Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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The Hon Matt Keogh MP

Minister for Defence Personnel

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

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Stephanie Mathews on 0407 034 485

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4 June 2024

SUBJECTS: ADF Opens Recruitment to Non-Australian Citizens; Ukraine.

HOST, GREG JENNETT: As Defence Personnel Minister, Matt Keogh has prime responsibility for implementing this programme and is with us now live here in the studio. Matt Keogh, welcome back to the programme. Things got a little untidy, I think, since the initial press release from the Government at 5:15 this morning. It specifically listed eligible permanent residents as UK, US, Canada and no others. You, of course, as we just heard, were out earlier saying many more were eligible. What's gone wrong here?

MINISTER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE PERSONNEL, MATT KEOGH: So, it's all been made very clear, actually. So, from the 1 July this year, New Zealanders who have been here as permanent residents for the last year will become eligible to join the Australian Defence Force. From the 1 January, we expand that out to other Five Eyes countries from January. Then we will also look to expand to other countries looking with a particular focus on Pacific Islands, but that will spread out from January onwards. It's a process, but the key thing that we were communicating today is New Zealand from July and other Five Eyes nations from 1 January, maybe 2 January, because the first is usually a public holiday. But the key thing also is what are the criteria we're putting around this? This is a very sensible and considered move where you have to be already in Australia, have already been here for a year as a permanent resident and you still have to meet all the usual vetting and security requirements, including being otherwise eligible to become a citizen. So, it's a pretty strict cohort and we've been very clear about that.

GREG JENNETT: I understand that. And look, those categories you just summarised are abundantly clear in everything that was said and in the written media release. It's the extra nationals beyond Five Eyes countries and potentially Pacific Islanders. We're talking about the likes for argument's sake of Vietnamese permanent residents, Chinese permanent residents, Thai permanent residents and Indonesians for that matter. Will they or won't they be eligible to join this scheme at any time?

MINISTER KEOGH: And that's why we've been very clear about New Zealand from 1 July, the Five Eyes from 1 January and then expanding out to other countries from January, but focusing on Pacific Island. So, we need to do this in a obviously, in a measured way when you bring in other groups of countries, and as the Deputy Prime Minister even said in question time today, the next stage would be looking at those Pacific Islands countries, but starting with New Zealand and then Five Eyes from 1 January.

GREG JENNETT: I understand focusing on, as we move to other categories, Pacific Island nations, but exclusively Pacific Island nations? When might we get to countries beyond the Five Eyes and the Pacifics?

MINISTER KEOGH: Well, that's something that may evolve over time if we go through –

GREG JENNETT: But that's not in the policy today. 

MINISTER KEOGH: The key is that from 1 July, New Zealand, from 1 January, we expand that out to the rest of the Five Eyes. We then look to our Pacific neighbours and crucially what we're saying here, though, is the way we're doing that is looking at permanent residents. They've already made a commitment to Australia. They would still need to meet all the normal security requirements, they would go through normal ADF obligations in terms of return of service, all of those things. And they're required to become Australian citizens. That's also crucial.

GREG JENNETT: Yes, but as we speak right now, a Malaysian permanent resident living in Australia, who has done so for twelve months, may have heard this morning that they could apply to enlist in the ADF as of about 1 January or 2 January next year. Can you set them straight? Will they ever have eligibility to apply?

MINISTER KEOGH: What we're talking about is, as I said, New Zealand and then the Five Eyes from 1 January, other countries focused on the Pacific thereafter. This may open up to other countries, but the thing is about focusing on that area, focusing on, you know, our closest neighbour. And let's think about that military history that we have with New Zealand going back over 100 years now, obviously, our Five Eyes partners we work with very closely. We have those strong relationships across the Pacific region with countries thereafter. We are making sure we're clear about what criteria might apply, but that would be in the future, if that occurs.

GREG JENNETT: When you model that -

MINISTER KEOGH: But we're focusing on those categories.

GREG JENNETT: I understand. Thank you. When you modelled out the projections, the estimates at 350 potential applicants, I think, in the first year or so. Did that include all other nationals beyond Five Eyes and Pacifics?

MINISTER KEOGH: Yeah. So, that's based on us starting with this New Zealand cohort in particular, and then going to Five Eyes. So, that's what that number is based on in the first year, is that we're looking at those specific countries. So, Five Eyes nations, if you like, in total, across from 1 July onwards.

GREG JENNETT: Explain the hesitancy around nationals beyond the core group. I won't keep using the phrase, but Five Eyes and the Pacifics, what is the hesitancy about them. Is it meeting the security vetting procedures in circumstances where you may not have visibility or any ability to check their background?

