Interview: Andrew Clennell, Sky News


ANDREW CLENNELL: Andrew Hastie, thanks for joining us.


ANDREW HASTIE: My pleasure.


ANDREW CLENNELL: It really illustrates, I guess, as the Defence Minister said, the dangers of these exercises and of choppers in particular. You've served - can you take us through how dangerous these exercises typically are and how dangerous the sort of manoeuvres that occur in helicopters are?


ANDREW HASTIE: Well, the four men who were flying on Friday night were from the 6th Aviation Regiment, which is based out of Sydney, they were Special Operations qualified, which means they were trained to fly Special Operations missions - my understanding is that they were flying a Special Operations mission on Friday night - so they were the very best of our pilots. And one of the challenges our soldiers, sailors and airmen have to overcome is that of geography. We are an island nation, bounded by the ocean and so flying over water is something that we have to do. What they were doing, as I understand it, was flying over water, by night, under night vision, doing a Special Operations profile which is very, very challenging, though the best in our country. But having done it myself, when you get in the back of one of those helicopters, you entrust your life entirely to the pilots and air crew on board and these pilots were the very best, as I said, and I've worked with their unit before and I hold them in the highest possible regard.


ANDREW CLENNELL: So it may be some time before we know whether there was human error involved here or it was mechanical, is that your understanding?


ANDREW HASTIE: My understanding is that we won't know anything until the aircraft is recovered and there could be an investigation that goes out to 12 months. So at the moment, our thoughts and prayers are with the families, with their friends, with their colleagues, and with the Defence community. This is a really tough time and we need to honour their service by remaining vigilant, which is the motto of the Aviation Corps in the Army - 'Vigilance'. They were out there training in Talisman Sabre to keep our country safe, to prepare us for the next crisis, and their mission was a really important and vital one.


ANDREW CLENNELL: And why are these exercises so necessary to go as hardcore and as dangerous as they do?


ANDREW HASTIE: Because war is exceptionally dangerous and so you need to push the envelope as far as you can. You need to replicate warlike conditions when you train. There's an old saying, 'train hard, fight easy’. This applies here and that's why Talisman Sabre is such an important part of our training plan every year because we need to make sure that we are very, very sharp and very, very good at what we do.


ANDREW CLENNELL: So, when you were at war, the stuff that you experienced in exercises, did you find a war like? Did you find it prepared you for what you had to do?


ANDREW HASTIE: When you're training Special Operations, particularly, you're trying to simulate battle conditions, you're trying to simulate the danger, the friction and the uncertainty that is inherent to war. And so it's really important that when you are exercising, that those elements reflect reality in war as much as possible, within the risk profile that you're willing to accept.


ANDREW CLENNELL: Including dangerous flying you'd imagine?


ANDREW HASTIE: Including dangerous flying. I've done one of the riskiest flight profiles you can do - this was with US Black Hawk back in 2012 over the Indian Ocean where, four abreast, we did air-to-air refuel with a C-130 tanker, at night, under night vision. And at that point, you're sitting there thinking, well, if something goes wrong in any one of the helicopters, we'd all go down. But these pilots, as I said, and these air crew, they are the very best and I was always happy to entrust my life to these men and women because they work so hard to make sure that they deliver professional excellence every day.


ANDREW CLENNELL: There's been these stories about the Taipan concerns, When Peter Dutton was Defence Minister, he was looking to replace them with Black Hawks. In your time as Shadow Defence Minister, has this come across your desk, concerns about these aircraft? Did you have a reaction to the ditching in Jervis Bay in March, for example? Should the government be moving quicker?


ANDREW HASTIE: Our concerns are well documented, not just the Coalition's concerns, but I think Parliamentary concerns about the airframe over the last decade. I don't want to speculate as to what went wrong here but a decision was taken to go with the Black Hawk into the future and I think that was a wise and prudent decision and one that's been well supported by those in aviation within the Defence Force.


ANDREW CLENNELL: Do you think the government and the Defence department have moved quickly enough on this? I guess there's been a bit of controversy about procurement processes and the department of late.


ANDREW HASTIE: Look, this is something that's played out over the last decade and I'm really conscious here that we're working with the government on a bipartisan basis. I think the best interests of the ADF are served long term by Black Hawk and that's what we'll be moving to. So for the moment, I know, the MRH-90 is grounded and an investigation will occur and that's all in the hands of our ADF and the leadership.


ANDREW CLENNELL: But would you favour the Taipan to continue for a time? Do you think that's still okay?


