Interview: Government Weakness in Defence, ABC


GREG JENNETT: Andrew Hastie is with us now. Welcome back on a hectic afternoon between Parliament and the studio. Why don't we start, Andrew, with the ADF helping Red Sea operations. Did you know in December last year, when you said we've always stepped up over the last 100-years when we've had to be a good global citizen, that former Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, had rejected a request, and took six weeks to do so, in the dying days of the Morrison government?

ANDREW HASTIE: I haven't seen the document, I wasn't aware of it at the time, and as I understand, it was a decision taken during caretaker government. But certainly, the situation has changed completely – we have Iranian backed Houthi rebels firing ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and loitering munitions at ships. Since November, they've fired at about 30-odd ships and they've hit about 14 or 15. Now this has economic costs, Greg. The cost of moving a 40-foot shipping container from Northern Europe to the Far East before Christmas was about $2,000 – it's gone up to $4,500 today and those costs will be passed on to Australian mums, dads and small businesses.

GREG JENNETT: Not to diminish the urgency of what's happening there and the economic costs, the justification for not helping then is still the same one as is being applied by this government now and that is that the Indo Pacific is our primary area of strategic responsibility. Defence wrote declining that request, directed towards the Morrison government, "given our considerable commitments, both domestic and in the Indo-Pacific, we are not able to increase our current contribution." That would still be the case now, wouldn't it?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, that was then – they didn't have Iranian backed Houthi rebels firing missiles at ships. This is a different situation and I think this is a weak decision by the Albanese government. It's a political decision, let me make that very clear, because the Chief of Navy last week indicated, through comments made in The Daily Telegraph, that it wasn't a capability question, it was a decision made by political leadership. I admired his moral courage because he was standing up for the Royal Australian Navy and its readiness. So, this is a political decision, we think it's a weak decision and I think we have a role to play in upholding global trade, shipping lanes and indeed, prosperity and peace.

GREG JENNETT: Alright well, this might be pursued by your colleagues in Senate Estimates this week, there are lots of opportunities there. Let's move on to other elements of what I think some people are calling a crisis in the ADF. I don't know whether that's your description, but retention and recruitment are lagging terribly behind target at the moment. There are already financial incentives to stay longer, they don't seem to have been taken up in a big rush, what more should be done?

ANDREW HASTIE: I think, Greg, this is a weak government and when you signal weakness from the political leadership, diggers, our sailors and our airmen take notice. At the moment, we're shedding about 11 per-cent of people per year from the Defence Force, and we're not on-ramping enough recruits, in fact, we're well below our target of 1,000 people per year. We're trying to get to 80,000 by 2040, and we're less than 60,000 now, so we're running out of time. I think what's fundamentally missing from this government is a message of service, opportunity and of aspiration. If you go back to 1986, Bob Hawke got in a helicopter and made an ad, which was put on TV, recruiting for Ready Reserve. He highlighted the strategic circumstances, and he made the call to young Australians to step up. We're not seeing that from Anthony Albanese or Richard Marles.

GREG JENNETT: Surely recruitment is more complex in an economic proposition than a slick marketing advertisement, or one endorsed by a prime minister. You would have to acknowledge that people have joined and left for reasons much more complex than your confidence in the government of the day.

ANDREW HASTIE: Of course. It's a tight labour market, no question. But I think people who join the Defence Force don't just do it for economic reasons, they do it because they love their country and they want to serve their country, and when Defence is being run down, as it is by this government, it sends a signal to a lot of young Australians out there that maybe they should consider service elsewhere, or a job or career elsewhere. So, I think it is on the government. Political leadership is really important otherwise we wouldn't pay attention so much to the Parliament or what the government of the day is doing.

GREG JENNETT: What about anything beyond that sort of leadership or vibe, if you like. Would you increase incentive offers?

ANDREW HASTIE: Of course – remuneration packages, incentives. I think one of the problems is under this government, because there was no new money in the DSR, they're making cuts to Army and they're moving the Army north – they're shrinking it from three brigades to one up north. And what does that mean? It means that our recruiting base in the southeast corner – young Australians from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Tasmania are having to leave their families, their homes, their communities and go up north. I think that is not a huge incentive for a lot of Australians who want to serve in the areas they grew up.

