• Image: Defence
    Image: Defence

Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite has now been in the portfolio for almost 12 months. Recently he spoke with ADM's Publisher Ewen Levick about upcoming reforms to the Defence Act, the imminent release of the DSR, and the government's defence priorities for the remainder of its term.

The following has been edited for clarity.

ADM: Can you provide an overview of the proposed changes to the Defence Act?

Minister Thistlethwaite: We want to make sure that the Defence Act is fit for purpose and ensures that the ADF has the capability it needs to properly defend Australia into the future. The Act was legislated in 1903 and it assumes a binary state of affairs: that the nation is either at conflict or it’s not. Increasingly we’re seeing activities across multiple domains (including cyber and space), using new and emerging technologies and testing existing regulatory and jurisdictional frameworks (such as those conducted in the grey zone). These reforms will ensure the ADF has confidence to use the full range of modern capabilities and undertake activities required to defend Australia, particularly in those grey zones. This review is seeking the views of the Australian people about how we reform the Act to ensure that the ADF has that capability into the future.

There’s three areas in which we’re seeking the feedback from the Australian people and in particular defence industry. The first is ensuring that the law supports the full range of military activities and capabilities required to defend Australia and its national interests. The second area is designing the law for interoperability between international partners; and the third is ensuring the ability to secure Australia’s military capabilities.

ADM: On the first initiative, you provide concrete examples of potential ADF activities that are not currently supported by the Defence Act?

Minister Thistlethwaite: One of the areas would be ensuring that there’s legal authority for ADF members to use body worn cameras whilst they’re training in Australia so that they can be safely deployed and used once ADF members are on operations.

A second area would be ensuring that there’s the legal authority for artificial intelligence within advanced defence platforms to automatically assess and communicate data about the platforms’ surroundings and security environment.

Those are a couple of examples that illustrate some of our concerns at the moment. Reforms will fix this. More than that, they will set the ADF up with a robust and clear legal framework for the future, regardless of the technologies we will need to use and defend against.

ADM: On the body worn cameras, as an example, is that to potentially combat misinformation that might arise as a result of ADF operations?

Minister Thistlethwaite: It’s that and ensuring that there’s information and data regarding an operation that’s accessible. On the battlefield at the moment, data is the key and quick, timely access to data can be a competitive advantage. So ensuring that we have the best technology that’s available to quickly capture and assess that data is vitally important and that can provide forces with a capability edge. If we want to make sure that the ADF has that capability edge, and there’s legal questions about using that equipment at the moment in a training circumstance in Australia, that has implications for people being ready to use the equipment in deployment situations and operations.

We think it’s sensible that the ADF should be able to use this equipment and this technology for training purposes, subject of course to codes of practice and appropriate privacy protections concerning the data that’s captured, and making sure that capability is there for use on deployment.

ADM: On initiative two - designing the law for interoperability with our international allies - what are some ways in which the current Defence Act restricts interoperability?

Minister Thistlethwaite: A good example is increasingly during joint exercises that we’re doing with other defence forces, there’s a lot of information and data collected. Ensuring that there’s appropriate legal authorities and protections for that information and data to be shared between nations is important. An exercise, for instance, like Ex Pitch Black, which involves around 130 aircraft, 4000 personnel from more than a dozen nations across the Indo-Pacific, Europe and North America. Ensuring that information and data can be shared between those partners in that training exercise is pretty important. Also, ensuring that the necessary laws are in place to ensure that personnel from different countries can operate together safely and securely without compromising the sovereignty of any nation during those joint exercises is critical.

ADM: A lot of this is actually coming down to improving data laws.

Minister Thistlethwaite: You know, it’s the fact that technological advancement and the information space has happened so quickly and so rapidly: it’s really about ensuring that the legal framework keeps up to date with that technological advancement and, in doing so, ensures that the ADF can maintain a capability edge.

ADM: What does initiative three look like in practice?

Minister Thistlethwaite: For instance, there’s a limited legal basis for the ADF to intervene if a drone is approaching a defence facility until after it’s crossed the perimeter. We think that it’s reasonable that that legal authority should be looked at to ensure that it caters for the full range of adverse activity that an ADF base may be subject to. So protection, instead of being sourced on the base, will now be sourced related to the capability.

