Radio Interview, ABC Breakfast

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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10 July 2024

SUBJECTS: NATO Summit; Support for Ukraine; President Biden; AUKUS; Foreign Interference; Cyber Security.

STEVE CANNANE, HOST: Well, leaders of the powerful NATO alliance have arrived in Washington, DC and are about to start talks amid Russia's ongoing attacks on Ukraine and lingering questions about Joe Biden's leadership of the US. Australia has sent Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles to the meeting. But as we heard earlier, the Opposition's foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham says it's disappointing Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hasn't attended himself. Matt Thistlethwaite is the Assistant Minister for Defence, he's also in DC for the talks and he joins us now. Welcome back to RN Breakfast.


CANNANE: Why isn't the Prime Minister in DC right now?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, this is the 75th anniversary of NATO and there's a key focus on defence and Richard Marles is obviously our Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, so it's an opportunity for him to build those important defence ties, particularly given that the Indo Pacific is a key agenda topic for NATO this week. And it's great to see also Defence representatives from Japan, New Zealand and South Korea here as part of delegations as well. So, that's why we've got the Defence Minister here and a key focus on defence and not only the Indo Pacific but of course the war in Ukraine.

CANNANE: The Prime Minister, though, attended the last two NATO conferences, one in Vilnius, one in Madrid. Why is this one not a priority?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's right. The Prime Minister's been at the last two NATO conferences and it's great that Australia has been invited to participate in NATO and I think it underscores the fact that NATO is not just concentrating on the North Atlantic, but they're looking to our region as well and they see that as an important part of ongoing stability and security for the world economy. As I said, the focus of this one is very much on defence. So, that's why you've got the Defence Minister here representing Australia.

CANNANE: We know at the last NATO conference in Vilnius, the Prime Minister announced more bushmasters going to Ukraine. Will there be further announcements from Australia this week of aid to Ukraine?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, the Defence Minister will announce Australia's next stage of support for Ukraine. Australia has been one of the largest non-NATO contributors to Ukraine's efforts to defend its sovereignty and its people. We've already pledged over a billion dollars worth of support. Most of that is in military equipment, bushmasters, artillery, drones, communications equipment. And of course there's Operation Kudu where I think we're on the 6th rotation of Australian troops who have been visiting the UK and importantly providing training for Ukrainian troops prior to them going into theatre. So, Australia's been a great contributor and will continue that contribution for as long as is needed.

CANNANE: You mentioned there that Australia is one of the largest non-NATO contributors to aid in Ukraine. But the Government and the Prime Minister used to say it was the highest non-NATO contributor to Ukraine. That suggests that Australia's contributions under the Albanese Government have slipped over the past couple of years. Are they going to be bumped up significantly during this summit?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I think you have to look at it in the context of the fact that Australia is growing our Defence budget over the course of the next decade we’ll grow our budget to almost 2.5% of GDP. We're making huge investments in Australia's capability, particularly in our surface fleet. And of course, AUKUS, which is a topic of discussion here in Washington this week as well. But we're certainly doing our bit. We're one of the largest non-NATO contributors and will continue to play a key role in supporting Ukraine's right to defend its sovereignty.

CANNANE: The last time I looked at the figures was back in March. And the highest non-NATO membership Japan, member Japan, gave 0.17% of its GDP to aid to Ukraine. Australia was giving 0.04%. So, Japan, the highest non-NATO contributor, is giving four times as much. When we compare it to GDP to Australia, that's not too good, is it?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we think that Australia's contribution is appropriate for a nation our size. And as I said, we've got to balance Australia's defence needs as well as being a good international partner, not only in our region, the Indo Pacific, but more broadly in a conflict such as Ukraine.

CANNANE: But it's not just about defence needs. You could give them coal, you could give them money to buy shells, you could do things outside of the Defence budget.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we are providing that support, particularly with artillery, which has been pretty important. Obviously, some of the drones that have been manufactured in Australia have been well used and sought after by the Ukrainian Defence Force, as well as humanitarian aid as well. It's about balancing Australia's needs and our needs to defend our nation with what we believe is appropriate support. And we believe that we've got the balance right. And I certainly know that it's, it’s well received by Ukraine.

CANNANE: You have been, of course, meeting with US political leaders and congressmen already. What are you hearing from the Democrat side of politics about Joe Biden's future?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, obviously that's a matter for the United States and its people, and we think that Joe Biden's been a strong supporter of the alliance with Anthony Albanese and the former British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. They've delivered the formal agreement for AUKUS and we're now getting on with the job of delivering that in what will be the largest industrial program that Australia has ever undertaken. And I've had a series of meetings today with congresspeople and it's encouraging to see that there's across the aisle support for AUKUS. It's well known up in Congress and both Democrats and Republicans are very supportive of the program. And we're now starting to work through some of the details. We had a roundtable this morning, myself and the Deputy Prime Minister and Ambassador Rudd, with defence industry here, who are keen to be involved in the supply chain. So, it's a big opportunity for Australia and we're getting great support here in Washington.

CANNANE: We spoke to Kurt Volker before, the former US Ambassador to NATO, and he said that one of the things dominating the talks is the future of US leadership inside NATO. And around that, he's hearing from diplomats, from leaders from Europe that they're concerned about the fitness of Joe Biden to lead. You must be hearing the same thing.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It's a topical discussion here, there's no doubt about that. There's plenty of reportage about that issue. But at the end of the day, that's a matter for the United States and its people, and regardless of who occupies the White House. The alliance that Australia has with the United States has been strong and has grown, regardless of which party was in government here and indeed the same in Australia. I think that's the great thing about our alliance. Since World War Two, it's gone from strength to strength. And the discussions that we're having here with congressional representatives only underscore that.

CANNANE: Yesterday Australia's Signals Directorate published details accusing a Chinese spy agency of cyber espionage. Will you be raising that with NATO colleagues this week?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look obviously, the cyber domain is a key concern for many nations throughout the world. It's been a non-traditional area of conflict in Ukraine and we're learning a lot of lessons from that. That’s why the Albanese Government is making record investments in bolstering Australia's cyber capability, both in a defence sense and in a non-defence sense as well. So, we're making some key investments. We're making sure that we have the expertise and the skill in Australia, through industry, to support that important element of Australia's national security moving forward. Obviously, that’ll be a topic of discussion. I think that we’ll learn a lot of lessons…

CANNANE: [interjecting] And I imagine a topic of discussion around Russia as well, because they are well known for engaging in cyber espionage and threatening Western democracies on this front.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's certainly the case, particularly with Ukraine. And I think that we're learning a lot of lessons from Ukraine, not only in the conventional warfare sense, but in the cyber domain as well, and how the Russian actors were using cyber means to try and disable communication systems, electricity and energy systems. They’re lessons that not only NATO members, but the rest of the world can learn from, that conflict. And that's why Australia's making these key investments in bolstering our cyber capabilities. We've launched a national cyber strategy in the Australian Defence Force, through which we're training the next generation of, of cyber techs and cyber skills to ensure that Australia has the capability to defend our nation, our infrastructure and our people into the future.

CANNANE: Matt Thistlethwaite, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you for talking to us this morning.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: My pleasure, Steve. Thanks.

CANNANE: Matt Thistlethwaite, the Assistant Minister for Defence, talking to us there from Washington, DC, where he's there for the NATO 75th anniversary summit on RN breakfast it's five minutes to 08:00.


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