Interview: Gary Adshead, 6PR




GARY ADSHEAD: The Shadow Defence Minister, Andrew Hastie, joins me. Thanks very much for your time, Andrew.

ANDREW HASTIE: Good to be with you, Gary.

GARY ADSHEAD: What's your comment on what he (Deputy Prime Minister) said then, that our priorities are not up there in the Red Sea, our priorities are around what China might be doing in terms of shipping movements?

ANDREW HASTIE: I think the Deputy Prime Minister has his head under the doona and that's because Australia is an island trading nation – the sea and the oceans are vital to our security and prosperity. Gary, we are the fifth-largest user of shipping in the world, over 99 per cent of our imports and exports, by volume, are dependent on shipping. Two thirds of our trade comes through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, so to pretend that we can look the other way and hope our allies and friends will take care of this is wrongheaded. I think it's weak and the Government has some serious questions to answer because we are not pulling our weight as an alliance partner with the United States, the UK and other European nations who are stepping up.

GARY ADSHEAD: We will be sending personnel to that area but certainly not any hardware.

ANDREW HASTIE: That's right, we are not deploying a ship. We are sending six personnel to Bahrain as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, and we're increasing our overall footprint from five to 10 personnel. This is very surface level. The US has asked for us to commit a maritime contribution and we're breaking with our recent history. Gary, since 1990, we've deployed ships 57 times to the Middle East, or the Horn of Africa, to do counterterrorism or counter-piracy operations. In fact, some of our flag officers commanded vessels over there over the last two decades, and so the expectation from the Americans, particularly, is that we would step up because that's what we've always done. The government has some serious questions to answer. Is the Navy so rundown that we can't deploy? Is the Navy so ill-equipped that we can't defend against Houthi missiles and drones? What's going on? The Prime Minister needs to come clean on these questions.

GARY ADSHEAD: Greg Sheridan wrote a piece yesterday in The Australian and he did say that he believes the reason that we're not sending a ship is for that reason – that we can't defend ourselves against any sort of drone attack that might come from these Houthis, who are very well financed and backed by Iran. Is that true, Andrew?

ANDREW HASTIE: It could well be true. As you know, we have we have the Anzac-class, we have the Hobart-class – the Hobart-class being the air warfare destroyers – we have capacity and we have capability, but if we have a capability gap, that's where the Deputy Prime Minister steps up, he engages with defence industry, and he accelerates the acquisition of capability so we can do our job as a global citizen and protect the vital sea lanes in the Red Sea. Gary, there's an economic problem here as well and that is if the Red Sea, the sea lanes in it, are shut down by Houthi rebels, it means you're going to add another 10 days to any freight coming out of the Mediterranean Sea. Freight won't be able to go through the Suez Canal, it will have to go right around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, and that'll add about 10 days. It will add cost to fuel, it'll add cost to operators, it'll add costs to consumers here in Australia and Australians, who are already battling with inflation, will be paying more for their goods that are imported from overseas.

GARY ADSHEAD: So, the response from Richard Marles that you heard is fairly generic. He doesn't go to the point of saying that the Australian Government, let's say, fear that if we were to put a warship in that area, and something was to happen, that we could be drawn into a bigger conflict given that, I think it's fairly well accepted, the Houthis are backed by Iran. What do you say to the idea that we're perhaps preserving ourselves from what could happen, and that's this conflict in the Middle East spreading?

ANDREW HASTIE: Since when, in the last 100 years, have we left our friends in the lurch? Yes, the Houthis are Iran's cat's paw on the oceans in the Red Sea and elsewhere – that's true, and they are doing very risky operations – but the way you establish peace, the way you maintain the openness of those sea lanes is through strength and deterrence, and that's the point of us sending a ship. The Spanish have done it, the Italians have done it, the Norwegians have done it, the French have done it. Even after AUKUS, the French are stepping up! The fact that we're not stepping up, I think, is long-term risky for us because we potentially become known as the blunt end of AUKUS – we don't do the heavy lifting, we take but we don't actually give.

GARY ADSHEAD: Do you think our Navy has the capability to deploy resources away from the South China Sea, for example?

ANDREW HASTIE: The Americans wouldn't have asked for a ship if they didn't think we could step up. This is a decision that's been taken by the Prime Minister and the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Our naval officers, and I know quite a few of them, are excellent people and if you ask them to take on a mission, they'll give you a no BS answer. I'm confident that, if required, they could step up – that's their job. This is about the politics, and this is why the Prime Minister has to explain why he's choosing to not send a ship. Instead, he's winning the applause of the Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

GARY ADSHEAD: What do you make of that? The reports are that the Global Times newspaper has welcomed Australia's decision not to get involved in policing the Middle East at the moment. What do you what do you make of that?

ANDREW HASTIE: The article praises the Government for their call for a ceasefire, which effectively keeps Hamas at the table, which is not going to help the peace process and in fact, strengthens Hamas' hand, and they're praising our Government's decision to not send a ship to the Red Sea. In the same article, they're hosing down reports of the Houthi rebels attacking vessels saying there's no actual damage, so they're running cover for Iranian proxies. The point I'm making, Gary, is if you're getting a tap on the bum from the Global Times, you're doing something wrong.

GARY ADSHEAD: Oh, well, I'd be horrified. I was reading the quote that the fact that they're not sending a warship, "it is sensible for Australia to continue distancing itself from the US,".

ANDREW HASTIE: Classic divide and conquer.

GARY ADSHEAD: It worries you, doesn't it?

ANDREW HASTIE: It does, absolutely. It's my job to be worried, I'm the Opposition Defence Spokesman. I can tell you I'm worried, I can tell you Peter Dutton's worried, I can tell you Simon Birmingham, the Foreign Affairs Shadow, is worried. We are all concerned and we're doing our job as the Opposition and asking the Government to come clean as to why they are refusing to meet a very modest request – one that we've fulfilled time and again over the last 30-years.

GARY ADSHEAD: All right. Very interesting developments. I really appreciate it. Andrew, if I don't see you before, Merry Christmas to you and your family.

ANDREW HASTIE: Same to you, Gary. Thanks.

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