Radio Interview, ABC

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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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8 May 2024

ABC Radio Interview 
WEDNESDAY, 8 May 2024

SUBJECTS: Increased defence investment in Northern Territory, support for local industry in Northern Territory, national security boost, defence housing, nuclear waste storage, Ospreys, Virginia class submarines.

Adam Steer: Darwin will always be a strategically important place for trade and military movements. But after billions of dollars were committed to the territory, what does the future look like for Darwin as a garrison town? Pat Conroy is the federal Minister for defence industry and is in town for the Northern Australia Defence Summit. Minister, welcome back to the top end of the Northern Territory, choosing the right time, the dry season.

Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here and to encounter a cane toad in your green room.

Adam Steer: Yes, you certainly did. Now, there was a 14 billion to $18 billion announcement in April for defence spending in northern Australia over the next ten years. That sounds like a lot of money. What does that actually look like for Darwin and Catherine?

Minister Conroy: Yes. So, this was part of our $330 billion integrated investment programme, which was announced with the national Defence strategy. And I recognise that we face the greatest strategic uncertainty since World War two, with the biggest arms build up in our region since 45 as well. And the first job of any Federal Government is to look at the safety and interests of the Australian people. And as part of that, we'll be spending $14 to $18 billion in hardening and developing our northern bases. That includes places like RAAF Base Tindal, HMAS Coonawarra, the Larrakeyah Defence precinct. More broadly, the NT already punches above its weight in terms of defence industry. About 5000 jobs in it up here, companies seven and a half percent of the entire territories state product is related to the defence industry. So, you're a garrison town and importantly, you've got a big defence industry that we need to support. The ADF.

Adam Steer: We know a lot of those announcements or these plans to upgrade a lot of the defence in the top end of the Northern Territory. Initially flagged in the defence white paper in 2016. Has there been much variation since that paper?

Minister Conroy: Eight years ago, been a significant increase in investment? Government's plan around a defence white paper allocated a couple of billion dollars to defect hardening northern bases. We've allocated $14 to $18 billion.

Adam Steer: It was $20 billion over 20 years. Is that an issue?

Minister Conroy: Yes. Well, I'm talking about the first ten years. So, the first ten years, the last government allocated a couple of billion dollars. We're allocating $14 to $18 billion in that ten years. That reflects the strategic uncertainty that's part of us increasing the defence budget by $50 billion over the next decade, which recognises the significant strategic situation we're facing and our job, which is to protect the Australian people and our interests.

Adam Steer: That sounds good, but how much of that is quarantined for local companies? We've recently seen the Northern Territory government sign a contract with an American company to build our $550 million shiplift. It's unclear how much of that cash will go out of the territory. Is that going to be the same here? What's the. How are you quarantining some of those local works?

Minister Conroy: Most of this money will flow through to local industry, even the six American U.S. force posture projects. Five of the six projects went to local companies. If I can give you an example of an Australian project, Lendlease is delivering an upgrade to RAAF Base Tindal. 93% or $979 million of that money is going to be spent with Northern Territory companies. So, the money is flowing through. And that makes sense because you can't upgrade a base in Darwin, in Hobart, so the money will be spent here on local activity. And that Tindal case, where 93% went to local NT companies, is a great example of that.

Adam Steer: We know, speaking to the US, that there are plans, obviously, for the B-52, not a base, but a service area, will be at Tindal. We do have the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters up here as well. We know there is resurfacing going on at the Darwin International Airport to help with those fighters. They don't have any suspension, so it's got to be glassy smooth, that concrete. How much money is the US kicking in to pay for these upgrades?

Minister Conroy: Well, a lot of that is commercial in confidence, but they are putting in place significant amounts of funding. For example, they're putting in $747 million for the U.S. force posture training ranges, which the Marine Rotational Force will use. So, that's one example of the US co-investing. They've obviously made a significant contribution to the extra fuel tanks at the airport as well. So, they're putting in. Importantly, that money is flowing through the local companies, which means more jobs for local Northern Territorians.

Adam Steer: Why can't the public know how much?

Minister Conroy: Well, often these projects haven't gone to tender yet, so it's important that we, if we gave you specific figures, the. The tenderers would know what the price of that. So, it's important that we protect our commercial position and the commercial position of the United States. Importantly, the Australian government is allocating $14 to $18 billion in northern Australia for bases over the next ten years, and that will have a massive positive impact on the local economy.

Adam Steer: Twelve to eight on ABC radio, Darwin, Pat Conroy is the federal Minister for the Defence Industry. Your guest this morning. Are you going to sign a deal with the Northern Territory government to use the new shiplift being built at East Arm?

Minister Conroy: Well, that's not in the plan for today, but the development there is very exciting. We're transforming the Australian Army into one focused on what's called littoral manoeuvre. Think about it as amphibious operations, and as part of that, we're acquiring eight gigantic landing craft that are up to 5000 tonnes in size and 18 medium landing craft, and a lot of them will be based up here. So, having a good maritime sustainment industry, using things like the shiplift, is critical to the ability to maintain those very large vessels that the Australian army will be operating.

Adam Steer. So, the littoral manoeuvre, aka amphibious vessels from First Brigade, where will they be based?

Minister Conroy: Most of them will be based up here. Some will be across in Townsville and down in Brisbane, because they all won't go to first brigade. But the first brigade is being transformed into one focused on littoral manoeuvre. So, a big chunk of those 26 landing craft will be up here.

Adam Steer: Federal MP for Solomon and Defence veteran Luke Gosling says northern Australia, Australian bases would have a key role to play in helping the ADF to recover from an attack and strike back at the enemy. How likely is a strike on Australia?

