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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2 April 2024


SUBJECTS: Israel-Hamas conflict; Austal-Hanwha; Independent Parliamentary Standards Committee.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: All right, well, we might seek some views on that during the course of our next conversation because we are welcoming now today's political panel. And joining us, Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite. Matt's in Sydney. Welcome back, Matt. And Liberal MP Keith Wolahan. Keith is in Melbourne. Same to you. Welcome back on the program, Keith. Why don't we start, tragically, in the Middle East. And I'll go to you first, Matt Thistlethwaite. The Prime Minister's made very clear that Israel's defence force must be held accountable for the death of aid workers, including Zomi Frankcom. What's the government's working hypothesis, or assessment, if you like, of what's gone wrong here?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, Greg, this is a terrible tragedy. A young Australian woman seeking to do good in a war torn area in the Middle East, trying to bring relief to particularly children who have been suffering. And that's why Prime Minister has said that this sort of thing is totally unacceptable. And Australia, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will be working with the Israeli authorities to try and work out what's happened here, what's gone wrong. But most importantly, I think it highlights Australia's commitment to working internationally and to working with other nations like Canada and New Zealand in calling for an immediate ceasefire. That's why we've voted in the United Nations for a ceasefire. We also call for the immediate release of the hostages that were taken by Hamas. But we want to see this conflict come to an end because innocent people's lives are being threatened and innocent people are losing their lives.

JENNETT: Well, I can get an assessment from you, Keith Wolahan, on that very diplomatic call that Matt Thistlethwaite outlines there. That is the Australian established position in diplomacy for a durable ceasefire, but also, perhaps to you, some sort of assessment of what you think has gone wrong here, noting, as I ask it, that the IDF statement says it has actually been working closely with World Central Kitchen. That doesn't exactly square with a well planned operation, does it?

KEITH WOLAHAN, MEMBER FOR MENZIES: This is a tragedy on any measure. And our first duty is to Australians. We're in the Australian Federal Parliament and an Australian has died. So, it is right and proper that questions are asked and a full investigation is conducted. But we mustn't just stop short of whether it was deliberate or not. Most civilian casualties in wars, and certainly the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, were accidents. They weren't deliberate. But that doesn't mean you can't press for better protections to be made so that you can distinguish between civilians better. So, if mistakes have been made and if that's what has happened here, it's a big one. We should be asking that better processes are put in place so it doesn't happen again.

JENNETT: Yeah. I should just bring to our audience's attention an additional part of the statement put out by World Central Kitchen, the agency involved here. We didn't cover it in an earlier announcement, but it is pausing operations immediately in the region, it says, and they'll make decisions about the future of its work soon. So, I just wanted to put that on the record. One last one back to you on this, Matt. Is Israel at risk of losing what international support it has through incidents like this?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: In the wake of the Second World War, nations came together to establish the United Nations as a mechanism to try and avoid conflict into the future. And through that body, Australia and other nations have been working to try and bring an end to this conflict. And I know it's a complicated issue, but we've been pretty consistent as a government calling for the release of the hostages and calling for a ceasefire and importantly, the sanctity of life and the protection of civilians. And that's been a consistent position from this government, and we'll continue to push that position in those international fora that are so important to try and bring peace to this conflict.

JENNETT: All right, well, we've got a bit to try and cover with both of you this afternoon, so let's press on. Away from the Middle East, you might have noticed earlier in our program, Keith Wolahan, the Korean company Hanwha, is discussing openly this public bid that it's made for shipbuilder Austal. The government has so much invested in Henderson and Austal's operations, more generally for Australian sovereign shipbuilding. Would this, on face value to you, Keith, present any risk to sovereign shipbuilding if the company were to switch into Korean hands?

WOLAHAN: On face value, it does. When we look at the defence of our nation going forward, it's not just through the Defence department and people in uniform. A key part is defence industry, and we rely on private enterprise to do that. But that also means all of the risks that come with private enterprise. And in any offer like this, there is a request for documents and a due diligence process to be conducted. And I took some comfort that they stopped short of sharing all of the non-confidential documents you would normally share in a due diligence process. But this will come down to FIRB and also the US agencies that will have a say in this. AUKUS has some strict criteria about who is involved, particularly in critical infrastructure builds.

