Radio Interview, ABC Radio National

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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(02) 6277 7840

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17 April 2024

SUBJECTS: Defence Minister’s address to the National Press Club, Integrated Investment Program.

ANDY PARK: "Our environment is characterised by the uncertainty and tensions of entrenched and increasingly strategic competition between the United States and China." Those were the words of the Defence Minister, Richard Marles, at the National Press Club this afternoon. He didn't mince his words when describing the imminent challenges Australia faces. 


RICHARD MARLES: Australia no longer has the luxury of a 10‑year window, a strategic warning time for conflict. The National Defence Strategy observes that the combined effect of this has seen our strategic environment deteriorate over the last 12 months. 

[End of Excerpt] 

ANDY PARK: Richard Marles also announced spending in Defence this financial year will reach $53 billion and is set to double over the next 10 years to $100 billion. It will see Defence spending account for 2.4 per cent of GDP, the largest sustained growth in Defence spending over a 10‑year period since World War II. 

Joining me now is Pat Conroy, the Minister for Defence Industry. Welcome to you, Minister. 


ANDY PARK: If we no longer have the luxury of a 10‑year window of conflict, then why are we investing in subs in a program that we won't see until the 2030s? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, the answer is that we need to be investing in capability to get it as soon as possible, as well as investing in the best capability to position us to defend Australia in the 2030s, and that's why we're investing $330 billion over the next decade to keep Australians safe. 

We'll be manufacturing missiles in this country next year, for example; we're bringing forward the delivery of mobile walker artillery systems to the Army, we're bringing forward landing craft for the Army by seven years, and we're undertaking the fastest acquisition of a large Naval vessel in the general purpose frigate in the history of this country, so much so that we'll be cutting steel in 26 and delivering the first vessel by the end of the decade. 

So we're taking urgent action, we're matching it resources that are locked in to the budget at the same time as delivering the nuclear power but conventionally armed submarines in the early 2030s, that will be the most significant increase in capability since the start of the Navy. 

ANDY PARK: But this is exactly my point. Is the argument for this urgency today precisely because of the potential cost blow‑outs and waiting times of the AUKUS submarine deal? 

MINISTER CONROY: No, not at all. I reject that thesis entirely. The urgency is because of our strategic circumstances. We've lost the 10‑year warning horizon for a major regional conflict. That occurred in 2020, the last government did nothing about it. 

We're funding action and taking urgent action, but at the same time investing in the submarines, because they all give us the greatest capability to deter any potential aggressor to resist coercion, and that's why we need to do those. We need to obviously over time improve the capability of our Australian Defence Force, and we're doing that step by step. 

ANDY PARK: Ahead of today's announcement, Shadow Defence spokesperson, Andrew Hastie had something to say on this. Take a listen. 


ANDREW HASTIE: Now I'm concerned that this is setting the stage for Defence cuts, and that is also a test. We can't go backwards. As we know, inflation is eating into families' budgets around the kitchen table, it's also into Defence's budget too. And what we've seen over the last two years is AUKUS, which was supported on a bipartisan basis, and so we're seeing increased Defence expenditure required, and this Government has yet to commit to it. 

[End of Excerpt] 

ANDY PARK: So Minister, has today really set the stage for Defence cuts; can you rule that out? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, it's the opposite. In fact Andrew Hastie has no credibility on this. The announcements today included an increase in a Defence budget by $5.7 billion over the next four years, and an increase in the Defence budget by $50 billion over the decade. That is the most significant increase in a Defence budget in decades. 

Importantly, it will lift Defence expenditure as a share of the national economy to 2.4 per cent compared to 2 per cent now. So that's increasing the share of Defence expenditure by 20 per cent. 

We are taking the strategic circumstances seriously, and that's why we're investing in the safety of the nation and growing Defence industry jobs at the same time. 

Meanwhile, Andrew Hastie can't even commit to what their funding figure is. Their official position is Defence spending should be 2.1 per cent of GDP. So they're arguing for a cut the equivalent of $50 billion. So I can't frankly take anything too seriously that comes out of Mr Hastie's mouth. 

ANDY PARK: Regardless, cuts are going to have to be made; for example, Richard Marles said the number of infantry fighting vehicles have been reduced from 450 down to 129. What other projects are losing funding? 