Minister Conroy: Well, it's not appropriate for me to sort of give you a percentage figure or something like that. What I can say is we face a very uncertain strategic circumstances and it's our job to invest in the Australian Defence Force to deter conflict. We want to deter war, we want to protect the Australian people. And you do that by investing in a strong military. And that's what the goal is, that we never have to actually use them in anger and that's why we're making these investments.

Adam Steer: Well, I guess we do increase the chances of a strike by bolstering up the bases, though, don't we?

Minister Conroy: Well, I hear that argument, but I actually do reject that argument. I think that the best way of deterring conflict is to demonstrate to any potential adversary that if they do hit us, that we can hit back and that we can inflict damage and make it too painful. You don't deal with bullies by sort of cowering in a corner. So, the important thing is that we have a strong and well equipped Australian Defence Force, not to attack anyone, but to defend Australia and to demonstrate that we can resist coercion if it's applied to us.

Adam Steer: Are we getting mobile missiles in Darwin?

Minister Conroy: Well, we'll be getting what's called HIMARS, which is high mobility artillery, rocket systems that have been used to devastating effect in Ukraine. We're getting them, as well as making missiles that are going to them in Australia from next year. A lot of them will be deployed in northern Australia, in the Northern Territory.

Adam Steer. So, $14 to $18 billion is what you are announcing today. Is the plan for the next ten years or. You announced it in April, you are talking about it today. $14 to $18 billion over the next decade. That's for North Australia. So, while we in Darwin and Katherine would think, oh, great, this money's coming to us, it's actually Townsville as well. I think Townsville's getting 800 new troops. We're only getting 100. What's going on? Why are all the troops going there and not up here?

Minister Conroy: Well, you'll actually see an increase in Defence personnel of around 1000 people in the Northern Territory. Around 100 to 200 are full time Defence personnel. Townsville is part of northern Australia. They might not be uncomfortable for Northern Territorians to hear, but that is part of Northern Australia as well. But the lion share will go to Northern Territory because you've got RAAF Base Tindal, you've got the Larrakeyah Defence Precinct, you've got Robertson Barracks. The industry will grow here. The number of Defence personnel here will grow as well as we transform the Australian First Brigade, as well as supporting more maritime vessels up here as well? Well.

Adam Steer: Locally, one of the controversial issues has been around the Lee Point development. This is a DHA development in the northern suburbs of Darwin. Critics of it say you are destroying essential flora and fauna areas. Texts like this come in. What do you have to say to community suggestions to move the development of DHA housing from the currently point location to somewhere more appropriate, such as cleared areas like Northcrest, which are closer to public transport in the barracks?

Minister Conroy: I'd say a couple things. One, Defence housing, adequate and comfortable housing for our soldiers, sailors and aviators and their families, is critical to recruitment and retention. In terms of that specific project, it's obviously being dealt with by the Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, and it's not appropriate for me to comment. I understand some in the community are concerned about that. It's important that the process is worked through. It'd be incredibly inappropriate for me to talk about it even further.

Adam Steer: Over 100 Defence Housing Australia homes are sitting empty in Townsville, I understand today, especially with housing shortages around the country, how will you ensure that doesn't happen here?

Minister Conroy: Well, I'm not across that figure, so I don't know whether it's accurate or not. There is movement of personnel. Matt Thistlethwaite, the Assistant Defence Minister, has responsibility for Defence housing, so it might be better asked of him.

Adam Steer: Ok. If we landed on a site yet for the spent nuclear fuel. I note that AUKUS deal may still have an allowance for Australia to be the site for the US and UK spent material. That was ruled out when AUKUS was announced. Can you confirm today what's going on there?

Minister Conroy: Well, I can confirm that we will not be doing that. We'll be building a storage facility to house our spent nuclear reactors that will start being needed in the mid-2050s. We've made it very clear that we will use either existing Defence land or acquire new Defence land to do it. And we're working through that process right now. But we've got time. 30 years in the future, we're going to work through it in an orderly way. But that storage facility will be for Australian waste.

Adam Steer: You're on ABC radio. Darwin Adam Steer with you. It is five to eight. Pat Conroy is the federal Minister for the Defence Industry. Your guest this morning. The US say they are bringing the Ospreys to Darwin. So, these are these controversial tilt rotor planes grounded last year after the deaths fatalities on the Tiwi islands up here and in Japan. Are you aware? Will Australian Defence members be allowed to fly on those aircraft?

Minister Conroy. So, before ADF members get on any foreign operated military aircraft, there are safety assessments made. At the moment, there are no prohibitions on ADF personnel going onboard an osprey, so that's our current position. But every time an ADF personnel gets on a foreign air vessel, there is assessments being made.

Adam Steer: Ok, just a couple of questions. On the submarines, are we likely to see any of the Virginia class? These are the US nuclear submarines. We likely to see them in Darwin.

Minister Conroy: Well, I don't want to get ahead of myself. They won't be based here through their force rotation. Their force rotation will be at HMAS Stirling in WA. They may visit other cities, but that's yet to be determined. The submarine rotation force west, or surf west, as it's called, won't begin operation to 2027. So, we've got a bit of time to work through those details.

Adam Steer: Yeah. The subs we're getting are the current US Virginia class. Why can't we get them now to replace the Collins, the ageing Collins subs that we have?

Minister Conroy: Well, we're extending the life of the Collins class as we build up the workforce. So, the truth is, if we got given Virginia class right now, we wouldn't have the personnel to operate them. We've got 37 Royal Australian Navy officers and ratings being trained in the United States right now. We've got three officers who graduated from their submarine school. We need to build up the workforce to operate the most advanced submarines in the world, which are the Virginia class. And the idea is that we will get experience maintaining and serving upon the US Virginias when they visit and rotate it through in time for us to get our first one in the early 2030s.

Adam Steer: Minister, appreciate your time. Enjoy your time up here on the top end of the Northern Territory.

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