Interview: Greg Jennett, ABC News Afternoon



GREG JENNETT: Andrew Hastie, welcome back to afternoon briefing, it seems that you start from a position very close to the Government's on the strategic risks facing Australia in the region, and the shake up that flows from that. But pretty quickly, you depart, though, what is the common ground? What do you think they got right, in this Defence Strategic Review?

ANDREW HASTIE: It's good to be with you, Greg. Well, I think there's a contradiction at the heart of today's statement from the government. On one hand, they say that we are facing our most strategic, challenging strategic circumstances since the Second World War. The Minister of Defence has said this, the Foreign Minister said this. The former Coalition government said this in the Defence Strategic Update of 2020. I've said it countless times. So on that question, there is consensus and we agree, but we're expecting much more today. There's not a single new dollar spent, there's no strategy until next year, and there's also cannibalisation of capability because they are cost shifting within the defence budget. So we're expecting much more. And I was I was hopeful that there would be more, but there simply isn't. It's the (inaudible) hard decisions.

GREG JENNETT: Okay. It's quite possible, though here, isn't it Andrew Hastie, that we will get a broader understanding of their budget projections beyond the next four years, in the coming days or weeks in the lead up to the budget?

ANDREW HASTIE: Sure, I hope so. I absolutely hope so. Because if we are in our most challenging strategic circumstances, there's not a day to lose. We know that there won't be a strategy paper released until 2024. So we're already behind on strategy. And in terms of new spending, there isn't any. So you can see what I mean, when I say there's, there's a contradiction here.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Did you object to all of the $7.8 billion in savings that have been clawed out of the pre existing defence budget? And if so, do you have alternatives to pay for some of the new things that I think you agree on, like long range precision strike missiles?

ANDREW HASTIE: Absolutely. We agree on the development of long range, precision strike missiles. We're also happy to see the Henderson dry dock in the DSR, of course, that was recommended, that was started by the former Coalition government, $4.3 billion worth of investment there. So there are things that we certainly agree about, but what we're concerned about, and this is the biggest cut of all, is the cut to the Infantry Fighting Vehicle program from 450 vehicles to 129. Right now we have three mechanised battle groups in the Australian Army. We have 3 RAR in Townsville, we've got 6 RAR in Brisbane, and we have 7 RAR in Adelaide. We're going to lose two mechanised battle groups, we're going to drop down to one, that means we've got no redundancy. And God forbid our troops ever have to go into close combat. One mechanised battle group is just not enough.

GREG JENNETT: Just imagine the scenarios that would, they call them, you know, literal scenarios that sketched out in the review that might see the army going to a nation in Southeast Asia or Southwest Pacific. Why would they be taking these infantry fighting vehicles as heavy and cumbersome like Abrams tanks as they are?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, we're not talking about Abrams tanks, we're talking about infantry fighting vehicles, which means they can transport a section or a squad of infantry up to 10 personnel and get them right up to the battle. And in protected mobility. It also would have a 30 millimetre cannon on top of it as well. So if we're talking about deploying the ADF into the region and potentially having a gunfight, you certainly want to make sure that your troops are protected. And right now, the announcement today means that we're going to step backwards in that capability, which has a significant costs to army, even if you deploy some of these HIMARS missile vehicles, they're still going to be needed, they're still going to have to be protected by infantry. And it's always best to use mechanised infantry that in fact, this is the lesson of the last 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, I'm not arguing to prepare to fight the last war, but we can't ignore the fact that combined arms is an important part of the reality for effective infantry operations.

GREG JENNETT: All right, can I take you to the review of the surface naval fleet, there's potentially some really big shipbuilding projects that are ensnared, at least temporarily in this review. Do you accept that going to nuclear powered submarines, uh, does warrant a reconsideration of the naval ships that were to be built onto the alongside the French submarine proposal.

ANDREW HASTIE: Of course, I think every government has a right to conduct a review. And as the situation changes, so to must, our position, we are moving to nuclear powered submarines. And that does have implications for the naval fleet. But, again, let's wait and see I've only just been pre briefed 30 minutes before the Prime Minister stood up today. It's a large document. We're going to work through it over the next couple of days. But the headlines for me is that there's no new money. And there's a deferral of strategy. And there's also a cannibalisation of army capability. And they're the three things that are most concerning to us and the opposition.

GREG JENNETT: Alrighty and just on that final point, we've already partly discussed it, but reinventing and reimagining its roles, they seemingly are going to be different from the era in which you served in very far flung lands. What's wrong with that?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, I think you've always got to have an army that's capable of fighting in close combat. And if you just have infantry, and not much else, they're really just a constabulary army. They're just light infantry. And so after all, the hard lessons of the last 20 years, you know, potentially we're stepping backwards, and we're going to really degrade Army's capability. And if there's any lesson that we've learned over the last 100 years is that armour is really, really important in close combat. And so we've got to have more than just one mechanised battle group, we've got to have redundancy. And Labour's plan today reveals that they have no plan for redundancy, and that's coming that's going to come at a great cost to the Australian Army.

GREG JENNETT: All right, well, plenty here for all of us to keep an eye on including the Shadow Defence Minister. Enjoy Anzac Day, Andrew Hastie, and thanks again for joining us.

ANDREW HASTIE: Pleasure, Greg. Thank you