Press Conference: Wednesday 14 February




Topics: Defence Estimates, Surface Fleet Review, ADF recruitment and retention, Richard Marles’ weak leadership, Colonel Naliva.


ANDREW HASTIE: Thanks very much. It's halftime at Defence estimates, and what we've seen this morning confirms what we know to be true. That is that the Albanese government is weak on national security, the Defence Minister is weak, and that weakness is manifesting through underinvestment in Defence - cuts to capability, the deferral of tough decisions, and low morale, which is resulting in a recruiting and retention crisis. 

Today, we learned that the government was unable to commit to nine frigates, and we still don't have a timeline for the release of the Surface Fleet Review, or the government's response to it. This is causing great uncertainty in defence industry and it's also causing great uncertainty in South Australia particularly, which is expecting to build those nine Hunter-class frigates. 

We also learned that we have a recruitment and retention crisis. The ADF is 4,308 people below its authorised strength and personnel numbers have dropped to 58,427, well below its target of 62,735. Not unsurprisingly, Army is most impacted, with personal numbers sitting at 28,000 compared to its target of 31,127. Army, of the three services, is doing the worst and that's not surprising because this government is gutting army of its armoured vehicles, it's moving people north, and morale is low. That's a big, big problem. 

We also learned of the Minister for Defence's feud with his department – Andrew Tillett at the AFR knows more about it than the Secretary of Defence, who had no minutes of the meeting. Again, we're seeing Richard Marles feuding with his department, we're seeing chaos and dysfunction within the department, and that's a consequence of the Minister being weak, deferring tough decisions, letting the paperwork pile up on his desk and exercising his right to disconnect, which is the worst time in our nation's history since the Second World War to disconnect from his obligations as the Minister for Defence. 

Finally, we learned something about the Taipan helicopters. The government has previously made statements that donating the Taipans to Ukraine is not viable because it's too late, the aircraft may not be safe, and it's not suitable due to low availability. What we learned this morning, however, is that the condition of the fleet varies, and there are some helicopters that could be recovered, albeit some of the radios and military systems would have to be replaced and would require United States approval. None of those things are insurmountable. We also learned that the helicopter is safe and that New Zealand, which operates the helicopter, do so successfully, and that their fleet is reliable. So, we've got Defence running lines prior to today that we couldn't give Taipans to Ukraine, and now we learn that we could. We're seeing this government walk both sides of the street, they're confused.

Again, this comes back to weakness at the heart of the Albanese government on matters of national security. We have a weak Defence Minister unable to take the tough decisions, He has deferred the Surface Fleet Review, he has not made a decision on the Taipans, we still won't have a defence strategy until halfway through this year, and the cuts and the underinvestment in Defence are leading to great uncertainty across industry and a recruiting and retention crisis in the ADF. I'll take some questions.

JOURNALIST: Mr Hastie, as a former soldier, how long should it take an Australian who wants to join the military to get in?

ANDREW HASTIE: As the Assistant Defence Minister it took about 290 days from first contact with Defence, for a recruit to be on-boarded into uniform and commence basic training. For the APS, I think it was about 150 days, perhaps less. It's unacceptable. We need to do a much better job of getting young Australians into uniform if they want to serve. There are a lot of barriers at the moment. In the last few weeks, I've become aware of people rejected for silly things.  A female in Canning, in my electorate back home, was rejected because she was homeschooled, despite a very successful sporting and academic performance. I had someone close to me rejected who is a survivor of breast cancer. She applied to be a member of the ADF, as a public affairs officer, and she was rejected outright for that. My point here is that we have a very, very high-risk threshold for people trying to get into service. We need to lower that, we need to make it easier for young Australians get into the Defence Force.

JOURNALIST: Do you support foreigners being allowed in?

ANDREW HASTIE: I think this is a conversation that we need to have. We obviously are growing this country at the moment through immigration, that's already putting a great strain on this country through the infrastructure deficit. However, we need to grow our Defence Force so that we can prove our future submarines. Our submarine crew numbers are very low at the moment – I’m told much too low for our present fleet of Collins-class. If we're going to operate Virginia-class submarines in the future, we're going to have to find ways to recruit people. I think we should be open to lateral transfers from Five Eyes countries as a first instance, so the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand.

