Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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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20 May 2024

SUBJECT/S: Visit to Solomon Islands; Unfolding events in New Caledonia; Life of Type Extension on the Collins Class Submarines; Papua New Guinea and the NRL

HOST, GREG JENNETT: Richard Marles, always good to have you on Afternoon Briefing. Welcome, once again. Now you are off to Honiara, the most senior Australian government figure to visit the country since the election of Jeremiah Manele as Prime Minister, some significant attaches. Do you have an understanding of the Solomon’s security assistance needs under Prime Minister Manele. And I asked in transition from Prime Minister Sogavare who of course wanted to stand up a Solomon’s defence force. Do you anticipate that need to be requested still?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: We'll look, we'll be talking with Jeremiah Manele about Solomon's future, about Solomon's security needs. And really, the point of this visit is to provide an early opportunity after the recent election in Solomon Islands and the recent formation of the Manele Government to talk to the government about its priorities and the way in which Australia can help and contribute. I mean, our posture will be the same as it has always been, which is that we seek to be the partner of choice, the security partner of choice for Solomon Islands, we understand that that's not something that we get by right, we want to earn that, hence, going to Solomon Islands quickly. And we really want to understand the ways in which Australia can help. But we've been making this clear to the Sogavare Government and to Solomon Islands governments of the past. And we want to make it clear to the Manele Government that we stand ready to assist Solomon Islands and all its security needs. And we really want to understand how best we can do that going forward.

JENNETT: That might become apparent on the Prime Minister's plans on a Solomon Islands defence force. The election has long since passed though, and Australia still has roughly 130 Australian Federal Police in country at present. How much longer will they stay?

MARLES: Well again, we'll be talking through with Solomon Islands about that, but it's an important contribution to Solomon Islands security- the policing contribution that we make right now. And it builds on a long history of support that Australia has provided Solomon Islands over many decades, really, and particularly since the Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands, dating back to the early 2000s. So we will be very keen to talk with, again, Jeremiah Manele about that, and about how, what sort of assistance we can provide going forward across the board, be it in terms of Solomon's future ambitions around whatever it might want to do in respect to the defence force, but also in the context of policing as we have in the past.

JENNETT: So, last week's Budget allocated another $5.5 million for the forthcoming financial year for an extended AFP deployment. What does that dollar value represent? How many officers does that envisage may be required to stay beyond obviously 1 July this year?

MARLES: Well, I mean, we have the number of officers in place, I won't go into the detail of that. But really, I think the important point to make is this; we stand ready as a partner of choice for Solomon Islands. So what we want to be doing, and what this trip affords us the opportunity of doing is to be really sitting down with the Manele Government, looking at what their needs are, the way in which we can help, the way in which we can help in relation to training specifically, and looking at what their forward needs are in the context of what aspirations this government has around its security, in terms of policing, and also in terms of whatever other ambitions it might have around the establishment of a defence force. And we will work in good faith to meet the assistance that Solomon Islands is seeking and the commitments that we've made in the Budget foreshadow that we see ourselves having an ongoing role here. But obviously, that's a role that we need to be working out with the Manele Government itself.

JENNETT: Is there a balancing pointed there? So the reduction of AFP officers who are currently there would be contingent on, what, the Solomon Islands standing up a defence force, is that a correlation we can draw?

MARLES: Not necessarily. I mean, defence forces are there for other reasons. And again, we need to understand what the ambitions of this government in terms of establishing a defence force. I mean- we don't- in relation to a defence force, we don't come to this with the view that Solomon Islands should do one thing or another, we simply stand here ready to assist in whatever it decides to do. And we've seen at various times different countries under different governments having particular ambitions around establishing defence forces. We want to understand what this government's view is. But what we would make clear is that wherever the Manele Government wants to go in relation to this, we stand ready to be their partner of choice, to stand ready, to be of assistance. Policing, really though, is a separate issue and the policing needs of Solomon Islands over a long period of time has been something that we've worked really closely with successive governments in Solomon Islands about and we'll do that again with the Manele Government, and again, look at the best way in which we can assist. I mean, we really approach with a sense of optimism, the future of our relationship with Solomon Islands- it is a new government that is being formed there, we want to be there very much at the start to talk about how we can take our bilateral relationship to that next step. And that's the point of this visit.

JENNETT: I'm sure your trip is a statement in and of itself. Richard Marles, let's go to another hot spot in the Pacific. Tension still roiling in New Caledonia, 300 Australians registered there with DFAT. What's the latest on defence assets and personnel that are standing by for airlift if necessary?

MARLES: Well, it's really that, Greg. We are standing by and ready to engage in airlift, if it is necessary. But again, the starting point here is speaking closely with the French authorities about their work and what is happening on the ground. And we need to be obviously clear with the French authorities about how they are progressing in terms of managing law and order within Noumea, and if there is any need for any kind of airlift from Australia. And, at this point, that is an ongoing conversation. Now if there is a need, we're ready to engage in that but right now, this is obviously a matter for the French authorities and we are monitoring the situation very closely, but working very carefully with the French in respect of this as well. And I think the point I would then make to Australians who are in Noumea, I mean clearly listen to the authorities in terms of the directions that they are giving but you can also look at the advice that we are placing on Smart Traveller. The consulate is very active here and we are very much operating with the concerns of those Australians who are in Noumea in mind.

JENNETT: I imagine they would be quite a clamber on the part of other foreign nationals who are in Noumea at the moment. If we follow the scenario where a C-17 or C-130 went in, would you be open to other nationalities being ferried out by the RAAF?

