Radio Interview, Mix 104.9

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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

SUBJECTS: Northern Australia Defence Summit; upgrades at RAAF Air Base Tindal; NT investment by Federal Government; marine rotational numbers; jobs in NT; China's aggression towards an Australian Navy helicopter.

KATIE WOOLF: You're listening to Mix 1049's 360, now the Federal Defence Industry Minister, Pat Conroy is in Darwin today to speak at the Northern Australia Defence Summit, the Federal Government saying that Territorians are key beneficiaries of the 2024 integrated investment program, which is allocated 14 to $18 billion dollars over the next decade to bolster Australia's northern bases and contribute to enhanced collective security of the Indo Pacific, so what does that all mean?  Well joining me on the line is the minister, Pat Conroy, good morning to you. 


KATIE WOOLF: Thanks so much for your time this morning.  Now, Minister we know the federal government, well you guys saying that you're investing in accelerated upgrades at RAAF Air Base Tindal including air field improvements, to enable enhanced air fuelling operations for transport aircraft, why is this needed? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  Well we face the greatest strategic uncertainty in our region since World War II and we've also seen the biggest arms build-up in the region at the same time and it's vital that the Federal Government protects the Australian people and our interests and that's why we are making this investment, 14 to $18 billion dollars of investment in our northern bases is critical to strengthening the Australian Defence Force and deterring any potential aggression and that means more jobs and more income flowing through in to the Northern Territory.

KATIE WOOLF:  I guess we here in the Northern Territory probably do have a better understanding than a lot because of our rich history, Darwin being bombed all of those years ago; is this investment enough for the NT? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  Well I think it's very significant.  As I said 14 to $18 billion is roughly seven to eight times what the last government had planned for the same period of time so it's very significant. We've already got 5,000 Territorians working in the defence industry, you punch well above your weight as a percentage of the population and that will grow as we push more money in to support the Australian Defence Force and we are moving incredibly quickly, for example we're transforming the first brigade in to one focus of   what's called a (littoral) manoeuvre which means amphibious movement in the sea/land intersection and we are bringing forward a gigantic landing craft from the mid-20s/30s so they'll start being entering service in 2028 so we are moving at speed and increasing the defence budget to help protect the Australian people. 

KATIE WOOLF:  Minister, it seems like a massive amount of money but it's for all of northern Australia how much of is it actually going to be for the Northern Territory? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  Well the vast majority of it will be for the Northern Territory, yes we've got defence establishments in north west, Western Australia and northern Queensland in places like Townsville but there's really critical infrastructure in the NT for example there's $1.6 billion going to RAAF base Tindal, there's $750 million going to the US force posture Northern Territory training ranges, $600 million to the Larrakia defence precinct, $390 million to the Robertson Barracks improvements program they're just four examples of the massive investment we are making in NT and as I said you've got 5,000 people working in the defence industry and it's about 7.5 percent of your gross state product gross Territory product so it's a really important contributor to your economy and that's a great thing. 

KATIE WOOLF:  Are we expecting those defence numbers in the Northern Territory to increase because I know that you said a large amount of that investment is coming here to the Northern Territory rather than the rest of northern Australia but it does seem as though those defence numbers in the likes of Townsville are increasing, are they going to increase here in the NT?

 MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  Yes they will and we are projecting a growth of about a thousand defence personnel including over 100 full time ADF personnel, but the defence workforce will grow by another thousand people over the next few years so that's a very significant increase and that reflects the strategic position of the Northern Territory, particularly Darwin and Katherine for Australia. You are vital to the defence of our nation and we are putting in the resources to support that. 

KATIE WOOLF: You spoke just a moment ago as well about the marines, are we expecting the marine rotational numbers to increase in the Northern Territory over the coming years as well? 

MINISTER CONROY:  I'm not sure whether there's plans of increasing it even further but it has significantly increased since the force rotation began over a decade ago, the numbers have gone up very significantly, they're increasing the amount of capability that's coming in and they're putting in place resources and investment in training ranges so I'm not clear whether they intend to expand it even further. 

KATIE WOOLF: When we talk about the strategic importance of the Northern Territory particularly Darwin, when we talk about our close proximity to Asia, when we look at our history and the fact that we were bombed all those years ago, does this investment and does this additional spend into the Northern Territory put us at a greater risk?

