Television Interview, ABC Insiders

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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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30 June 2024

Subjects: Julian Assange, US Election; Defence contracts; the economy; inflation; Senator Payman

HOST, DAVID SPEERS: Richard Marles, welcome to the program.


SPEERS: So, is it still your view that Julian Assange put lives at risk, including those of Australian service personnel?

MARLES: Look, I don't think- as we are sitting here today in 2024, with the resolution of Julian Assange's circumstances- I don't think it serves to go over the actions that he undertook in the past. The record is what it is in terms of his actions, and the record is what it is in terms of the commentary that were made about those actions, including mine. And I'm okay with that record. I didn't say at that time, nor did anyone say at that time, that the consequence of Mr. Assange's actions then should be indefinite incarceration for the rest of his life. And what we were seeing was his case drag on without resolution. It had gone on for far too long. And that's why we were working hard with both the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom to bring this to a resolution and to have Mr. Assange come home. And I am perfectly comfortable with this now, and very happy that his circumstances have been brought to a-

SPEERS: Happy that he's home. But would you be prepared to meet Julian Assange?

MARLES: I don't think it's about me meeting Julian Assange. I suspect that right now, Julian Assange is wanting to spend time with his family and to recover from the circumstances that he's been enduring. And that's not unreasonable.

SPEERS: But we know he wants a pardon as well, and he might be keen to get the government's support for that.

MARLES: Julian Assange was an Australian overseas who was in a very difficult set of circumstances. In his particular case, his legal circumstances were not being resolved and were dragging on, and he was facing indefinite incarceration- that wasn't fair. And we were working closely, as I say, with the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom to bring resolution to that. And we're very pleased that we've been able to help.

SPEERS: Let me move on. One of the biggest stories in the world right now is Joe Biden and that poor debate performance on Friday, in that presidential debate. Look, there is a huge amount at stake for the world, for Australia in this election, as we know. Is Joe Biden too old for the job?

MARLES: Well, Joe Biden is the President of the United States- we work very closely with both him and his administration. And the Biden Administration is doing a fantastic job in terms of managing America's presence in the world. The point that I have repeatedly made, and you look at Secretary Lloyd Austin, who's the Secretary of Defense, his presence in our part of the world, in the East Asian time zone, in the Indo Pacific, has been almost constant. He has been in the region an enormous amount. That's exactly what we want to see. We work very closely with him and we are very pleased with how we are progressing with the United States, both in terms of their position in the world, but also in terms of our equities. Most significantly, of course, the AUKUS arrangements that we have in place. Now, let me go on and say, I mean, your point is an American election is fundamentally important- no matter when it occurs. And we are really confident that if you look at both candidates in this contest, that whoever wins in November, the alliance will remain strong, our bilateral relationship will remain strong and the equities that we have in that relationship will be protected, including the AUKUS arrangements.

SPEERS: Do you also have confidence that Joe Biden would have the capacity to do the job for another four years, as far as Australia is concerned?

MARLES: Joe Biden, as I say, is the President of the United States and we have confidence in the President of the United States. And I'm not about to engage in a commentary about American electoral process to do that.

SPEERS: But you have stopped short of saying whether you think he has the capacity for the job for the next four years.

MARLES: I think he has the capacity. I definitely think he has the capacity. But again, it's not for me to comment on the American political process. The point I'm really making is that he is the President today and we work really closely with Joe Biden as the President. And if he's the President for the next four years, we'll work really closely with him over that period of time. And I've got no doubt there will be no issues in relation to that.

SPEERS: I want to ask you about the defence contracting scandal that was uncovered by the Auditor General during the week. It's now been referred, in fact, to the anti-corruption watchdog. This is a $1.3 billion defence contract with Thales, struck in 2020 to run munitions facilities in Australia. A Defence official gave Thales confidential information, asked for a bottle of champagne from Thales, then went on to take a senior position with Thales. An assessment of the contract found it didn't offer taxpayers value for money at all. How on earth does this sort of unethical behaviour occur?

MARLES: Well, we're really concerned about this set of circumstances that you've described. Obviously, this occurred between 2016 and 2020 and as a result of that, the Secretary of the Department of Defence has referred this now to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. I don't think that there is a systemic issue within Defence in relation to the way in which defence contracts are managed. But the way in which we ensure that we never have a systemic issue is to make sure that we jump on individual cases. And that's why, with the concern that we have about this set of circumstances, we've referred it to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. I think the point that I'd make here is that when you look at the whole breadth of the Commonwealth Government and the way in which we engage with Australian society, but particularly with the private sector, defence contracting is the space in which you really have the greatest exposure to working with the private sector. The defence industry is a critical partner in delivering defence capability and that's why it's really important that this happens in a way which is completely robust, which people have total confidence in. And it's why, having seen these circumstances, we wanted this to be referred for the NACC as quickly as possible.

SPEERS: For that total confidence- you said you're confident this isn't a systemic problem within Defence when it comes to contracting. How can you be sure?

MARLES: Well, I do have confidence in the way in which the system operates and I have that confidence based on my knowledge as the Defence Minister and watching the way in which it operates-

SPEERS: But you're not able to look at every detail of contract processes, does that need someone to look at it?