Drones have been identified as a potential security risk and it’s certainly not beyond the realm that someone can fly a drone very close to a base, but not actually over the base, and capture sensitive information and training exercises that are going on that could compromise national security. We want to make sure that the ADF has all the necessary legal backing to combat a situation such as that.

ADM: What effect will initiative three have on defence industry?

Minister Thistlethwaite: It’s really important to recognise that much of the capability that Australia has developed in recent years and certainly will do into the future, particularly after the DSR is handed down, is based on a partnership with defence industry. Increasingly defence industry is more and more involved in developing that capability and delivering it to the ADF and there’s intellectual property issues, copyright issues and, indeed, just the security of facilities and premises where this development is going on: we need to make sure this is secure into the future and protects Australia’s national interests.

Now, of course, there’s a number of policies and procedures that are quite stringent and that are put in place, but it’s reasonable to make sure that there’s a check-up on those every now and then to make sure that they’re fit for purpose. That’s what this legal review will do.

ADM: As you said, defence industry by its nature is already subject to fairly stringent security requirements. Will this add an extra layer of security requirements or will it refine what’s already in place?

Minister Thistlethwaite: As an example, moving technology that may be top secret between facilities. [The review will] ensure that the legal protection travels with that technology, rather than it only applying to a particular military base. These are the sort of things that we want to make sure that defence industry has in collaboration with Defence to protect those assets into the future.

ADM: What sort of input are you looking for from defence industry into this review?

Minister Thistlethwaite: We’re certainly keen to hear the views of industry about these legal reforms and what they believe is necessary to ensure that Australia protects that partnership into the future and we can maintain a capability edge and that Australia is at the forefront of technological advancement. 

There’s a discussion paper that I released on 9 March and that discussion paper poses a number of questions that we’d like feedback from defence industry and the Australian people about. That consultation period closes on 21 April. Once we’ve received all the submissions we’ll review them. The government, in collaboration with Defence, will begin drafting amendments to the Defence Act. An exposure draft will be released and then there’ll be further public comment and the aim is to try and have the new Act legislated before the end of the year.

ADM: When can we expect the DSR to be handed down?

The DSR has been handed to the government. It’s in the process of being declassified and we’ll respond to it over the course of the next month. That will provide the guidance that defence industry needs to start planning and collaborating with Defence on their capability needs over the next 20 years.

ADM: What can industry expect from the DSR in terms of the nature of the guidance? Is this top level guidance on the strategic direction of the country, or are these detailed recommendations?

Minister Thistlethwaite: Obviously I can’t disclose the details of the DSR but it’s been stated by the Defence Minister in public that it will be an assessment of Australia’s strategic circumstances, particularly our region, and the posture and preparedness of the ADF to meet those strategic challenges. And the [leads] have consulted widely, they’ve spent much time travelling around, not only our nation but liaising with our partners as well and that report will be released for the public so everyone can see what they have recommended to government, and at the same time, how the government is responding to that.

ADM: How has the year been for you in the portfolio?

Minister Thistlethwaite:I’ve really enjoyed my time in Defence. It’s been a steep learning curve and I’m still learning, but I’ve certainly appreciated the opportunities that I’ve had to meet with defence industry participants and particularly visit their facilities and see firsthand the great work that’s been going on.

I was at Gilmour Space in Brisbane last week and these guys are literally shooting for the stars, developing rockets and satellites that are cutting edge. I’ve really loved the role so far and I’ve been really struck by the pace of technological advancement in capability, particular weapons, deterrents in the cyber space. That’s something that Australia needs to make sure that we’re at the forefront of, and we can’t do that on our own, there needs to be a partnership with defence industry to achieve that. I’m certainly looking forward to continuing that partnership and working with defence industry to keep learning every day.

ADM: What are some of your ambitions for the remaining term of government?

