Challenges, Opportunities - The Opposition View

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SPEECH BY THE HON RICHARD MARLES MP

SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE

 

Thank you, Paul for that introduction and can I acknowledge Major General Paul Irving, National President of the Defence Reserves Association. I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past and present, I acknowledge Stuart Robert my colleague and friend. Stu and I are both ‘class of 2007’ - entering the Parliament. Something I did not understand before entering politics is that there is a bit of a kinship associated with the class you enter the parliament with. We - in a sense - become the witnesses to each other’s lives and our journey through that mad House, and of course Stu and I are very much friends as a result of that. Stu is, I would concur, one of the good guys on the other side. In a sense a more interesting speech both Stu and I could give is if we talked about those people who didn’t meet that category - that would be a very shortening effect to our respective careers if we gave that speech!

I do want to say this about Stu, we all bring our pasts to the Parliament and to the roles we play. Stu as you know has had a very distinguished career in the Australian Defence Force. It was really clear from the outset of his participation in the Federal Parliament - his representing of his community there - that he wanted to honour and dignify the ADF and the role they play in our community, and he has been an incredible voice for the defence family and for you.

I particularly remember during that difficult period which I think was the term 2010 through 2013 when Stu was the Shadow Junior Defence Minister at that point in time, and we were having very sad acknowledgements of those who lost their lives in Afghanistan. As a result of that, Stu was required to make a speech along with probably three others on those occasions. Very solemn moments. The videos of those speeches, a loved one being acknowledged and remembered in our nations Parliament, of course passed to the family - they matter - and no one on either side put more effort and work in to those speeches in terms of acknowledging the individuals so that there was   something personal about them in those speeches, but also acknowledging the sacrifice they had made. That’s Stu. It always struck me at the time that that is someone who is very dedicated to what they are doing - and in a kind of simple way, but beautiful way - Stu made a really significant contribution and it was not lost on me as just someone sitting, watching. I know it was not lost on a whole lot in the parliament, and it says a lot about Stu Robert and it is an honour for me to call Stu Robert a friend.

As Paul has said this is my first speech as the Shadow Minister for Defence and it’s great for me to be able to deliver it to the peak body representing the Reserves, because the Reserves are a critical part of the ADF. The Reserves are fundamental in terms of our nation’s military history; it was of course through the CMF, the Reserves who first defended Kokoda. The 39th Battalion, 74 years ago today who were the first to participate in the Battle of Isurava and fought throughout that battle, your predecessors.

It was, and has been the Reserves in a contemporary sense who are providing 1 in 5 Australian deployed personnel overseas. So the Reserves are a much loved part of the Defence family, but the Reserves are a profoundly critical part of the operational functioning of the modern ADF and so it’s great for me to be able to deliver my first speech, in this role, to this body.

The first speech you make in a portfolio is not the easiest speech to make.  One stands up and is expected to give wisdom, hopefully some useful information - but in reality you are a complete novice and you are staring out, as I am right now, amongst a room full of people who have vastly more experience than I do and will probably ever will; and so the first thing I would like to ask of all of you and the first message I want to give to all of you is – ‘be nice’! Can I say it’s not just a little intimidating to be making this speech in front of Stu who has just delivered such a fantastic speech on his own part to you, obviously coming from an enormous degree of experience. But there is some seriousness in that point because if there is one take home message from this speech that I want to give to you today, it is I am here to learn. I really am here to learn, and it is much less right now - to be frank - about what I say to you, as it is about what you are saying to me.

For however long it takes, the number one task I feel I have in this role is to learn. I hope that at the end of this term, however long that lasts, I can claim to have some degree of expertise beyond what I have now - and I really think, it is the most significant thing I want to try and do over the next few years.

I do want to say upfront I bring to bear, and Labor brings to bear, a view that national security is deeply important – obviously - we are very serious about it.