GREG JENNETT: I think that was predicted by some when those announcements were made. Now I see Jacqui Lambie, and a few other commentators, are now expressing public doubt in the ability of Richard Marles as Defence Minister. You've criticised him, I don't think you've gone that far, but you've criticised him for tardiness in signing off decisions and maybe even because of tensions with his department. Isn't that actually a good thing - a creative tension between the minister of the day and the department which, let's face it, is routinely criticised for being tardy itself?

ANDREW HASTIE: The Coalition believes absolutely in political leadership of the military, and so it's right for the Minister to expect high standards from the Defence chiefs and also his department. But they're briefing against him in the press, that's the point. And fundamentally, they're arguing he's essentially exercising his right to disconnect because there's a stack of paperwork on his desk, he's not taking the decisions and things are slowing up. I'll make this point as well, Greg, there was no new money in the DSR and I think he lost the fight at the Expenditure Review Committee – he lost to Penny Wong. The Coalition view is that if he can't get the money for Defence that it needs, in May at the Budget, he should resign out of protest, or he should make way for someone who can do the job.

GREG JENNETT: Out of protest but not due to any allegation you would level against him of incompetence?

ANDREW HASTIE: I would say if he can't get it and he fights for it, he should resign out of protest, and if he can't get it because he's just incompetent, he should go because what we need is more investment in Defence. We're at $52 billion per year, inflation is eating into purchasing power, we have AUKUS and a number a number of other projects that need funding, and he hasn't delivered.

GREG JENNETT: Well, he's definitely in there having that argument, I think we all know that, and we'll get some understanding of that when the Surface Fleet Review comes out, and that's pretty soon –

ANDREW HASTIE: – Well, we've been waiting five months. But I just want to make very clear for your viewers, that's the test - new money in the May Budget, or he should go.

GREG JENNETT: Okay, understood, noted. Would it be a bad thing if some of the intended fleet of Arafura-class patrol vessels were never built in favour, perhaps, of an all new type of vessel.

ANDREW HASTIE: What we care about is delivery on time and at the moment, there are issues with the Arafura OPVs. We want this government to make a decision and get on with delivering capability as quickly as possible, and at the same time, building defence industry muscles in this country. We need to revive our industrial base - that requires investment and leadership, and we're not seeing it from this government.

GREG JENNETT: Alright, let's jump back broadly to the Middle East, which is roughly where we started our discussion today. Andrew Hastie, this planned Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, can it be carried out, in your view, while safeguarding the interests and welfare of up to one-million Palestinians now crammed into southern Gaza?

ANDREW HASTIE: Look, that's a really tough question to answer at this distance, but certainly there have been civilian casualties. My view on this remains unchanged. It was Hamas which slaughtered more than 1,000 people on October 7, there are still hostages being held – we saw Israeli commandos blast their way in and rescue two only days ago – but this can all end if Hamas just hands the hostages back. If that happened to Australians, if 1,000 Australians were murdered in cold blood, raped, and hostages were taken, the Australian people would demand our government exercise its right to self-defence and to pursue the rescue of those hostages as best as they can.

GREG JENNETT: That argument we hear often but it doesn't allow a blank cheque.

ANDREW HASTIE: It doesn't allow a blank cheque, and I'm not on the ground, but I get the sense that Israel has given up tactical and operational advantage in order to prevent civilian casualties. War is messy – I know this personally – civilians sadly end up dying in war. But again, Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, started this on October 7. There's a lot of history in the Middle East, I don't pretend to take sides on that, but October 7 was a very clear-cut example of cold-blooded murder and I think Israel has the right to self-defence, and also to recover those hostages.

GREG JENNETT: Well, from the White House to further abroad, there are many people urging a degree of restraint –

ANDREW HASTIE: – As do I – I want to make that very clear. As do I, but I don't want it to be some sort of moral equivocation on this issue, which I think is really important. Clarity is important.

GREG JENNETT: Understood. Well as the world watches on we will too. Andrew Hastie, always appreciate it.

ANDREW HASTIE: Thanks, Greg.

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  • Andrew Hastie
    published this page in Latest News 2024-02-14 05:51:38 +0800