Minister Thistlethwaite:We’re keen to see Defence advance in the renewable energy space, in particular on the vast base network that they have throughout the country. Defence is, as you know, the largest landowner, and we think that there’s opportunity for renewable energy projects around Defence bases and on Defence bases to reduce some of the massive energy costs that Defence has. If we’re reducing some of those costs then that’s additional resources that can be diverted into advancing capability into the future.

We want to make sure that our Defence estate is secure and fit for purpose into the future. We want to make sure that Defence Housing Australia is supporting the ADF and ensuring that Defence families in particular have the necessary housing and community support to enjoy rewarding and fulfilling lives in the Australian Defence Force. That’s been a particular focus.

We’re also trying to diversify the recruitment in the ADF. With AUKUS coming online, we know that we need to do more to attract people with a STEM background and unorthodox backgrounds into the ADF. We think that we can do a better job around that recruitment exercise. [For example] explaining to a kid who is just about to finish school and is interested in computer coding that there’s a very rewarding and fulfilling career working on some exciting cutting edge technology that will defend our nation into the future and provide a long term career prospect.

These are three of the areas that we’re focusing on at the moment.

ADM: Recruitment is a huge challenge. What sort of initiatives are you looking to bring forward in the next two years that might help the ADF, and the defence sector more broadly, reach its targets?

Minister Thistlethwaite: First we’ve got to fix the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency and the problems that they’ve had. They’ve moved to a new online platform recently and it hasn’t gone well. We’ve directed them to put in place a remediation action plan to fix some of these issues and that’s starting to see some benefits now. I want this to be fixed over the course of this year and that agency to be meeting the KPIs.

And then in the broader ADF recruitment piece, we need to do a better job explaining the diversity of careers that exist within the ADF. The traditional ADF ad is someone in a combat uniform on a ship or a plane or something like that. I think we can start to demonstrate some of the great work that’s done by Defence Science and Technology Group, the diversity of roles that exist within the ADF. That’s an opportunity that I think we have moving forward as well.

And then providing as much support as possible for ADF members and their families: we made some changes to the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme to make that more attractive. We’re looking for further reform there. We want to make sure that Defence families get the support that they need with their kids’ education and the community that they live in. And we want to make sure that there’s more housing available for Defence members close to their place of work. It’s not going to be attractive to someone who’s got to travel an hour and a half every day to get to work as a career in the ADF.

ADM: In your conversations with the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Defence Industry, what would you say is your main concern or challenge?

Minister Thistlethwaite: The uncertain strategic environment within our region is going to be a challenge moving forward and the illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia has certainly destabilised that post-World War II view of sovereignty. And then the pace of technological advancement, particularly in the cyber and the space domain, but more broadly with hypersonic weapons, uncrewed vehicles; these are all challenges for the ADF to maintain a capability edge. The pace with which these technologies are developing really means that we have to be nimble in the way that we assess these technologies and then make quick decisions about investing in them and partnering with industry to ensure that they’re as rapidly deployable as possible.

They’re the biggest challenges that we face at the moment. In many respects that’s what the DSR is all about, ensuring that our ADF is fit for purpose and that we can meet this capability challenge moving forward. But there’s so much work going on in this space at the moment. With AUKUS, Pat’s got the industry strategy that’s coming out soon and then leading into that as well is the Defence Act review. There’s a hell of a lot going on in this portfolio at the moment.

ADM: Can you talk to what we can expect out of the budget post-DSR? Do you expect a continuity budget, in other words, or something more dramatic?

Minister Thistlethwaite: Defence spending is projected to increase over the forward estimates and the government has already announced how we’ll fund AUKUS over the next four year period. There’s going to be a saving that’s made from the reallocation of the funding from the Attack class submarines, that’s $6 billion. That will be diverted into AUKUS. There’s an additional $3 billion that’s required and Defence are working through their Integrated Investment Plan re-alignment to find that additional $3 billion. So, there’s a projected increase in Defence funding and that caters for AUKUS and the capability upgrades that we’re going to be needing on the back of the Defence Strategic Review.

ADM: Can you speak to where that $3 billion might come from?

Not at the moment, that work is still being done internally within the ADF.

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