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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4 July 2024

SUBJECT/S: Top Secret Cloud; Senator Payman; Social Cohesion; Israel; Inaugural Defence Committee

HOST, GREG JENNETT: Before that, we had a chance to talk to Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles about some announcements he had made today. But we do have to point out we discussed Senator Payman's status, but that was still unclear at the time we spoke. Richard Marles, welcome back once again to Afternoon Briefing. So, you've made this major new announcement today about data storage- very secure. It's difficult to comprehend just how big this is, how much data will be shared under this $2 billion arrangements. Terabytes is a measure we're all familiar with. How many of those?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Well, it is a big number, so I don't have that number at hand. But I think the way to think about this is that in order for us to build a modern, lethal, potent defence force of the future, we simply have to have this capability. I mean, increasingly conflict warfare is being occurring at a top secret level. By that we mean when you think about every sensor that picks up information that might feed it to a fifth generation platform like the Joint Strike Fighter, which it then uses to target or to defend itself against a threat, or to defend another asset like a ship against a threat, all of that data, and there's a lot of it, is at a top secret level, is fundamental to enabling these capabilities to operate at their full potential. And so this represents a critical enabling building block of what a modern defence force will look like. To do this is about keeping pace with other modern defence forces, particularly making sure that we maintain and increase our interoperability with our ally, the United States.

JENNETT: Yes. So, you've stressed that the servers will be physically on Australian soil and very, very secure. But is the data exclusively held on those Australian servers or will it at many times be mirrored on offshore services? Those are partners?

MARLES: That's a very good question. And the answer to that is it will only be on servers in Australia. So, while we talk about this as a cloud capability, which it is in the sense of having a more distributive network of data around the servers that operate this, those servers, every one of them, will exist within facilities which are purpose built for this, which will be in Australia, which will be secure- the networks between each of those being networks that only carry this data. And so it does give much greater resiliency. It means that if a particular server at a moment in time goes down with data on it, you will still be able to operate and the sort of information that needs to fly in realtime can still occur. That's really the advance. But all this data is being held onshore, only onshore and with complete security.

JENNETT: But access will be granted, won't it, from time to time, to Five Eyes partners and or others, will an Australian human decide what is shared? And when? I ask that, because there's a big AI component to the filtering and prioritization of this intelligence.

MARLES: Well, the answer to that is what applies now to all of our top secret information. And there is a huge amount of cooperative effort that occurs between ourselves and our Five Eyes partners. And that will apply in terms of the way in which this data would be shared. There are, I mean, artificial intelligence is an important means by which we sort and organise this data and make it usable in the example that I've just given, in terms of targeting, for example. But it's, you know, the way in which this is shared absolutely involves decisions with humans in the loop.

JENNETT: Look, let's move to other matters. As Deputy Prime Minister, Senator Payman stressed that her status as an ALP member may well change between the time at which we speak and when our audience hears this interview. You twice in the last week had to send conciliatory messages to the Senator publicly extolling the virtue of dealing with this in a, quote, sensible and mature way. Senator Payman has made absolutely clear she wants to continue to represent the people of WA. And as a Labor Senator yesterday, though, the Prime Minister told us that a strategy- his word- had been employed by Senator Payman for a month. Now, were you unaware of that strategy?

MARLES: Well, I think we've been trying to deal with this issue with restraint. I think we've tried to bring to bear a sense of wanting to bring Australians together, of wanting to promote social cohesion at a time when a lot of pressures have been put on many in Australian society since October 7, and trying to live that in the way in which we deal with the steps that Senator Payman has taken in this building-

JENNETT: That may have been your goal, but it clearly wasn't at any point reciprocated, was it? I wonder if you felt you were sent by the party and for good reason, perhaps, on what turns out to be a fool's errand, to rebuild a bridge that had already been burnt.

MARLES: Oh, no. I think we've tried to act with restraint, but I've also made clear that, you know, we're a team and the fundamental obligations that come with being a team remain. I mean, I only sit here in this chair answering your questions because at the last election and those previous to it, the word Labor was next to my name. I wouldn't be here but for that. And so the privilege of being able to serve the Australian people comes from having Labor as a part of our proposition to the Australian people. And what in turn comes with that is a sense of obligation that we all bet in terms of being a part of that team. Now, Senator Payman has put herself beyond that and she's done that knowingly. We would welcome Senator Payman back into the team were she to accept the obligations that come with being on the team. And that ultimately is a matter for Senator Payman.

JENNETT: Yeah, but we became aware that she was doing it knowingly. I just wonder why you didn't revert to time honoured rules, which are expulsion of that.