JOURNALIST: What's your response to Defence confirming pilots on the helicopter fleet were using a display system that had been proven to carry an increased risk?

ANDREW HASTIE: That is very concerning. We welcome the line of questioning that Senator Fawcett put to the government this morning and we want to see some answers. A lot of them were taken on notice and we're going to interrogate those answers very closely.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any concerns about the appointment of Colonel Naliva as deputy commander of the Australian Army 7th Brigade given the serious allegations that have been made against him?

ANDREW HASTIE: The allegations that have been made a very serious indeed, and the Coalition takes them seriously. Fiji is a very important neighbour and friend in the region. We need to maintain close relationships with all our Pacific neighbours, including Papa New Guinea, as we saw last week with the visit of Prime Minister Merape. These claims need to be investigated. The CDF came out this morning and took responsibility for his appointment, there's a process that is underway – I understand that the process will be more robust in future – but this is for the government to explain how this appointment was made and it's also its responsibility to get to the bottom of the allegations.

JOURNALIST: If the government does change the mix of the Navy Surface Fleet because that's what the experts have recommended, is that something that Opposition would support, or do you think there should be nine Hunter-class frigates?

ANDREW HASTIE: We are going to take each decision on its own merits – the situation has changed. What is clear though, is that Richard Marles can't take a tough decision, the paperwork is piling up on his desk. He's had 296-days since he handed down the Defence Strategic Review on April 24 last year, he's had the Surface Fleet Review on his desk for five months now. We're waiting for a decision, we're waiting for money. This is what I said yesterday, and I'll say it again today – there was no new money in the DSR, in fact, with inflation, Defence purchasing power has gone backwards – in real terms, the Defence budget is going backwards. Richard Marles lost to Penny Wong at the Expenditure Review Committee and if he can't get new money for this May budget, he should resign as Minister for Defence.

JOURNALIST: How bloody do you think the cuts will be for the Integrated Investment Program?

ANDREW HASTIE: We'll wait and see, but if we go by the last 18-months, I'm expecting them to be deep and severe to Defence, particularly as AUKUS is going to absorb a lot of the budget. This is something that we need to talk to the Australian people about – AUKUS is one of the biggest national endeavours since the end of the Second World War, we need to talk about how we're going to fund that and also maintain the other important capabilities in the Australian Defence Force. The government wants to play magician's tricks with the budget and pretend everything's okay, but it's not okay. That AUKUS budget will eat into our sustainment budget and will diminish the readiness of the Navy and potentially other areas of the Defence Force if we don't talk about increasing Defence spending.

JOURNALIST: Do you have a number on how many of the Taipans could have been recovered and sold to Ukraine?

ANDREW HASTIE: I don't have that number, but we're waiting to hear from the government.

JOURNALIST: As this investigation into Colonel Naliva is underway, should he be stood aside?

ANDREW HASTIE: As I understand, he's working from home at present.

JOURNALIST: Do you think he should be stood aside though?

ANDREW HASTIE: It's pretty hard to command troops when you're working from home. I take what the CDF said at face value, and that he's essentially not working in his full capacity as the deputy commander of that brigade. Last question.

JOURNALIST: You've mentioned that the DPM is a weak decision maker. However, Greg Moriarty this morning – just referring to the meeting that you guys have been calling, essentially, a dressing down – he said that he's that the DPM has been very responsive, and he's actually well within his rights to be putting forward his priorities and expectations. How does this make him a weak decision maker if he's being so clear?

ANDREW HASTIE: Richard Marles is a nice guy. I'd love to do 18 holes with him if I had the time. He'd be a great conversationalist, I think. But we're arguing that he's a weak leader because of his weak record – no new money for Defence, cuts to capability, particularly the army, deferral of tough decisions. There's no Defence strategy, we still don't have the Surface Fleet Review, and we now have a recruiting and retention crisis in the ADF. That is the consequence of weak leadership. Thank you very much.


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  • Andrew Hastie
    published this page in Latest News 2024-02-15 08:39:06 +0800