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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18 April 2024

SUBJECT/S: National Defence Strategy and the Integrated Investment Program; Israel-Hamas Conflict; Bondi Junction Incident. 

HOST, PATRICIA KARVELAS: An extra $50 billion will be spent over the next decade on the Government's National Defence Strategy and Integrated Investment Program. There's more money for long-range missiles and a focus on long-term capability, including the AUKUS nuclear submarines, as threat of a future regional conflict grows. Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, and he joins us on the program. Welcome back to RN Breakfast.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Patricia. How are you?

KARVELAS: Good, thank you. Experts are saying the greatest risk of aggression between China and the US will come in the second half of this decade. So, if China strikes Taiwan next year or the year after, what capability will Australia have?

MARLES: Well, I think the starting point is that what we are trying to do here is make sure that we have the capability to be able to survive, resist coercion in a much less certain world in the future. I mean, experts who will project the worst contingency in relation to great power conflict, I mean, we need to be really clear eyed about the fact we are not trying to be a peer nation to the United States or China. I mean, obviously, that would be ridiculous. That is not the strategic challenge that we are trying to meet. Now, we want to do everything we can to be deterring a conflict of that kind and we are working very closely with our ally, the United States, in respect of that. But our strategic challenge in terms of the capability that we are trying to build is making sure that in a less certain world in the future, and that's what we face, that we have the capacity to be able to resist coercion and maintain our way of life. And we've got real challenges in relation to that, that we're not shying away from. But this increase in defence spending, which is as significant as really we've seen in decades, we believe will enable us to do it.

KARVELAS: Do you accept, though, that given when the spending kicks in and when we acquire some of this, that in the next ten years we are exceptionally vulnerable?

MARLES: Well, we have vulnerabilities and we've not shied away from that. I mean, we–

KARVELAS: And that's not going to change as a result of this. In that time period. I understand you have a longer-term strategy, but in that time period? 

MARLES: Well, no, I don't accept that last point. But let me just amplify this: what we inherited from the Liberal party was the oldest surface fleet for our Navy since the end of the Second World War. What we inherited from the Liberal party was a capability gap in relation to our most important and potent platform, which is long-range submarines. And so we have had to do a lot of work in trying to rectify that. It would have been better for that work to have been done a decade ago, but the next best thing is that we act now. 

Now, as one example, we are bringing forward the acquisition of a general purpose frigate, which we'll see the first of those in operation in this decade. So, you know, we are making real changes right now to increase the capability of our Defence Force. We restructured the Army last year, and that's taking place over the next couple of years, which will give rise to a much more mobile, a much more amphibious Army in the near term. And so we are looking at a range of near term capabilities. But it is right that it is going to take time to put all of this in place. And the strategic challenge that we are seeking to meet is to make sure that in a timeframe of a decade and beyond, we are then able to resist coercion and to maintain our way of life in what could very well be a much less certain world.

KARVELAS: You've said the strategic problem you're trying to solve is to resist coercion. You just used that word again. Give me an example of what that coercion might look like, specifically.

MARLES: Well, I mean, the most specific example that you can give, which describes, in a sense, our vulnerability here, relates to our physical economic connection to the world, our sea trade. I mean, we import today something like 85 per cent of our liquid fuel needs via refined product from Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, just those three countries. And indeed, what we are refining in this country, with the two refineries that are left, is, by and large, imported crude oil. So, that's coming from overseas as well. 

I mean, the reason why we make the observation that an invasion of Australia is a very unlikely scenario, no matter what happens, is because any adversary that wished to do us harm can do so much harm to us before ever setting foot on Australian soil and disrupting those specific sea lines of communication which I've described would obviously achieve that. That is where the risk of coercion lies, as one example. And in order to protect ourselves in respect of that, we do need the ability to project. Because if you think about it, the geography of our national security, when seen through those lens, is not the coastline of our continent. It, in fact, lies much further afield. And so having long-range submarines, having a much more capable surface fleet for our Navy, having much longer range missiles that we can bring to bear is what we need to do to give any adversary pause for thought, to be able to hold the assets of any potential adversary at risk further from our shores. That projection is what we are trying to build. That's the defence force that we need to have. And that is all about trying to protect ourselves from the risk of coercion so that we can maintain our way of life in a much less certain world. 

Now that is the strategic problem that we are trying to solve. It's not about thinking about some grand conflict in the worst case scenario in the next few years, because when people think those scenarios through, we're talking about superpowers and we are never going to be–

KARVELAS: So, you're saying we're going to be bit players in such a scenario?

MARLES: Say that again.

KARVELAS: You're saying we're going to be bit players in such a scenario, if it were to unfold?

