Radio Interview, ABC 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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27 May 2024

SUBJECT/S: Landsides in Papua New Guinea; Visit to Solomon Islands; Assistance to Ukraine; Social cohesion

HOST, STEVE CANNANE: Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister and he joins us now. Welcome back to the program. I'll try again. Richard, are you there?


CANNANE: Very well. Thanks for joining us.

MARLES: That's a pleasure.

CANNANE: So, this news out of Papua New Guinea is awful. 670 people are presumed dead with another 4,000 in need of humanitarian aid. Has the PNG government asked Australia for support?

MARLES: Look, we're in conversation with the PNG government, as we have been since Friday, and indeed we supported some of the first officials going to the site and we've made clear to PNG government what support we could provide. And the exact nature of the support that we do provide will play out over the coming days. But as you report, this is an absolute tragedy. It's in a very remote part of Enga province in the PNG highlands and I know that every Papua New Guinea today will be feeling it as every Australian today is feeling it on their behalf. And ours are two countries which are very, very close together and in moments of natural disaster they have been very, very quick to support us and we are doing the same with them.

CANNANE: What kind of assistance could Australia provide?

MARLES: Well, we've got, obviously, airlift capacity to get people there. There may be other equipment that we can bring to bear in terms of the search and rescue and all of that we are talking through with PNG right now. But as I say, going right back to when this first happened on Friday, we've been talking to the PNG government about the assistance that we can provide and it's just now a matter of working out exactly what we can do in the context of this occurring in a very remote part of the country.

CANNANE: You're just back from a trip to the Solomon Islands where you met with the country's newly elected leader, Jeremiah Manele. Why was it important to you to visit so soon after the election?

MARLES: Well, actually, precisely for that reason- so soon perhaps after the formation of the Manele Government, which formed a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the election. I mean, look, we have a very close relationship with Solomon Islands, but I think what we were keen to do was to make clear our ambition to be the partner of choice for Solomon Islands. We understand that's not something that we get by right but we need to be there and to earn that. And in turn, Jeremiah Manele made clear that their ambition is for us to be their natural partner of choice as well. So, I think there was a sense of shared aspiration on both our parts about where we want to take the relationship. And there was a desire to have a new partnership for a new government, and that's what we were seeking to make clear. And I came away with an enormous sense of optimism, actually, about what we can do with the bilateral relationship in economic terms, but in security terms as well. And I think this is a very important moment in the history of our two countries and our relationship with Solomon Islands, and it's very important that we're there from the start.

CANNANE: The new Prime Minister told you the government is conducting a security review. Does that mean reviewing certain agreements it has with China, including its security pact?

MARLES: I think they're looking at security in the broadest context, and they were, as you say, undertaking, or are undertaking that review and are intending to have that review complete through the course of this year. They're looking at every aspect of their security, policing more broadly what we would describe as their national security, but also security in a broader sense in respect of climate change, economic security and the like. So, it's a broad ranging review. It will be important in terms of what assistance and support we provide to Solomon Island going forward. And again, we made clear that we stand ready to be their natural partner of choice. And they also were unequivocal in saying that they regard us as their first partner of choice when it comes to security.

CANNANE: We're talking to Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles. It's 17 minutes to eight on RN breakfast. The G7 Ministers were meeting over the weekend, pushing to strike a deal to use frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine's war efforts. It's been estimated that here in Australia there's something like around $9 billion worth of frozen Russian assets. Is the government drafting plans to do the same thing here?

MARLES: Well, firstly, we don't publicly state how much assets there are that have been frozen, but it's considerably less than what's being reported in the media. Look, there are constitutional issues around simply seizing those assets and using them, but we have those assets frozen. And those steps come on top of significant sanctions that we have in relation to trade, increased tariffs on trade coming into the country from Russia and Belarus. And that is a situation which constantly evolves and we continue to assess. So, we are- within the bounds of what we can legally do, we are looking at everything that we can do.

CANNANE: Of course, there are other ways Australia can help Ukraine. And the Nine papers are reporting this morning that Ukraine made a direct appeal to Australia for an emergency coal shipment six months ago to help meet its energy needs after their power stations were bombed by Russia. The suggestion in that report is that there's been no response. Why wouldn't Australia provide Ukraine with coal in its time of need?

MARLES: Well, I mean, there has been response is the first thing, because there is constant contact with Ukraine. And you know that I was in Ukraine about a month ago, and so we are constantly in contact with Ukraine. And at that point I was announcing an additional $100 million contribution in our support to Ukraine. In all that we are doing, we are looking at how our support can be sustainable and ongoing, because we mean to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes for Ukraine to resolve this conflict on its terms. It also needs to be practical, and we are talking with Ukraine about how best we can do that. Now, from time to time, one item or another will end up in the media and it will gain attention. But what we're doing is focusing on our conversation with Ukraine about how the support that we can provide can be done in the most practical way, and that is the guiding light in terms of how we go forward with our support with Ukraine.

CANNANE: It's also, though, isn't it, about what Ukraine needs. And Ukraine has been struggling on the front lines recently, with troops saying that Russia's had a ten to one artillery advantage in recent months. The Czech government has come up with this initiative to buy Ukraine hundreds of thousands of shells. And so far, at least 20 countries have pledged money to pitch into that initiative. Why hasn't Australia signed up to that initiative?

MARLES: Well, again, we can go through each specific, but I would emphasise that we are in a conversation with Ukraine about how we can best provide our support. You know, I think there was a sense when I was visiting there, as there has been from the start about the gratitude on the part of Ukraine for Australia providing the level of support that we are given we are literally on the other side of the world. We actually are doing work in relation to the support around artillery- we're in a program with France in respect of that-

CANNANE: Which only provided 10,000 shells across a year-

MARLES: Sure, but we are focusing on a range of other contributions. I mean, Ukraine was interested in integrated air and missile defence- we provided support in respect of that, in what we announced when I was in Ukraine a month ago. The drone coalition was a key issue for Ukraine- when you go there you realise the extent to which this conflict is now being fought out with drones. We're participating in the drone coalition that's being led by Latvia and the United Kingdom- that was a key ask on the part of Ukraine. Ukraine have, as you would imagine, needs across the board. And we are providing the support that we can, in the most practical way, in a deep conversation with Ukraine about how that support can be done. And there is an enormous sense of gratitude on the part of Ukraine for the level of support that we are providing, given that we're not in NATO, we're on the other side of the world, but we have been there from the get go and we will be there until the end.

CANNANE: This morning, you're visiting the Jewish school in Melbourne that was subjected to some anti-Semitic graffiti. On Friday, the government is drafting a hate speech bill. Would that bill criminalise this kind of graffiti?

MARLES: I don't know the specifics of how the bill will operate, but the graffiti that we saw has no place in this country. Let me make that absolutely clear. It was appalling graffiti that was put on Mount Scopus College. And I think all of us have been, well, really confronted with the level of antisemitism that we are seeing in the last few months. It's at a level that I can't remember in my lifetime. And it's really important that Australians are standing with the jewish community today. I mean, jewish Australians are as much a part of this country as anyone else and they've got a right to live in this country free from abuse, from intimidation, free from prejudice. And it's really important that we are standing side by side with jewish Australians today and that's what we plan to do this morning.

CANNANE: Richard Marles, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks very much for your time this morning.

MARLES: Thanks, Steve.

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