It is an area of policy which is essentially bi-partisan. I want to say that it is not automatically bi-partisan - and in a sense it should not be - because to say that implies in a sense, that one side or the other might not be taking the issue of national security seriously enough to engage in its own terms. But it is to say this, there is absolutely a disposition of bipartisanship that if ever there is a difference that is brought to bear of a question of national security, it is a big deal, because our nation is served much better if this is an area which is absent of party politics

.I can say to you that over the last three years since we have been in Opposition - that’s not to reflect on the time prior to that - it has in fact been bipartisan as we have on both sides worked through the issues of any given moment, have ultimately ended up in the same place. Sometimes we started there, sometimes by negotiation, but that will continue in terms of the roll I play in this portfolio and it is also to state the obvious, that Defence is central to the question of national security. It’s not the only area, indeed where I was previously in Immigration there was a national security dimension to it, but defence is absolutely central to it, and national security has been an interest of mine I guess from a policy point of view, having been involved in immigration and having being involved with Foreign Affairs in government and at the risk of being a little indulgent I cannot tell you how thrilled and excited I am to be in the position I now am to learn more about the defence side of the national security equation. I literally cannot wait for the next few years as I walk down that path and I very much hope to walk down it with you as my teachers and assisting me.

I think at the heart of national security is a willingness to make difficult decisions. At the heart of national security and in terms of the way we in Labor want to project our credentials in respect of national security is saying to the Australian people: we are in a safe pair of hands, we are a stable pair of hands, that we deal with this in a very sober and serious manner and we deal with this in a way which respects and honours all of those who serve within this space. That’s what I hope to live up to in this role.

I bring to this role the experience of having for the last three or so years being the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. In that context I’ve seen our Defence forces operate particularly through Operation Sovereign Borders and in that I have seen the work of Reservists as well, particularly on patrol vessels. Stu made a point earlier that he felt the leadership of our military was as good as it has ever been, I hope I’m para-phrasing you accurately there. In a sense I can’t testify to that, not having the experience of Stu, but what I would say, the people I have met in the last few years in leadership roles: the ADF are remarkably impressive people and however the system works, both through the Reserves and through the permanent force, at least judged by those who rise to the top, something is going right because there are deeply impressive people and it has been fantastic to watch the way in which our service has been undertaken.

To that extent I want to relate to you a personal experience I had earlier this year when I undertook a Defence Parliamentary program on Operation RESOLUTE, where for a week I was in the Navy. I had an emotional experience in that week which I wasn’t prepared for and that involved wearing our nation’s uniform.

At the outset it seemed to me that, firstly people were very keen for me to wear the uniform and I felt a bit of a fraud if I’m to be honest. That in wearing that uniform, nothing I had done - which is different to Stu - nothing I had done earned me the right to wear it and in that sense it felt awkward. But people were keen that I wore it, so I did. But having got over that, it did become clear to me what is special and different about serving our Nation in that uniform, about the notion when you are doing that in an active way - which obviously I wasn’t - you literally do voluntarily accept the risk that on that day you might not take it off; that is part of the bargain.

There’s no other uniform that any of us wear in any other form of life where that is inimically part of the bargain and it makes it different, really different, to anything else - and whatever that means in terms of how we need to respect and honour that, I’m there to try and do it. I think it’s valuable at least for me to relate that to you, and I wasn’t expecting to have that encounter but I most certainly did.

I bring to bear experience in the last term of government in Foreign Affairs, as the Parliamentary Secretary of Foreign Affairs. I very clearly saw the role the ADF plays in Australia’s global projection, and it is a fantastic role it plays in our global protection.

Now going to and representing Australia in the African Union Meeting in 2012 and in 2013 - a continent where Australian servicemen and women played a significant role in recent times - our reputation as a nation was largely carried in that group by those who served with our Defence forces, and is a fantastic reputation that has been established.

So many in the world know Australia though the people they meet wearing Australia’s uniform. It’s why those who are in Foreign Affairs who are smart about this question, put Australia’s global military contribution front and centre in our campaign to win a seat on the UN Security Council. It was a critical part in us being able to achieve that objective, and I say that having been one of those people who was significantly involved in the midst of that campaign.

Reservists are a critical part of that global service and of that global contribution.