MARLES: Well in that scenario you're talking about great powers and clearly we are not seeking to be a peer of the United States or China, which is why commentators who walk down that road, frankly, it lacks wit. It's obviously not what we are trying to do here. It's not what we could do. Now that's not to say– you know, we want to deter that kind of conflict. It's why we work really closely with the United States. It's why we're increasing force posture initiatives of the United States on the Australian continent. So, we've got an eye to that for sure. And the way in which we deal with that is very much through the way in which we work closely with America. But in terms of thinking about the capabilities that we are acquiring, we're really trying to solve a different problem. 

KARVELAS: Ok. Shortfalls and Defence recruitment are another major issue. You flag using recruits from New Zealand and the Pacific to plug those gaps. How quickly could you do that? Because obviously you'd have to change– there'd have to be law reform and various other changes. What is your timeframe for trying to boost recruitment from those places?

MARLES: Yeah, look, that's a really good question. And that's not going to happen overnight and I think it's reasonable to describe that in terms of years. Our immediate challenge in relation to this, or our immediate response to the challenge, has been to improve the Defence offering for Australian citizens and we've done that with $50,000 bonuses for those who continue to serve beyond their minimum service obligations, we've improved the housing offer, the health offer and the like. I mean, trying to streamline recruitment to make it a better offer for Australians is what we're doing right now, and that is actually having an impact. We're seeing separation rates fall, we're actually seeing the recruitment numbers start to turn around. But the point we're really making in relation to thinking of a wider pool from whom we can recruit is that it's not just about maintaining our numbers now. We need to grow the Defence Force through to 2040. And over that period of time, if we're really going to meet that challenge, then we do need to be thinking about drawing on a wider pool of people. And so what we've done in making this statement yesterday, is really, I think, to open the door to this. It's a door that's been walked through by our friends and allies. I mean, the UK does this, the United States does this. We've got 600,000 New Zealanders who call Australia home right now. I mean, that is a starting point. And I think looking at certain classes of non Australian citizens as potential recruits for the ADF going forward is an important step that we will need to take if we're going to meet the challenge of growing our Defence Force through to 2040.

KARVELAS: Earlier this morning we spoke to Surya McEwan, who is an Australian who joined a Freedom Flotilla mission to deliver five and a half thousand tonnes of aid to Gaza. In 2010, Israel boarded a similar mission in international waters. It killed ten people. I asked him if he was prepared to die for this cause. He told me that he doesn't want to die, but he's prepared to do it. What's your message to him and the other two Australians who are taking part in this?

MARLES: Well, I think our message more generally is we need to see a cessation to the hostilities in Gaza and we need to see humanitarian assistance provided to the people of Gaza as soon as possible. I mean, what we are watching unfold in Gaza is obviously a humanitarian crisis. That's why we've been very much focused on that in respect of the calls that we've made. That's why we're putting tens of millions of dollars towards–

KARVELAS: Are you worried, though, about these Australians who are doing this?

MARLES: Well, of course we're worried and we're worried about all Australians who are in the midst of this and it's why we're saying what we're saying. I might add, Patricia, that in saying we need to see a cessation of these hostilities as soon as possible, I’ll be very clear, that can't be one sided. What needs to come with that is a release of the hostages as well. And that is very much on Hamas to see that occur. But the humanitarian disaster that we are seeing play out with innocent Gazans is a tragedy. And I think the whole world is crying out for the loss of this life to come to an end.

KARVELAS: Just before I let you go, Deputy Prime Minister, you've offered, well, the Prime Minister has offered, your government has offered, permanent residency to the ‘Bollard Man’. Will the Government offer permanent residency to Muhammad Taha, the Pakistani security guard who was stabbed trying to stop the Westfield attacker? His visa expires next month.

MARLES: Yes, certainly the actions of Mr Taha were enormously brave. There's no doubt about that. Obviously, as were the actions of ‘Bollard Man’, who we're referring to him to as. I mean, what played out in Bondi over the weekend was just the most appalling tragedy. But in the midst of it, we did see acts of great bravery. I'm not aware of the particular applications that Mr Taha has on foot, but I've got no doubt that his circumstances will be worked through by the Minister.

KARVELAS: No, but the Prime Minister went a bit further than that with ‘Bollard Man’. He said, you know, we want people like that, he's free to come. And that's happened and what will happen. This man, I'm going to quote him, says “as a direct victim of the incident, I believe I deserve recognition and consideration for citizenship”. Will your government give it to him?

MARLES: Yeah. Well, obviously the circumstances of Mr Taha will be worked through. But the notion that the sort of bravery that Mr Taha exhibited is exactly what we want to see in this country is of course, right.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us.

MARLES: Thank you.


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