Television Interview, ABC News 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; Solomon Islands elections; Indigenous Affairs; Bondi Junction Incident.

HOST, LISA MILLAR: Another $50 billion over ten years is projected for Australia's defence spending, with the Federal Government revealing an immediate boost of more than $1 billion to accelerate defence systems. Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles joins us now from Geelong. Minister, good morning. Welcome to News Breakfast.


MILLAR: I've been wading through all of the assessments and analysis of this announcement. A lot of people suggesting this money is too far at the back end and the threat is closer and more real than this is going to deliver. Will we be prepared for what might lay ahead?

MARLES: Well, actually, we're seeing $5.7 billion in this year's budget over the next four years in the forward estimates. And to put that number in context, that represents, if you adjust it for exchange rates and operations and the like, that's the biggest increase over a four year period in defence spending that we have seen in this country in decades. It's a significant increase in defence spending right now. It's a significant increase over the course of the decade, and we certainly do have challenges. We inherited the oldest surface fleet in our navy since the end of the Second World War from the Coalition government. We inherited a ten-year capability gap on our most important and potent platform, our future submarines, from the Coalition. And so there's been a lot of work to do. But that said, we do believe by acting quickly and by acting decisively with this very significant increase in defence spending, we can give our country agency and we can make sure that going forward, in a much less certain world, we're able to resist coercion and maintain our way of life.

MILLAR: What does that mean, resist coercion?

MARLES: Well, what it means is that we have a growing economic connection to the world. Our national income is increasingly being driven by trade, and there's a physical manifestation to that – that's, you know, our sea lines of communication, our sea trade with the world. And that represents a vulnerability. I mean, we import, for example, about 85 per cent of our fuel needs are imported – refined product from Malaysia, Singapore, Korea. Right there represents a vulnerability for our country. And so what we need is a very capable defence force, a very capable navy in that instance, to make sure that we can protect that. So, contributing to the collective security of the region in which we live, making sure that we can protect our sea trade, our sea lines of communication is at the heart of the job of what our defence force needs to be doing, going into the future. And to do that in a way where we need to be much more self-reliant, where we need to be much more capable as a country really does require a transformation of our defence capability, which is why we are increasing defence spending in the way that we are.

MILLAR: Solomon Islands go to the polls today. It's been very clear that the favourite, the current Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, is aligning himself more and more with China. He signed the security deal. What's that going to mean if he's returned?

MARLES: Well, obviously we've got a long relationship with Manasseh Sogavare and, you know, I was in Solomon Islands and speaking with Mr Sogavare last year, and we will continue to work closely with whoever is elected in Solomon Islands. And indeed, the Government has been working closely with the current government of the Solomon Islands in respect of the handling of the election. We've been doing quite a lot of work to ensure that this election has been able to proceed in an orderly way. And that is what's occurred. It's going to be a little time before we get the results of the election, which is perfectly normal. But whatever those results are and whatever government has ultimately formed in Solomon Islands, we will endeavour to work very closely with them. What we've said to Mr Sogavare, as we've said to everyone in Solomon Islands over a long period of time now, is that Australia seeks to be the partner of choice for Solomon Islands, as it does for the countries of the Pacific. We get that’s not something we get by right, we need to earn that. But we are putting a real emphasis on our relationships with the Pacific and Solomon Islands and we believe that there is much that we can do in that regard. And we do take heart from the fact that Mr Sogavare has made clear that he does not want to see a foreign military base in that country. And that's very important.

MILLAR: Ok, a couple of other important stories that we're covering this morning. Terrible news out of WA, the suicide of a ten year old indigenous boy who was under state care. Does that not say to you that everything that's been done has not worked, that you are failing in closing the gap and we have a real problem still?

MARLES: Well, obviously it's a completely, unspeakably tragic circumstance and it's impossible not to be moved by that. And it certainly does speak to the fact that we have enormous challenges going forward in relation to closing the gap. I mean, the gap has been stubbornly persistent and it's part of what we've been saying since the time that we've come to government. We really need to be looking at ways in which we can do business in a different way, because the gap is stubbornly persistent. And whilst there are some areas where some elements of the gap, some social indicators have improved, by and large, this has been a challenge which governments of both persuasions have struggled to meet. But we are completely determined to do this and we will– you know, news of this kind only adds to redoubling our efforts to make sure that we do everything we can to make inroads in respect to the gap.

MILLAR: Yes. Just finally, you had the National Cabinet security meeting last night. I'm wondering whether we know whether the French man known as ‘Bollard Man’ has taken up the offer to take permanent residency here with a visa that was offered by the Prime Minister?

MARLES: I don’t have that news but obviously his actions were extremely brave. He is the kind of person who we’d want to see in Australia and he’s not the only person who demonstrated incredible bravery at Bondi. It was an appalling event and it has moved the entire nation understandably. But what we saw in the midst of that was immense bravery from a range of people including this gentlemen and his circumstances will be looked at going forward. But certainly the bravery he showed is the kind of thing we want to see in this country.

MILLAR: Ok, Minister, we've got to leave it there. We've run out of time. Thank you for your time.

MARLES: Thanks, Lisa.


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