MINISTER KEOGH: Well, certainly when it comes to security vetting requirements, you've got to have ten years of provable history in order to comply and go through that appropriate security vetting. But the other thing is also, as you mentioned in your opening, this is a crossing the Rubicon type moment. This is opening up something that we haven't done in the Australian Defence Force before. And so we need to open that up in a staged way. And that's very important as well because we'll start with New Zealand and then go to the Five Eyes countries and make sure that those processes are bedded down before we would move further from there.

GREG JENNETT: But you'd never be in a position, would you, with a Chinese permanent resident who has migrated to Australia, two years ago and wanted to apply. You'd never get to a circumstance where you could check their background for the other eight years, back to ten, could you?

MINISTER KEOGH: And that's, you know, we're starting with the Five Eyes countries and then looking at the Pacific- 

GREG JENNETT: So it can be ten years until. 

MINISTER KEOGH: And I think the point you make is a really good one, which is no matter who you applied this to, having that ten year provable history, making sure you get through security vetting, making sure you're otherwise eligible for citizenship, and also already being a permanent resident are very strict requirements.

GREG JENNETT: All right, eligible once enlisted, eligible to serve in all units, including strategic assets, so called, like the SAS?

MINISTER KEOGH: Well, obviously people have opportunities of joining the over 250 different roles that exist for people enlisting into the Defence Force. How people move through different roles and units through the Defence Force has a whole range of different criteria, training elements. There are some restricted areas in the Defence Force for a range of other reasons, and so they would continue to apply as they already apply.

GREG JENNETT: But their background wouldn't preclude them from roles once in. And I note that their abilities could take them in any number of directions, you say 250, but would their original nationality preclude them from any particular role in Defence?

MINISTER KEOGH: There are existing restrictions around some of that that already exist in Defence for particular reasons where we're operating with particular partners for whatever reason. But the purpose of this is expanding and we talked about the 350 number being able to join our Defence Force. We inherited a situation where the Defence Force was going backwards under the previous government. We've had to do a lot of work arresting that decline, making sure that we increase the retention rate. We're now back to the long term historical average, which is a great step. This helps us on that growth strategy for the Defence Force and it joins a number of other initiatives to help doing that, not just with this bringing in permanent residents, but growing the pie of Australian citizens already, that are already Australian citizens being able to join the Defence Force as well.

GREG JENNETT: Well, let's just check in on an old one, because we've discussed when you've been on the programme with us, Matt, the continuation bonus, I think it was up to $10,000 each.


GREG JENNETT: $50,000. How many people have accepted and been paid that and remain in terms of -

MINISTER KEOGH: So, we've had a 78% uptake of that continuation bonus of those that have been eligible for it. And in addition to that, we've had a further 10% of people indicate that they will be staying on. They don't want to take the bonus per se, but they are going to be staying on. So, that now means that we're now up into those retention rates that we've seen as the long term historical average in the Defence Force. So, we're seeing the benefit of those retention bonuses and other things that we've done around expanding access to family health, improvements to housing policy, better access to study for our Defence Force members.

GREG JENNETT: Yes. So, the ultimate goal, to grow our permanent Defence members to 80,000 in 16 years time, is that still achievable? Is that still the target?

MINISTER KEOGH: It is what we're trying to do and it is a big challenge and it's why we've made changes. So, for example, around the medical policies that apply in recruitment, we had some crazy policies, like, if you have acne, you couldn't join the Defence Force. If you'd broken a bone as a child, you couldn't join the Defence Force. We've modernised these to make sure that they're current for the 21st century. Also considering those over 250 different types of roles that exist in the Defence Force, and those changes should result in around 2000 additional people being able to come through the recruitment pathways.

GREG JENNETT: All right, one final one slightly divergent from what we've been discussing. Matt Keogh, you are a Defence portfolio Minister, along with Matt Thistlethwaite. There is this Ukraine war summit to be held in Switzerland in the middle of the month. The Prime Minister has designated Bill Shorten, who has no national security committee role in his current role. He's overlooked the likes of you and Matt Thistlethwaite, of course Richard Marles can't go, why is that?

MINISTER KEOGH: Well, I think one of the things that's important to recognise when it comes to Ukraine, and I've had involvement in this, in my Veterans' Affairs portfolio, is that Ukraine is seeking assistance across a range of portfolios in dealing with what, obviously, there's the conflict itself on the front line and the military nature of that. There's also issues that are arising inside the country. And so I've had discussions in relation to those sorts of issues, like rehabilitation and how they can gain knowledge there. So, there's a broad sweep in which we can assist Ukraine, and that's why you see a cross section of Ministers being involved in that. And I've seen that across my own two different portfolios as well.


GREG JENNETT: Well, you'll be here, Bill Shorten will be in Switzerland, and we're going to let you go, Matt Keogh, because I think the bells might ring before too long in the House of Reps.

MINISTER KEOGH: Thank you very much


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