I bring to bear experience of being the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs where I saw the regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands, and there are many Reservists who served in that mission. I saw what it meant to that nation. It was a fantastic exercise in regional cooperation. It was put together, actually under the Howard government, it was deeply clever. It was Australian led, but had representatives from all the countries of the Pacific Island forum. It was incredibly well received by that country, a country that was going through enormous troubles. It did invite help, but the help that was provided - in the form of military assistance - wasn’t received by the public in the Solomon’s as some occupying force, indeed survey after survey found that the people of the Solomon Islands regarded those serving within RAMSI as being of enormous benefit to that country. It could not have been better received.

The political issue associated with RAMSI and the Solomon Islands towards the end was not about how quickly RAMSI could leave, it was about the fact the Solomon Islands wanted to see RAMSI stay for as long as possible. There was difficulty in that, but what a compliment to those Australian servicemen and women, many of whom were Reservists who played their part in that mission.     

I also saw the strategic significance of the Pacific to Australia’s national security framework. It is the part of the world in which we are most influential. It is a part of the world which we are expected to play a role. It is of course - harking back to the Second World War - a part of the world which is of critical strategic importance to Australian national security. But what we do in the Pacific, increasingly I think, is our international calling card.

In our relationship with the United States - this is the most important bilateral relationship that we have as a nation. It is characterised obviously and mostly by Australia following America’s lead - given it being a super power and Australia being a middle power - but at least one area in which the U.S. unquestionably follows our lead, is in the Pacific. The U.S essentially comes to the relationship with Australia on the basis of, ‘tell us what you would like to do in the Pacific.’ Now what that means is that across a broad relationship, it is the sphere in which America gets to see us lead. In that sense, the Pacific is not just important in its own terms, it’s really important in terms of our alliance relationship with the U.S.

The same analysis could be made in respect of Europe and indeed around the world. We are rightly judged for good or ill by the way in which we perform in an international sense within the Pacific. To that end our Pacific neighbours are critically important to us as global referees. We saw that again during the UN Security Council campaign, where I can say to you; the most important referee for Australia was not a country like the U.S. or Britain, but it was countries like the Solomon Islands, like Papua New Guinea, like East Timor - all places where the ADF and Reservists have played a critical role in establishing Australia’s reputation. They were unabashed fans of Australia in terms of the references they gave.

So when you imagine a Reservist in the Solomon Islands interacting with locals, with governments, with government officials and doing so in a way which means that that government speaks highly of Australia on the international stage - such that we can become a member of the United Nations Security Council - this is not just about Reservists helping Solomon Islands, although it is very much about that, but it is about reservists and the ADF playing a role in Australia’s global projection.

RAMSI is a great example of Reserves in action but so too is the role Reserves play in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and recovery efforts, again which occur significantly within the Pacific. Australia’s defence role in the Pacific is an area I would like to emphasise and explore more in terms of my role as the Shadow Minister for Defence. It’s an area I feel very passionately about. As a local member of Parliament I also got to meet a returning group of reservists who had served in RAMSI, they had come to Geelong. I guess the other side of this coin is: I saw what the experience meant for them. It was an incredible opportunity to serve your country but was also an incredible learning experience and broadening experience for everyone who participated in it. I got to see, from that perspective, the way in which the Reserves and the ADF are making Australians better; making Australians better in the way in which they participate in everyday life beyond the ADF.   

Stu put it well when he said that this is an activity and an action which sees people grow in character. In reading and preparing for today, it does seem to me that we are at a moment in our history when the role of Reserves and Reservists is growing. In a sense, not that the Reservists time has come - because there have been plenty of times in the past where the Reservists have played a critical role - but for a couple of reasons; having a strong Reserves makes so much sense in terms of the way in which we present the Australian Defence Force.

Workforce flexibility is obviously a part of that, Stu spoke a lot about that in his presentation. We live in a world today where people having one job throughout their lifetime is very much the exception, whereas, it very much used to be the norm. We live in a workforce today where we have much greater equality of gender participation and that is a wonderful thing. But we also live in a world as a result of that where men as well are taking a greater role child rearing, and as a result we have much greater levels of atypical employment: people working part time, people working casually, people chopping and changing their employment. That is modern Australia and having worked in the employment space and the industrial relation space over a large part of my professional career I’ve seen the evolution of that. What is absolutely clear is the Defence forces are not immune to that either.