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  No Katie, in fact it's the opposite, it reduces the risk and it deters aggression.  I get asked this question quite often and the answer is that the best way of deterring aggression is to put doubts in an adversary's mind.  If an adversary thinks that Australia can strike back if they attempt to coerce us that reduces the chance of war and that's why we are making this investment and that's why the Albanese Labor Government is increasing the defence budget by $50 billion over the next ten years is because the best way of dealing with uncertainty is a stronger Australian Defence Force, you just need to look at what occurred in the 1930s where the western democracies refused to invest in their military.  That didn't reduce the chances of conflict that increased the chances of conflict by projecting weakness and as I said at the start of the interview the most important job of the Federal Government is to protect the Australian people and our interests and that's why we are making these investments. 

KATIE WOOLF:  If you have just joined us we are speaking to the Federal Defence Minister, Pat Conroy, you are in Darwin today of course, Minister, to speak at the Northern Australia Defence Summit, what are you going to tell the audience? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  Well I will be telling them that the future is bright for the workforce and industry here, 1000 companies already work in the Defence Industry up here 5,000 workers and there's some great advocates for the NT in Parliament particularly Solomon MP Luke Gosling is obviously a former Army officer and I will be saying that we need you more, we need Northern Territory we need Darwin, to ramp up to support the ADF even further we need you to invest in the workforce that can do that and we'll support that because the defence of the nation depends upon what you can do in the Northern Territory so it's exciting times, people shouldn't be too worried but they're exciting times in terms of the amount of economic activity that's going to be coming in to Darwin and that's great for the local economy and it's great for kids thinking about picking up a trade or doing an engineering degree at Uni, they can have a bright future serving in the Australian Defence Industry. 

KATIE WOOLF:  And what kind of percentages are we talking about in terms of local contractors being involved in this work? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  It's very high, people seem to think that a lot of the work is going interstate but that's just not the case, let me give you an example; there's work going on right now at RAAF base Tindal and it's managed by Lendlease, 93 per cent of the work packages have flowed through to local NT company that's $979 million have flown through to local Northern Territory companies, 12 per cent of the workforce working at RAAF Tindal is indigenous and about $163 million on that project has flown through to indigenous owned companies so this is huge amounts of work going to NT companies and NT workers and we expect that to grow significantly over the next few years. 

KATIE WOOLF:  Minister, just finally, a pretty concerning situation over the weekend with China's aggression towards an Australian Navy helicopter over the weekend making headlines right around the nation, after a fighter jet from the people's liberation army Air Force dropped flares in the immediate flight path of an Australian Defence Force sea-hawk conducting routine operations off HMAS Hobart in the yellow sea on Saturday night; how concerning is this situation for Australia? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  It is concerning, the practice by the Chinese Air Force was unsafe and unprofessional and we've made strong remonstrations of that to the Chinese Government, I should stress that HMAS Hobart and the helicopter were operating in international waters in the yellow sea close to South Korea, they were part of a UN operation to enforce sanctions against the oppressive regime in North Korea they were doing good work not just for Australia but for the world and for those personnel to be subject to unsafe and unprofessional practices by the People's Liberation Army Air Force is unacceptable and we've made that point to China and we'll keep making that point every military around the world has an obligation to operate in a safe and professional manner and this was not the case in this incident. 

KATIE WOOLF:  So what steps have been taken by the Federal Government really to condemn these actions to China? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  We've conveyed our strong concern to the Chinese Government both in Australia and in China itself and we'll keep doing that, there are established lines of communication between governments and between militaries, and we've used that and we'll keep using that, this practice is unacceptable and we urged the Chinese military like every military to operate in a safe and professional manner and we'll keep being very vocal about this when it's justified. 

KATIE WOOLF:  I mean they seem to be flexing their muscle, is this, seems quite worrying? 

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  Well it's something that occurs occasionally and we saw the HMAS Toowoomba incident last year as well as the incident with the RAAF P8 Poseidon where chaff metal fall was dropped in near their engines, this is unacceptable. We call on all countries to follow international norms and practices, and this is not just happening to us, you can see what's been subjected to the Filipino by the Philippines defence force and we'll continue to call it out and try and use diplomatic pressure to change behaviour, this is really important the safety of our sailors, soldiers and aviators is paramount. 

KATIE WOOLF: Well Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy really appreciate your time while you're in Darwin, thanks so much for having a chat with me.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:  Thanks Katie have a great morning. 

KATIE WOOLF:  You too.


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