's look at penalties in Tasmania. I know in the heat of this state, election parties are talking about the possibility of stronger penalties for workplace protests. I suspect it's probably something that's on the cards here, too. Down the track, people who have an economic impact or a negative economic impact by way of protest, which is what these individuals seem to do right across the country.

JENNETT: All right, well, thank you for the reminder that there isn't actually a state parliament in operation at the moment, courtesy of the election that's underway in your home state there, Jonathon. Let's move on to the Middle East and you'd both be aware, again, I'll go to you, Matt, first of all, that lawyers, principally of a Palestinian background, have written to the International Criminal Court asking for an investigation into this. Is their allegation whether Prime Minister Albanese has been complicit in alleged genocide in Gaza. Now, their document here cites various things, but one in your portfolio area, Matt Thistlethwaite, is providing military aid and approving defence exports to Israel which could be used by the IDF. Does that claim actually stack up if you look at the period from October last year?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, it doesn't, Greg. The Australian Government does not supply military hardware to the Israeli Defence Force, so that claim doesn't stack up. The Prime Minister has strongly dismissed these claims and we've been very consistent. Australia always acts to uphold international law and we've been consistent in that approach. And we've also been consistent in the approach that Australia as a nation has taken to this conflict. We've voted in the United Nations for a ceasefire. We've called for Hamas to release the hostages and importantly, aid to get through to those people who need it, particularly in Gaza. So, we've been very consistent. But the Prime Minister's been very strong in dismissing these claims today.

JENNETT: All right, Jonno Duniam, obviously Matt thinks at least one element of this case as presented is spurious. Do you view it in that light?

DUNIAM: Yeah, I do, certainly. I'd probably go a bit further. And at the risk of sounding like we're on a unity ticket a bit today, but this is a ridiculous claim being made. I mean, let the legal process work itself out. But frankly, the proponents of this claim need to go back to October 7 last year and remember how all of this started. To claim that the PM and others named in this case are in any way supporters of genocide, I think is ridiculous. And so, I'm rather flabbergasted. I'm pleased to see the PM dealt with it in the way that he did. But this is why we have to be strong and resolute on these issues and not perhaps vexed as he has been in trying to make sure that he is all things to all people in this debate. So, time to harden up. And this claim is a silly one and I hope the courts treat it in that way.

JENNETT: I do note the slight split in unity there. Again, I expect no less from you, Jonno Duniam, at some points. The Cook by-election, you're very familiar with the southern parts of Sydney, Matt Thistlethwaite. Simon Kennedy's been picked by the Libs to go around in the forthcoming by-election. Will Labor and should Labor be running a candidate?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, Greg, ordinarily I'd say Labor would be a very, very long shot in Cook and we'll meet with our branch members there and make a decision in the coming weeks when the date is set. But I will say this, that Simon Kennedy, who was pre-selected by the Liberal Party, actually lives in Maroubra in my electorate, and let's face it, who wouldn't want to live in God's country?

JENNETT: He did say he's going to move to Woolooware, didn't he? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think the problem he's going to have is that he's living in Rabbitoh's heartland. It's not going to go down too well in Sharkey's territory. So, I think that's the problem. He's going to have to overcome that he's not a local and that was an issue that he had when he ran in Bennelong in the last election. So, I think that's going to be an issue. So, there might be a window of opportunity there for Labor to select a good local candidate.

JENNETT: Okay, we're going to wrap it up there because Jonno Duniam, I know as a Tasmanian, you think we're talking another language when we're talking about Rabbits and Sharkies. Just for the record, the candidate, Simon Kennedy, did declare publicly today that he is a Bulldogs fan. Again, don't expect you to understand any of that, Jonno, we'll wrap it up there. Jonno, Matt Thistlethwaite, thanks both for joining us, we’ll talk soon.



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