Doorstop interview, Robertson Barracks, Darwin

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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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7 May 2024

SUBJECTS: Defence’s largest solar farm switched on in the NT; National Defence Strategy; Unsafe and unprofessional interaction with PLA-Air Force; China relationship; Darwin ship lift; Lee Point development; Osprey helicopters.

LUKE GOSLING, MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: G’day, ladies and gentlemen. Can I start by apologising for being slightly late. It’s been a busy morning. We’ve had another exciting announcement down at the ship lift this morning, which is another big project. The good thing about this one is it’s actually complete and we’ve been able to cut the ribbon on this one today. It's always a great pleasure to have Matt Thistlethwaite in town. Not only is he a good friend and colleague but he’s a massive friend of the Northern Territory and as the Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans’, incredibly important to us here in the north. It’s been wonderful over the last months to see this project come to fruition. Power here, territory sunshine being turned into electrons to help us become more sustainable and build that resilience of our northern bases that we know is such a priority for the Albanese government. So, Matt, thanks for coming up, once again, mate. And I’ll hand over to you. 

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thanks, Luke. I want to also acknowledge Commanding Officer Brigadier Doug Pashley and thank him for joining us here to open this important facility. The Robertson Barracks solar farm is officially opened. This is the largest solar farm on a Defence base in Australia. It will dramatically reduce Defence’s energy costs. It will improve energy resilience for the base, and it will reduce carbon emissions in the local community. It's a win for the Australian Defence Force. It’s a win for the Darwin community. This is the second solar farm that I’ve opened here in Darwin coming on the back of the opening of the RAAF Base solar farm last year. But this one is three times bigger – 10 megawatts of energy will be produced here. It can power about 1,800 homes in the local community. It will power about 40 per cent of Robertson Barracks’ energy needs. It will reduce about 6,100 tonnes of carbon pollution in the local atmosphere in its first year alone. 

It's a great project that ensures that we improve the energy resilience and the renewable energy status of our Defence bases. The recently produced and announced National Defence Strategy highlighted that climate change and energy security are now major national security issues. And Defence is getting on the front foot and ensuring that we are making the investments in energy resilience and renewable energy projects such as this into the future, with more to come at Tindal, at Harts Range into the future. I want to thank Lendlease and Orocon for being involved in the construction of this project. The great beauty of this project is that they employed hundreds of locals, many of them Indigenous workers as well, in the construction of this facility. It’s also a partnership between Assure Energy and the Australian Defence Force to deliver power to not only the Defence base but to the local community into the future. So I’m really proud to be part of the Albanese Government that is delivering more renewable energy for our Defence bases, improving the resilience of our energy security on Defence bases and reducing carbon emissions in the local community. Any questions? 

JOURNALIST: Yeah, I guess obviously having a project of this size in Darwin in particular as well, how significant do you think it is for obviously this base but also for the local community? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: This is a huge project for the local community because it has the potential to power 1,800 local homes. When the sun is shining on a day like today and there is excess energy produced above what the base requires, that will be fed into the local community. So that’s clean, renewable energy that is supplying and powering local homes in the Darwin community. It also created a larger number of jobs for locals. And when you’re doing that, you’re creating an expertise in the local community around an industry of the future. And these are high-tech, high-skilled jobs. And we now know that the local community here in the Northern Territory and Darwin has the capacity to deliver important, big renewable energy projects such as this. 

JOURNALIST: I do have questions on other matters of the day, if I could get to those quickly. Just a few from my colleagues in Canberra: China’s unsafe actions in the Yellow Sea occurred just after Australia resolved to cooperate with partners such as the Philippines. Do you believe Beijing is trying to intimidate Australia from keeping away? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, Australia was undertaking a freedom of navigation exercise in international waters, as is the right of any navy or international shipping line in those areas. The actions of the Chinese military were irresponsible and very concerning. And the Defence Minister has relayed those concerns and outlined that we find activities such as that irresponsible. We want to, as best we can, ensure that we maintain peace and stability within the region. And to do that we need to make sure that our sea lanes, particularly in international waters, are free and that the rules of international law are upheld. And that’s what Australia is doing as part of an international force that maintains those sea lanes into the future. 

JOURNALIST: Do you share Peter Dutton’s fears that an Australian life could be lost as a result of China’s actions? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we’ve seen a number of actions from the Chinese actions that have endangered the lives of Australian Defence Force personnel. That’s why we’re very concerned about this latest action. And we request that the Chinese defence forest exercise responsible actions in situations such as this and desist from endangering the lives of Australian Defence Force personnel, or any other defence forest personnel for that matter. 

JOURNALIST: Just one final question on China: do you know if the incident occurred in waters which Beijing claims as its territory? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: My understanding is that this occurred in international waters and that Australia, as part of an international operation that involves many of our allies exercising freedom of navigation rights through that part of the South China Sea. 

JOURNALIST: Moving to another local project that Luke has already mentioned today, the Darwin ship lift, construction has begun on that today. It’s been reported it could be a lot of, you know, use to the Defence industry in future. How significant is the importance of the ship lift in Darwin? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, this is a really important project for the Darwin community. We know that we want to improve the littoral capacity of the Australian Defence Force in this community. And this will be an important part of that. It will create jobs in the local community, and it’s another great example of a partnership between defence industry and the Australian Defence Force to deliver greater capability here in the north to create jobs and create investment in an industry that’s only going to grow as we see more Australian Defence Force personnel move to the north and we invest billions of dollars in improving and upgrading the resilience of our bases in the north. 

JOURNALIST: Final two questions from me, I’m sorry: did you go to Lee Point this morning to assess any land clearing breaches by Defence Housing Australia? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I didn’t attend Lee Point this morning. I have been to Lee Point in the past with the local member, Luke Gosling. This is a project from Defence Housing Australia to build approximately 700 homes. The overwhelming majority of those homes will be for the local community. About 500 of those homes will be for local residents. So it’s supplying much-needed housing for the local community and for Defence Force personnel as we grow the number of troops that will be stationed here in Darwin. This project has gone through a rigorous environmental and cultural heritage analysis and it’s met all of those environmental and cultural significance approvals from the Commonwealth government. And on that basis DHA has the approval to proceed with the project.

JOURNALIST: Do you know if the government is investigating any alleged breaches at Lee Point by DHA? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: The DHA have met all of the approvals that have been specified by the conditions set down in the approval from the Environment Minister. And my instructions are that DHA has been meeting all of those approvals. 

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I haven’t got any information about that at the moment. Obviously we’re going to see with the Northern Rotational Force a number of personnel from not only the United States military but other military come to Darwin here and the north as part of a number of exercises, Pitch Black and others, that are really important for this community and for the local area. We know that there have been some issues with Osprey helicopters in the past and we’re considering that at the moment, but no decision has been made, as far as I’m aware. 

JOURNALIST: Would you be concerned if ADF personnel were required to board one of these craft? 

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, unfortunately we’ve seen over recent times the risk associated with serving through a number of training accidents and mishaps, one of those concerning the Tigers. They’re being investigated – Taipans, sorry. That’s being investigated at the moment. It highlights the risks associated with service. And that’s why every day I and my colleagues thank the members of the Australian Defence Force for the risk that they take in ensuring that our nation is defended into the future. And you can rest assured that Defence take all of the necessary precautions, do all of the necessary studies prior to making decisions about the use of particular military equipment and interaction with Australian Defence Force members. And that will occur with the Ospreys as well.


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