Television Interview, ABC News

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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: National Defence Strategy, Government unveils $50 billion spending increase over next decade, Soloman Islands election.

GREG JENNETT: Well, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy will have the responsibility for keeping the money flowing where it's needed, and more importantly keeping projects on track. 

He joined us here a few moments ago. 

Pat Conroy, there's an awful lot of detail about Defence projects and spending out over the next four years and the next ten. I'm sure there'll be some cynics about the quantum of money, the build‑up in Defence funding that's contained in today's announcements. 

Just to clarify, rising to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2034. That's projected. Does projected mean guaranteed? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: Well it's built into the budget, it's in the budget. What that means is Defence spending as a share of national economy at the moment is 2 per cent, so when it increases to 2.4 per cent, which is baked into the budget, we would have increased the share of Defence spending as a share of our national economy by 20 per cent. 

That reflects our strategic circumstances and the commitment of the Albanese Government to protecting our country and our people. 

GREG JENNETT: This in historical terms, I think the Minister was saying, would be a high watermark for this country compared to I think he was saying the Korean War. How much of an increase is it over current levels if we want to use the GDP benchmark? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well it goes from 2 per cent now to 2.4 per cent. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, you'd have to go back to the Korean War to find a bigger increase as a percentage of shared GDP. In terms of dollar terms, it's a $5.7 billion increase over the next four years, the biggest in decades, and $50 billion of additional funding over the next decade. That is record levels of investment in protecting our people and also supporting jobs in our economy. 

GREG JENNETT: Yep, so extra money gets you some way towards the projects that you will have to oversee. Others come through reprioritisation, $22 billion over the next four years. 

Now in a public version of the Integrated Investment Plan, it runs to 100 pages, we haven't had a big chance to go over it in the last hour or so, can you clarify for us what are the major projects being culled or delayed? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well let me give you a couple of examples. One is the previous Government had a plan to build mine sweepers to hunt mines. We're investing in autonomous undersea vessels to do the same thing. We think that's a more effective and safer way of delivering that effect. 

Another one is we're reducing the number of infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129 because we couldn't transport 450 to where we need to get them to. 

GREG JENNETT: Sure. Previously announced 12 months ago that one. 

MINISTER CONROY: That's right. And we're using that money to invest in Landing Craft and long‑range fire, so long‑range rocket batteries for the Australian Army. 

GREG JENNETT: The F35 or Joint Strike Fighter has, you know, a long history of public scrutiny and then delivery to this country. What's happening with any latent plans that were still on the books to build that up above the number of 72? I think the fleet stands at 72, correct me if I'm wrong. What's happening with JSF fleet? 

MINISTER CONROY: Yeah, so we've got 72 Joint Strike Fighters and we've got a number of Super Hornets and we've decided to keep the Super Hornets in service for two reasons. One, they're doing great work. Secondly, the Joint Strike Fighter is even more capable than we initially thought. So we can delay the replacement of the Super Hornet which frees up funding to invest in more long‑range missiles, for example. 

So this is about making sensible choices as well as the hard decisions.

GREG JENNETT: So 72 F35s is the end of the road for that project in this country? 

MINISTER CONROY: No, not necessarily. The last government had a plan of prematurely retiring the Super Hornets when they're perfectly good aircraft doing really good work. So we're going to continue with the Super Hornets. They complement the Joint Strike Fighter, and we will evaluate possible replacements of them a bit further down the path. That frees up money, as I said, for long‑range missiles to equip both platforms as well as reequipping the Army and Navy. 

GREG JENNETT: How much would that saving be as between this trade off, Super Hornets, to F35s? 

MINISTER CONROY: It's a few billion dollars. We'll be releasing that information in the normal course of events, but it frees up a couple of billion. That's part of those reprioritisation. We are making the hard decisions. 

There isn't a money tree where you can keep spending and spending. Yes, we've got $50 billion in additional funding but we're also making hard decisions and saying the Super Hornets are doing a good job, we'll keep those and invest the money in long‑range strike, for example. 