MINISTER CONROY: We'll, we've ‑ another example we've talked about where we're reprioritising, and that's an important thing. We're increasing the Defence budget by $50 billion, but we're also turning off projects that have less strategic value at the moment, or don't fit our plans to invest that in the Australian Defence Force. 

So, for example, the last government had a plan to retire the Super Hornet aircraft early. They're very capable aircraft that complement the joint strike fighters, and so we'll be keeping the Super Hornets in service and given the fact that the United States will be running them to the 2040s, that's quite a sensible decision. 

That will save us billions of dollars that we can then reinvest in, whether it's long-range strike, making missiles in this country more than doubling of the Australian Navy. 

So we're making the hard decisions and prioritising a force structure that delivers what we need. 

ANDY PARK: I want to understand something: a couple of years ago I was covering Talisman Sabre and the war games there. The buzz word was all about amphibious landing craft being able to get on to certain strategic pieces of land and get underneath missile systems. 

It seems like today, given your announcement of $1 billion allocated over the next four years for long‑range strike and targeted and autonomous systems, it seems like this is a totally different strategy. Is it? 

MINISTER CONROY: No, no, they complement each other. And in fact we are transforming the Australian Navy; we're more than doubling the number of major surface combatants, but we're also transforming the Australian Army into one focused on long‑range strike and amphibious movement or littoral manoeuvre, and that was a recommendation from the Defence Strategic Review. 

So, for example, we're investing in building 26 medium and heavy landing craft for the Army, and we're bringing forward that. The last government's plan was to deliver the first landing craft heavy in 2035, we're bringing it forward by seven years to deliver the first one in 2028 built in Henderson using Australia's great skilled shipbuilding workforce. 

So we're transforming the Australian Army into one focused on amphibious movement, being at long‑range weapons, so that it goes from being able to strike 30 kilometres to in excess of 500 kilometres and complementing that by more than doubling the surface combatants in the Navy. 

ANDY PARK: It's 14 past 4. Pat Conroy is the Minister for Defence Industry. We're talking about the Defence Minister's address at the National Press Club today where he outlined Labor's long‑awaited National Defence Strategy, on RN Drive. 

At today's Press Club, Minister, Defence correspondent Andrew Greene for the ABC raised this question about Australia's support for Ukraine since Russia's invasion falling from being the most significant non‑NATO contributor to about fifth place. 

I have to say his response from the Defence Minister was underwhelming, so I'll ask you: how can the Defence Industry trust what the Government has unveiled today if a country already attack, i.e., Ukraine, is seeing Australia's support diminish? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I disagree with the assertion you've put in that question both of the DPM's answer and arguing that we're diminishing our support for Ukraine. 

ANDY PARK: Are we not in fifth place now, Minister? 

MINISTER CONROY: No, we've provided well over $700 million of military assistance, including joining the growing Coalition led by the United Kingdom. We've recently allocated another $50 million to go into a central purchasing fund to purchase weapons for Ukraine military. Our total assistance now is around a billion dollars. We're not reducing it, we're increasing it, and anyone who says to the contrary is inaccurate. 

In terms of the Defence Industry, we've got credibility, because we're matching our rhetoric with actions. We've put $330 billion into the budget over the next 10 years to purchase the platforms and sustain the platforms we need. We've got over 100,000 workers in this country working in Defence Industry, and that will grow under our plan. We're increasing Defence funding by $5.7 billion over the next four years alone. So our actions are our funding. That is how we demonstrate our intent, and that credibility is there. 

ANDY PARK: Just before I let you go, on another matter, Senator James Paterson has suggested today that the attacks in Sydney demonstrate that we need to have the heads of ASIO and ASIS at the National Security Committee table. Is that something that your Government's considering? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I don't comment on the structure and the mechanism of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, but what I can say as a member of it is that the intelligence agencies provide advice to us on a very regular basis, they are consulted, and they are included in deliberations where it's relevant, and anyone who's suggesting otherwise, quite frankly, is not talking from a position of fact. 

ANDY PARK: Pat Conroy is the Minister for Defence Industry. Appreciate your time this afternoon. 

MINISTER CONROY: Thank you. Have a good afternoon, bye‑bye.


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