MARLES: Look, I think that that's a few steps down the line. I mean, we're ready to act if that's what's needed. Right now this is a matter of working with the French around how this situation is evolving and whether there is a need in the first place, and clearly we're taking our lead from the French, they are in control here. And we are talking to them about what can be done, but also through them, monitoring the circumstances on the ground

JENNETT: Have you spoken or will you speak to your French counterpart? At what level of communications are happening here between the Australian and French governments?

MARLES: Look I've not spoken to my counterpart about this. Look, at this moment, this is really a matter of our officials working closely together to monitor the situation, to understand what law and order and safety looks like in Noumea and to understand what the French authorities are doing in relation to maintaining law and order, and we are at that level working very closely with the French government.

JENNETT: As is always the case, you'd be familiar with this now, whatever you and we try to cover a bit of ground, so let's push on away from the Pacific. Submarines transitioning on the way to AUKUS nuclear-powered subs, relies on the Collins-class being extended. Do you acknowledge as reported in The Australian newspaper today that former US Navy Deputy Assistant Secretary, Gloria Valdez has warned that this Life of Type Extension for Collins would be a high risk endeavour and perhaps more disturbingly, that the government owned ASC lacks the expertise to carry it out?

MARLES: Look, we know Gloria Valdez well and she has been fantastic in giving significant advice to the government on a range of matters around our Navy. I mean, let's be clear; the Life of Type Extension of Collins is necessary. I mean it is necessary as we seek to evolve our capability from where it is today through until that moment where we are operating nuclear-powered submarines, the first of the Virginia class submarines we acquire from the United States and ultimately the submarines that we will be building ourselves in Adelaide. Now, the former government, opened up, really, a ten year capability gap here when it came to our Future Submarine Program capability. They were early on, in and out of a deal with Japan and then in and out of a deal with France. And all of that saw the better part of a decade pass before we started moving down the pathway that we are now, and we are in therefore the situation of needing to close that capability gap. And the way in which we do that is by seeing those Virginias come online much earlier than anticipated but also through extending the life of Collins. This is the pathway that we must walk down if we are to ensure that no capability gap opens up, and this is the pathway we need to walk down if we're going to see our existing submarine evolve to what we ultimately need when we’re operating nuclear-powered submarines. We are confident that we can engage in the Life of Type Extensions. It is of course a challenge. There will be risks. But it is a process we must undertake and we are confident about our ability to undertake it.

JENNETT: So you are saying that this will go ahead regardless of risk and almost at any cost. What are the limits on completing this Life of Type Extension?

MARLES: The simple fact is that we cannot afford to see a capability gap open up in relation to our submarine capability. And unless we undertake Life of Type Extensions in respect of the Collins-class submarines, that's what will occur and we are not going to countenance that as a government. As I say, the situation that we find ourselves in, in coming to government is less than desirable in terms of what occurred under the former government, and that ten year capability gap that we are seeking to close, but we are going to close it. And the two ways in which we do that is through that much earlier acquisition of the Virginia Class submarines from the United States and through extending the life of Collins- and we must extend the life of Collins- so it is what going to do. We do accept that there is a challenge in this, we do though have a sense of confidence about being able to meet that challenge. What we will be seeing is a deep level maintenance which occurs with every Collins-class now, occurring again in order to extend the life of a given submarine, ASC are involved in the work, have been involved through the life of Collins, so they have an enormous amount of expertise and experience here. We are confident that we can do this process again in a way which puts a much greater capability into our Collins-class submarines and allows us to evolve that capability, to enable us to close the gap as we move towards operating nuclear-powered submarines. But, we will be doing the Life of Type Extensions- they are fundamentally important to making sure that we close the capability gap that we inherited from the former Coalition government.

JENNETT: As I say, this has been reported in The Australian newspaper. Just a quick final one on submarines; Richard; will a public version of the Valdez report be released here?

MARLES: Look, we take the advice from all of those who provide that advice and that is advice to government.

JENNETT: Alright. Let’s just round out, again in the Pacific, a bit of reporting of top-level conversations in the NRL, the National Rugby League about making good on a PNG team in that national competition. Discussions were held as recently as this weekend. Will it happen and when?

MARLES: We are really confident it will happen. This is an ambition that a number of us have had for a long period of time. It would completely transform, I think, the relationship between PNG and Australia and obviously it is already a deep relationship. But for anyone who knows that country, they are very, very committed to their rugby league. Some of the biggest days of the year there are the State of Origin days which happen here, and you can walk down the middle of Port Moresby on those days and you will not see a soul. It has been a long held ambition to have a PNG team in the NRL, and we as a government are really committed to that. The timeframe we are looking towards is in and around 2027. It might not specifically be that year but that gives a sense of the sort of timeframe we are working on. Ultimately this does need to work for the NRL, first of all. It needs to work for the PNG government and it needs to work for the Australian government and we feel confident through the conversations we are having with all parties that our interests are aligned, that our ambitions are aligned and that we can make this work. And I tell you, the day that team runs out on the ground and we see the Kumuls in the NRL that will be a very, very exciting day indeed.

JENNETT: It would be going off, as they say in Port Moresby when the Kumuls field a team into the NRL.

MARLES: I have been to a rugby league game in terms of their domestic comp in Port Moresby and Greg, you have no idea how much it will go off because it goes off already. It would be absolutely unbelievable on that day.

JENNETT: Alright, well, mark it down in the calendar and hope it happens. Richard Marles, you have got places to be, we appreciate it.

MARLES: Thanks, Greg.



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