Obviously there needs to be a permanent Defence Force, but it’s also really important as we present the ADF including the Reserves in a way which enables the skills and the talents of those who want to serve - but may be restricted in terms of their own personal circumstances in the way in which they serve - giving them the flexibility nevertheless, to be able to serve. It does seem to me from that point of view, the Reserves act as a fantastic way in which flexibility can be provided so there is an ability for people to able to provide service more on their own terms, and that is critically important.

It also seems to me there are skills which naturally are able to be developed in civilian life better, perhaps than in the Defence world, which through the Reserves can be harnessed. Cyber is a good example of that; medical skills, legal skills – the Reserves can play a critical role there. So it seems to me that Australia and the ADF absolutely needs the Reserves and needs the ability for Reserves to be able to participate in as integrated a way as possible.

It is of course little wonder we now do see as I said earlier, 18% of deployed personnel overseas being Reservists since 1999. There is within the Reserves, a level of experience which is perhaps greater than any point since the Second World War. We see people who are in this room today such as Brigadier Mike Annett - who’s the most recently returned Australian Commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Kath Campbell who is the Deputy Commander in the Middle East operations, who as Reservists played incredibly senior roles in operations around the world. It is important and key that in doing this we allow the Reserves to be as integrated as possible within the ADF, I know that that is of the essence of what you seek through your conference today.

To me that actually speaks to our history; our history of reservists and permanent ADF members operating together. To remember the Battle of Isurava, the anniversary of which is now - is actually to remember a coming together of the 39th Battalion and the 2nd 14th Battalion who, I think I’m right in saying, had their first full day of operations in that battle on this day 74 years ago, 27th of August. There is a beautiful passage in Peter Fitzsimons book which describes the moment at which those in the 39th Battalion first saw those from the 2nd /14th arriving where he described; I’m quoting, as ‘a moment that would ever after be burned in the memories of members of the 39th’. That is a history of permanent members of our Defence force and Reservists working side by side in the heat of battle, and says to me everything about – or provides me inspiration if you like - about how integrating the Reserves today needs to be a critical part of a critical challenge of the way we go forward.

Now I don’t for a second profess to have the answers to all of these having been in the job for five minutes. But the sorts of issues around how we recruit to the Reserves, the training that’s provided to Reservists, the use of the Reserve estate, again which Stu refers to; all of these it seems to me are really important issues that need to be worked through, that deserved maybe a little more than three paragraphs of the Defence White Paper. It is important though that that occurs.

The practicality of the ease in which there is integration of the Reserves and ADF was dealt with through project Suakin. Now I was with David Feeney - somebody who is well known to you - a couple of days ago, who said to me when Stu claims credit for project Suakin: I should congratulate Stu on the important role he’s played, that just to remind people that project Suakin began with David in the Labor Government - if you like, it’s beginning and evolution through Stu; he’s a real example of the Party’s working together for a really important end - in having a plan in place that seeks to remove the legal and administrative barriers, so there is flexibility between the Reserves and the permanent Defence Force which enables the ADF to operate in a modern Labour market. Suffice to say, Labor absolutely supports the work Stu did of course, and we remain very committed to plan Suakin.

Defence policy, national security policy, as I said earlier is bipartisan policy. Support for the reserves is bipartisan policy. So in expressing my support on behalf of Labor, not for second do I suggest there is anything other than exactly the same level of full support provided to you by the Coalition and represented by Stu today. But on behalf of Labor, let me finish by expressing today my support for the Reserves.

We do see the reserves as utterly viable to the success of the ADF. The ADF cannot be all that it needs to be without the skills, the passion, the energy of the Reserves, and the Reserves being an integrated part of the ADF. Labor is committed to doing everything we can to absolutely ensure and support that objective.

Thank you very much for having me here today.


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