ANDREW HASTIE: I'm just not a subject matter expert on the aircraft. It ditched in March, a risk assessment was conducted, it was considered air worthy and until we uncover what happened here, Defence will act in the best interest of its people.


ANDREW CLENNELL: Now, I wanted to ask you, while I've got you, about the foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan's writings. He's been highly critical of the government on Defence. Are you underwhelmed by the pace of things and how the government has responded to the DSR? Because he certainly is, I guess.


ANDREW HASTIE: Greg gave us a good touch up in government as well. So, I think he's dishing it out fairly to both sides, frankly. But yes, I think the DSR was very underwhelming. Apart from the fact that was announced on the eve of ANZAC Day, there was no new money, there's cost shifting and there's cannibalisation of capability, particularly for Army. We're going to see Army going backwards, in terms of combat power, with the decision to reduce the Infantry Fighting Vehicle order from 450 to 129 vehicles. And just in the last week, we've seen the government handle the relationship with Germany very poorly. The Prime Minister went to Germany, announced a 100 strong order of the Boxer vehicles, exported out of Queensland to Germany to the tune of $1 billion and then two weeks later, the announcement was made to down select a South Korean Infantry Fighting Vehicle, and we're told that that deal with the Germans is now at risk. This is poor relationship management from the government.


ANDREW CLENNELL: All right, Richard Marles says we're delivering on our commitments and the PM said we're sort of changing to more of a maritime perspective on Defence. But Greg Sheridan says you can't on the one hand say it's the worst strategic circumstances in our generation and not fund more. He says, Penny Wong has more power in the ERC process than Richard Marles. What do you make of all that?


ANDREW HASTIE: I think he's right. Government has said that we are facing the most dangerous strategic circumstances since the Second World War and so having said that for the last eight months or so, you'd expect some sort of action. With the DSR, all we got was more reviews, and no new money. So, you wanted more money in the forward estimates? Absolutely.




ANDREW HASTIE: We've got to remember, inflation is also impacting Defence purchasing power, in fact, probably the tune of 10 to 15 per cent. So, in a sense, there's a cut of up to $1 billion plus in the DSR, without new money and that's a problem. And so, what happens is you have to make decisions about which capabilities you invest in and which ones you leave to the wayside. And unfortunately, I think Army is getting hammered here, they're losing combat power, they're going from three mechanised battalions to one - this is going to be a problem for morale long term and in the end, fighting capability.


ANDREW CLENNELL: What does it mean for our Defence? Or do they have a point when they say the wars of the future is not going to be defended on land for us?


ANDREW HASTIE: I think we need to be able to prevail in the close fight and in the deep fight. We need to be able to project force offshore with our submarines, with our aircraft, with our drones, we also need to be able to conduct cyber warfare. But in the end, we need to be able to prevail in the close combat which means Army has to be able to prevail and the way you do that is delivering a combined arms effect - infantry, armoured vehicles, artillery and air support - and without Infantry Fighting Vehicles, you just can't deliver that combat power to win the close fight.


ANDREW CLENNELL: So, polls in your home state of WA show the Liberal Party more competitive, but that didn't appear the case in the seat of Rockingham at the weekend, the state seat replacing Mark McGowan, what did you make of that result?


ANDREW HASTIE: I think it's a good result for us, the Liberal Party. You had a 33 per cent primary swing against the government, you had a 22 per cent two party preferred swing against the government, you've got to remember that we also had an independent running - a popular independent running - in the field as well. So, it's complicated, but what you'd see with that swing replicated in a seat like mine, is four state seats in the seat of Canning, you'd see three of those four seats returned into Liberal hands with a swing like that. So, I think you're going to see a lot of nervous backbenchers in this Labor government, there's a lot of mouths to feed for the Premier, Roger Cook, and I anticipate a bit more instability in his government, particularly when the Aboriginal Cultural and Heritage wars and other problems like the housing and health crisis start to bite.


ANDREW CLENNELL: And that's going to hurt the Voice in WA presumably isn't it, the controversy over those cultural wars?


ANDREW HASTIE: Yes, I think it is. It's an attack on property rights and people are very concerned about what the Voice will do. This is the problem for the Albanese government, they haven't defined the Voice, they haven't given detail. And so, people's first experience with a change like this is the new laws brought in by the WA state government and anyone with a block bigger than 1100 square metres now has to get a permit, potentially, if they're going to make changes to their property. And so, they're wondering, what will the Voice do? What impact will it have over their lives?


ANDREW CLENNELL: Andrew Hastie, thanks for your time.


ANDREW HASTIE: Thank you, Andrew.