MARLES: You're right, I'm definitely not in a position to see every detail of contracting processes and I wouldn't assert that I do. But I do think there is considerable oversight in relation to this. But the important point is to make sure that there is never a systemic issue, is why we need to be making sure that we're jumping on any issue when it arises. And that's what we've seen in this case. I agree with you, I am very concerned about the facts of this particular case. It is why we wanted to see the Secretary of the department refer this to the NACC as quickly as possible. That is what has happened and it will be fully investigated. Obviously, we'll look at whatever the outcomes of that investigation are. My sense is that there is not a systemic issue, but it's really important that we never see one.

SPEERS: What about Thales, though? I mean, it takes two to tango on something like this. Should Defence be doing business with Thales?

MARLES: Well, I mean, Thales are a very important company in terms of the contribution that they provide to the Australian Defence Force. They provide a whole lot of capabilities, for example, both Bushmasters and Hawkei, along with a number of the munitions, which is what this particular contract was a part of- 

SPEERS: Is this a black mark against the company?

MARLES: Well, let's see how this plays out. I mean, I'm making it very clear about my concern. We now need to see the process play out and see what it concludes. And I don't want to prejudge that process. Thales is a very important company for Australian defence capability, but there is a process here which needs to run that we are very keen for it to run and we need to see what the outcome of that process is.

SPEERS: Ok, a couple of other issues. Inflation jumped during the week to 4%. Economists predicting we'll see an interest rate rise on the way. Is now really the time to be tipping $23 billion worth of tax cuts into the economy?

MARLES: Well, you're going to see the inflation number, particularly the monthly inflation number, bounce around a bit. But I'd make this point; we have been completely focused in terms of what we are doing to make sure that we are putting downward pressure on inflation. That's why we've delivered two surpluses in a row, something that the Liberals never did, something that we haven't seen occur in terms of the management of the federal budget for decades. That's what the Albanese Labor Government has done. The second point I'd make is that in terms of the relief that we are putting in place for Australians, in terms of the cost of living pressures that they are facing. And from next week, you'll see tax cuts being rolled out, you'll see energy relief, you'll see cheaper medicines. But if you take those last two as examples, that relief is structured in a way which is about bringing prices down- 

SPEERS: Bringing the headline inflation number down. Yeah, but plenty of people point out-

MARLES: No, no, but can I just finish, David? We are structuring our support in terms of bringing prices down in relation to energy, bringing prices down in relation to medicines, and that's an important way in which we are managing the economy. Now that we are not putting pressure on inflation is something which has been endorsed by, by Governor Bullock. That we are easing pricing pressures is something that's been endorsed by both the ABS and the ACCC. So, we'll continue to manage the budget in the way in which we can to have a downward pressure on inflation.

SPEERS: Labor Senator Fatima Payman crossed the floor this week to support a motion recognising a Palestinian state. You said there would be no punishment for Senator Payman. Then a few hours later, the Prime Minister did announce a punishment of sorts. What happened there?

MARLES: Well, we've, look, we've sought to act with restraint here. I mean, this is a difficult situation. The first point I'd make is in terms of the substantive issue here; we supported in the Senate a motion which would see a recognition of a Palestinian state, but in the context of there being a two state solution, one which acknowledges Israel's right to exist behind secure borders, and that being pursued in the context of a peace process. Now, that's the position of the Labor party and obviously Senator Payman-

SPEERS: So, what happens now? What happens now? Does caucus this week have the power to consider any further sanction or punishment?

MARLES: Well, caucus is the master of its destiny and it certainly does have agency here. Can I say, we've tried to act with restraint here and can I explain why, because you know, we have seen social cohesion in this country put under enormous pressure since October seven last year, and we wanted to have that guide our actions in this case. And we didn't think that it served to go around expelling people for having a particular view on this issue. And that's why we- 

SPEERS: What would happen?

MARLES: Can I just say, as you said, David- as you said- the Prime Minister did speak with Senator Payman made clear that she should not be attending meetings of the caucus for the rest of this parliamentary session. In terms of what we do going forward, which I think is where you're going with your question- the point I make there is this; we are all members of a team. We only get the privilege of serving in this parliament not because of who we are as individuals, but because when we stand for election, the word Labor is next to our name. And that's obviously the case for Senator Payman. She would not be a Senator, but for the fact that Labor is next to her name. Without kind of prejudging what may or may not occur in terms of Senator Payman's actions going forward, I cannot overemphasise enough how important all of us who are members of the team regard the obligations of being a member of the team in terms of the way in which we behave-

SPEERS: That sounds like a pretty clear warning- 

MARLES: That guide our actions- 

SPEERS: Well, that sounds pretty clear. If she were to cross the floor again, if the Senator were to cross the floor again, what would happen?

MARLES: Well, let's see what plays out going forward. But again, I make the point that for all of us who are members of this team, caucus solidarity, what it is to be a member of the team is fundamentally important to every one of us. It forms, it's the heart of the obligations that we have in terms of being members of the Labor Party and being given the great privilege that we have of serving the Australian people in the parliament. And clearly that will be foremost in the minds of the caucus.

SPEERS: All right. Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, thanks for joining us this morning.

MARLES: Thanks, David.



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