JENNETT: All right, well, how could that be managed? You must have taken some initial advice on this, Matt Thistlethwaite. Can the approvals and conditions processes accommodate a player which is kind of friendly to Australia strategically in Korea, but nowhere near as close to the trusted relationships that are at the centre of AUKUS and the like?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, you're right, Greg. I have taken some advice on this, and the advice is that we shouldn't be commenting on it at this stage. A potential transaction between two corporations, and it's not appropriate for me to comment on that at this stage. But I will say that Austal is an Australian based company that produces very, very high quality and reliable military hardware, and indeed, domestic shipping as well. And I think that it's a testament to the skill and competence that we have here in Australia. Austal produced the Admiral-class and Cape-class patrol vessels for Australia. They've produced the littoral combat vessels for the United States military. And I think it's a classic example of why we have every confidence in Australian industry being able to deliver on the government's very ambitious surface fleet combat program and, of course, AUKUS into the future. So, that almost sounds good.

JENNETT: Just clarify for me, yeah, just clarify for me. That almost sounds like an argument for it to remain in Australian hands. In many ways, delivering on your sovereign shipbuilding aspirations would be easier, would it not, under the current ownership arrangements rather than Korean ownership?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I don't want to comment on that particular case, but of course, we want to make sure that we maintain sovereign capability here in Australia in all facets of military design and delivery of important projects and hardware into the future. And that's simply not confined to this particular company. That's something that we hope is a characteristic of Australian defence and industry moving forward. 

JENNETT: All right, And do you think, Keith, that the processes could manage this towards some resolution? I know you've expressed concerns about it, but are the systems robust enough, be they either through contractual arrangements or Foreign Investment Review Board conditions?

WOLAHAN: Well, they have to be. And we are in uncharted territory. We haven't delivered on a project the size and scale of AUKUS before. So, what this highlights is that this, for this to actually be delivered on time and deliver us the capability we need, we need all parts of our society, from the private sector to government, working together. And, of course, it's private companies will do what private companies do, but they must do it within the rules and boundaries of the Foreign Investment Review Board, but also the United States agencies that are sharing that technology with us.

JENNETT: All right, let's move on to the Parliamentary Workplace Code of Conduct, not suggesting for a moment that either of you would ever fall foul of that. But what's being examined? Sanctions, financial penalties. A 5% docking of pay is on the table, apparently. Matt Thistlethwaite, they're taking legal advice on this, says Katy Gallagher. What would that surround? Does it impinge privilege if you're dipping into an MP or senators pay packet?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, as far as on where these proposals at this stage, Greg, and they come from recommendations that were made from the Set the Standard report that looked at parliamentary behaviour and some shocking instances of failures to set that standard. And there's been a series of recommendations that have progressively and methodically been adopted by the government and we've worked through those through a multi-partisan committee. It's the parliamentary leadership committee. It contains representatives from the government, the opposition and importantly, the crossbenchers. And they came up with the recommendations to establish the parliamentary workplace support service that has now been legislated, has run training program for all parliamentary staff and MPs and Senators, and is now up and operating. And we're now moving to a similar process with these recommendations. So, we'll work through them methodically and taking into consideration the recommendations of this committee. Ultimately, what comes out of it is the decision of the parliament, but we want to hope that we can make this multi-partisan and everyone agrees with these recommendations.

JENNETT: Yeah, I don't think that's in dispute, Keith, that it has been a multi-partisan endeavour so far. Looking at it through a legal lens, is it clear to you what the implications, why that would be examined? Is it a privileged matter?

WOLAHAN: I'm not sure what particular legal issues might arise, but you would certainly seek legal advice about this, including constitutional issues that might arise about the sovereignty of parliament. But I'm sure we can work through those and it's right and proper that this is done in a multi partisan way. I didn't see what the parliament was like in previous parliaments, but I am confident that, from what I've seen and what my staff have seen, it does reflect the modern workplace that Australians expect it to be.

JENNETT: All right, well, we'll take that as a sign of progress. I think you might be right, actually, Keith Wolahan. I think the parliament has been a little shabbier in the past, in my experience. We're going to wrap it up there both and thank you. Unfortunately, time has beaten us on few other matters we might have got to, but really appreciate getting across what we did. Matt Thistlethwaite, Keith Wolahan, thanks again.




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