MARLES: Well, not rules. To be clear, there's no mandated response, caucus has its own agency in terms of dealing with all the situations at hand. And I think what you can read from what I've said previously is a desire on the part of everyone to act with restraint, to try and you know, work this through in that way. But it comes to a point where obviously the principles of a team need to apply. And you've seen that really play out over the course of the last few weeks and particularly the last few days. Now, where Senator Payman goes with this is ultimately a matter for her. I mean, we absolutely have started and everything you've just asked me is clear to be acting with restraint. But we are a team at the end of the day and people need to make their decision about whether they want to be a part of that team or not.

JENNETT: Yeah, that will play out and is playing out as we speak. Can I just take you to the Israeli ambassador? I know you're aware that junior Minister Tim Watts gave him a warning that if war were to escalate between Hezbollah on the northern border, Australia's support couldn't be anticipated or expected. What's the support that Australia would withhold under those circumstances?

MARLES: Well, firstly, speaking with members of the diplomatic corps is something which happens all the time, particularly with those Ministers holding foreign affairs portfolios and Assistant Minister Watts was just carrying out those duties and obviously this meeting did happen. I mean, the point that he was making to the Israeli ambassador is that we would be very concerned about seeing an escalation in the conflict in the Middle East, and particularly in relation to Lebanon. We'd be concerned about that at large, if you like, in terms of exercising our voice on the international stage about a general escalation in this conflict. But in particular, we are very mindful of the 20,000 Australian citizens who live in the region, and particularly in Lebanon, and this would have a particular impact on them. And we were very much advocating to the Israeli ambassador their interests, which is what you would expect in Australian Government.

JENNETT: Does that mean there is no circumstance under which you would recognise on the northern border Israel's legitimate right to defend itself?

MARLES: Well, we simply made the point that an escalation of this is something that we would be deeply concerned about and we would be particularly concerned about the impact it would have on the 20,000 Australian citizens who are in the region.

JENNETT: All right, final one that won't be attracting lots of public attention, but we keep an eye on these things in this parliament. The inaugural joint defence committee is about to be established by the parliament today. It is to be a trusted institution, never been tried before. One element of its duties would be, according to the bill, examining and being appraised of war or warlike operation. Would you, as Minister, bring that committee and its members into your confidence during the deliberations of sending Australian forces into warlike situations? This would address, in part, I would suggest, the war powers debate.

MARLES: Yeah, Greg, I think that's actually a fair way of describing it, bringing those members of the committee into our confidence. So, to be clear, the decision exists with the executive government, so there is no shift in where we see those powers lying. But we do want to bring the parliament more into play in terms of the consideration of issues around defence and certainly issues around conflict.

JENNETT: Before that decision was made by a cabinet though?

MARLES: Well, I think, as circumstances evolve, that's the important point here, and actually, when you go through Australian history, during the Second World War, the Curtin government was at pains to involve the parliament in briefings and understandings around the threats that faced Australia and the various decisions that it was making. Now it made those decisions, the power lay with the Curtin government in that moment. But it was very mindful of the role the parliament should play in this and we're, in a sense in the spirit of that, seeking to give expression to that through the establishment of this committee. And I actually think it's going to be a really significant thing in terms of the relationship between the parliament and Defence. I think you'll see a whole lot more understanding within the parliament about what Defence does.

JENNETT: What about the public, though? Because, you know, it will be within the committee's powers to say, we'll do mostly in-camera discussions with Defence officials. Obviously, it's in our interest to see more of these deliberations, not fewer of them. What’s your disposition?

MARLES: Well, no, of course. And having a public debate and public understanding and awareness about our strategic circumstances and the decisions that our governments have to make is obviously really important. But it is also true that in matters such as this, there are issues that may exist in the classified realm that cannot be spoken about publicly. Now, in that circumstance, the next best thing is that the public's representatives, those people who are in this parliament, do have access to that and can act on behalf of the public in thinking about it. And so that's what we are trying to do. Defence is the biggest area that the Commonwealth spends on itself. It's a huge part of what the Federal Government does. And so I think it's really important that we have a better understanding between the parliament and what Defence does. Our only disappointment here is that this was something that the Liberals were very keen on for a while. It seemed to be something they were promoting. They're now voting against this in a moment of complete insanity. So, this is going to be done despite the overt opposition of the Liberals in relation to this, which actually is breathtaking given that they were ones advocating for it earlier on.

JENNETT: Yeah, I don't know whether that makes it a good start for this inaugural committee to begin or not, but we'll see how it plays out. The US seems to make that system work pretty effectively. Let's see how it goes here. Richard Marles, thanks so much.

MARLES: Thanks, Greg.


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