GREG JENNETT: Okay. I don't want to get too technical about aircraft but on the Super Hornets, since you will have them as a bit of a workhorse for the foreseeable future, I know people who watch these things closely wonder about further upgrades to that fleet. There's a standard called Block III. Will those Super Hornets that Australia owns be upgraded to Block III? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well I'm not going to get into the weeds of individual capabilities here but we've been aligning our development pathway of these platforms with the United States navy, they're the main sort of parent user of the Super Hornet and the Growler Electronic Attack aircraft, and we broadly try to keep them aligned but I can't comment on individual upgrade cycles. 

GREG JENNETT: Okay. Final one on the Super Hornets. How much longer do you envisage that they remain in service?

MINISTER CONROY: Oh look, that's a decision for the chief of the Air Force as the airworthiness advisor, but they're a really good aircraft, are doing great work. They complement the Joint Strike Fighter; they do things the JSF can't do. And so we work them well together. As I said, we're making important decisions, allocating funding to the priorities that the Defence Strategic Review advise us to do. 

GREG JENNETT: All right. Now the build up of air bases, predominantly air bases in the north of Australia was a big feature of the Strategic Review last year. With that comes requirements not only to build there but also to store fuel there. How much of today's plans address those projects? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well we're applying tens of billions of dollars to harden the northern bases. Something that the last government didn't invest in. 

Secondly, we're investing tens of billions of dollars in theatre logistics. That's the fuel storage, how you get the fuel there, how do you store weapons, that's critical. There's no point having this shiny piece of new equipment if you can't fuel it or arm it. That's why this document, the Integrated Investment Program, is so important, because it actually invests in those enables functions that are critical to any military force being effective in the field. 

GREG JENNETT: It's also critical to visiting US partner aircraft, isn't it, who I think it's pretty widely and publicly telegraphed will be using them by when? What's the urgency around the fuel and the logistics work here? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well I won't comment on those things for operational reasons, but the United States is also making investments in this infrastructure. That was announced out of the 2023 AUSMIN statement. So we're both investing in these bases. The US rotational presence is an important complement to what we do. 

GREG JENNETT: Yeah, I think I recall that from last year. I might just change hats as we draw towards the end of this conversation, Pat. As Pacific Minister, Solomon Islanders are at the polls today. Australia's had very well documented tensions with the government there for some time. Do you see this occasion as something of a reset or an opportunity for a reset in relations with Solomon Islands? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well any time people get to express their democratic will is a great day. I celebrate democracy days everywhere. 

We've got a good relationship with the Solomon Islands. It's been rebuilt under our Government. I've visited twice already. Importantly, we've got 130 Federal Police supporting those ‑ to provide security to the elections with the Papua New Guinea Police Force and the Fijian forces and we've got 300 Australian Defence Force personnel providing logistics support. 

So this is an example of where we're supporting another member of the Pacific family's election efforts to make sure that they've got all the support they need. 

GREG JENNETT: It is a substantial level of engagement around the exercise of holding the election. Any initial reports on how it is being conducted? Has misinformation or any anomalies come to light? 

MINISTER CONROY: Well I haven't been provided any advice along those lines. I've seen that sort of social media pictures, I've seen Australian Embassy officials getting around and visiting booths just to be part of the colour and movement, and so I'm just so happy that people get to express their democratic will, and we'll work with whatever government is elected in the Solomon Islands, like we do with every other country. 

GREG JENNETT: Okay. So if and when it becomes clear that there is a government formed after the election, when would you or Penny Wong plan to pay a visit? 

MINISTER CONROY: I'm not going foreshadow that at this stage. Often formation of governments takes a while. 


MINISTER CONROY: So we'll just let them work their democratic processes. We've got an excellent High Commission in place and the High Commission will engage with the new government and obviously we'll pay our courtesy calls on the new government, as I have done, for example, with the new government in Tuvalu and we'll do the same thing with the Solomon Islands. 

GREG JENNETT: All right. Well one way or another if it's not Defence Industry it's those sort of visits. You've got a bit laying out in front of you right now, Pat Conroy. Appreciate it as always.


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