THURSDAY 8 FEBRUARY 2024
ANDREW HASTIE: Good morning. The Albanese Government is a weak government, and it's particularly weak on national security. We've known this since April last year, when the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) was handed down, and in that we saw no new money for Defence. In fact, we saw cuts to capability, particularly the army, and we saw the delay and deferral of decisions. We're yet to see the Surface Fleet Review be handed down by the government, and we're yet to see a Defence strategy. Today, in the AFR, we've seen that there is dysfunction at the very heart of the Defence portfolio – the Deputy Prime Minister now has Defence officials briefing against him, so bad is his performance as a part-time Defence Minister. The 'right to disconnect' laws were only tabled last night, but it seems that the Deputy Prime Minister is already exercising his right to disconnect, with paperwork piling up on his desk, with unactioned submissions still waiting for direction from him. It's not good enough. It would be bad if this happened in any year, but right now Australia is facing the most dangerous strategic circumstances since the end of the Second World War. The Prime Minister has said this, the Deputy Prime Minister has said this, and this is what we get from them – weak leadership, chaos, dysfunction and cuts to Defence capability. I'll take some questions.
JOURNALIST: Does Mr Marles need to go?
ANDREW HASTIE: The Deputy Prime Minister needs to lift his game. He needs to step up and lead. He can't be a part-time Defence Minister – he has to devote all his energies to this. Defence officials are speculating that he's using the Defence portfolio to climb his way to the top and become Prime Minister. He should focus on protecting this country and that means getting a Defence strategy rolled out, securing the money at ERC from Penny Wong, Katie Gallagher, and Jim Chalmers, and then making sure that our Defence Force, if called upon, can fight, and win a war.
JOURNALIST: Should the government be allowing old Taipan helicopters to be reassembled and sent to help the Ukrainian resistance?
ANDREW HASTIE: Well, I think we should be supporting Ukrainians who are fighting for their lives against Russia. The fact that the government, essentially, didn't have an option to send the Taipans raises an important question – who is running Australia's defence and foreign policy? Is it Penny Wong, Richard Marles, and the Prime Minister? Or is it the Defence Department? I'm concerned that the Defence Department is taking decisions without authorisation from the Defence Minister, and Richard Marles should explain why he didn't have the option to send those Taipans.
JOURNALIST: Back to Mr Tillett's story, why is it appropriate that the Defence Department is asking for resources, for suppliers that the DSR said they don't need? Why is that the best [inaudible] asking for this sort of stuff?
ANDREW HASTIE: Well, I think it's important that they be resourced adequately. We know that there's not enough people in the Defence Force at the moment, retention is an issue, we're not recruiting enough people to hit our targets, there's no new money in the Defence budget, inflation is eating into our purchasing power, and so in real terms, the Defence budget has gone backwards under Labor, and this is a big problem. I think Defence officials should be using moral courage at the table and demanding more if they don't think they can do the job they're required to do with what they have.
JOURNALIST: But if they're asking for, say for instance, land-based vehicles when the DSR says they don't necessarily need them, isn't that even more of a waste of money?
ANDREW HASTIE: Well, it's up to the respective Chiefs to make the case for what they need to defend Australia and win our next war. And if the Chief of Army, for example, thinks that we need armoured vehicles – and I happen to think he's correct in this – then the government should be listening to him. He is an expert at land warfare.
JOURNALIST: Just on the Strategic Fleet Review and the delay in the release of that, what impact is that having on jobs, particularly around Henderson, closer to home for you?
ANDREW HASTIE: There's all sorts of uncertainty at the moment. I was at Henderson last week and there were two frigates up on the hardstands undergoing some sort of maintenance. The Commonwealth is yet to make the big decisions around what Henderson will look like in the future. We know that AUKUS needs to happen over the next three or four years, we're going to establish Submarine Rotational Force-West in Perth – we support this, this was our policy as well – and I'm concerned we're not moving fast enough. We need to get on with the Surface Fleet Review, we need to take tough decisions and get on with the job. It's a question, over the next few years, of being ready with what we have and not kicking the tough decisions out to the next decade.
JOURNALIST: How culpable is the Defence Department in tensions with Mr Marles? I mean, there's always this perennial issue between minister and department, it's a big beast. Is it a department that can be tamed?
ANDREW HASTIE: I think with the right leader it can be tamed. In October of 2022, Richard Marles stood up and said the buck stopped with him as the Minister for Defence. Well, by his own standard he is failing because he's got his own department briefing against him in the news, and that's a problem. He's got to lift his game. He's got to lead. Of course, on a bipartisan basis, the Coalition wants the Defence Minister to succeed because we'll have a more secure country. So, he needs to lead, he needs to lift his game, and he needs to pull his officials into line.
JOURNALIST: Australia has joined with the United States in calling out more Chinese cyber activity against US critical infrastructure this morning. Is that a welcome development and are we doing enough to call out China's behaviour in this space?
ANDREW HASTIE: I think our relationship with China has had some serious bumps over the last six months. I remind people of the Chinese destroyer that launched a sonar attack on Australian divers whilst they were under the water. We've seen Dr Yang Hengjun just receive a suspended death sentence, which is terrible and tragic for his family and friends, it's a total breach of natural justice. If the People's Republic of China is conducting cyber-attacks against US infrastructure, then it's right that we also bring that to light as well, because the best way to discourage cyber-attacks is to bring transparency and make sure that they're attributed to the people conducting them.
JOURNALIST: What should Labor do about ADF retention that's been an issue for years? The government has spent millions trying to get people to join the Force, so what else can be done?
ANDREW HASTIE: There's a number of things they need to think about. I think first and foremost, it's a message problem. I'm a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and Duntroon – it's a wonderful experience for young people to serve their country, serve with great people, see the world and do some very interesting things and I think that message has to be clear. We need to engage with young Australians and that's a communications problem for the government and they're not communicating to young Australians.
JOURNALIST: But what should the message be?
ANDREW HASTIE: Well, the message should be one of service, opportunity and aspiration. We also need to look at the incentives as well. Moving the Defence Force, exclusively almost, to the north is a problem as well given that our recruiting bases are out of the southeast corner of our country. So, I think the Defence Minister needs to look at ways that he can incentivise young people to join up and still remain part of their local communities from which they are recruited.
JOURNALIST: In the past, there have been ideas floated about a possible compulsory year of service – not service in Defence necessarily – it could be community service, it could be Defence, it could be a SES type role. Is that something that you think could be a good idea?
ANDREW HASTIE: I've always said that if we're going to talk about some sort of national service, it should be put to a plebiscite to the Australian people because without the support of the general population, we're going to see some of the challenges that we've seen in previous generations around drafting and so on. So, I think you have to have large social licence and support from the Australian people. Last question.
JOURNALIST: The South Australian Premier was here earlier this week meeting with the Defence Minister, talking about shipbuilding in his state. He seems to be worried that the government could be prepared to swing the axe on a number of frigates that would be built out at Osborne. Do you think he has caused for concern?
ANDREW HASTIE: I think the problem is that there's a lot of paperwork sitting on Richard Marles' desk. The Surface Fleet Review is yet to be handed down, he's causing chaos and uncertainty within his department, and he's causing chaos and uncertainty within the respective jurisdictions which will be impacted by this decision, namely South Australia and Western Australia. It's high time he got on with the job, made the decision, got the money, and crack on with making this country safe. Thank you.
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