Australian Prime Minister Press Conference – Parliament House, Canberra

Prime Minister

Today, I’m very pleased to advise that the Australian Government has recommended to his Excellency the Governor-General, a number of senior command changes within the Australian Defence Force. Subject to the Governor-General’s consideration and approval, the changes will take effect in July of this year. Our Government is recommending that Vice-Admiral David Johnston be promoted to serve as the new Chief of the Defence Force. Vice-Admiral Johnston is a proven leader with the experience, intellect and resolve to lead the ADF in a complex and rapidly changing global strategic environment. Vice-Admiral Johnston joined the Naval Academy back in 1978 as a junior entry cadet midshipman. His service career has spanned a period of profound change in our Defence Force, in our region, in the very nature of the challenges confronting our national security in the Indo-Pacific, Iraq and Afghanistan, Vice-Admiral Johnston has consistently distinguished himself with his capacity to ensure that the different elements of national defence work together. His understanding of integrated defence will be critical to delivering on the priorities and recommendations of the Defence Strategic Review, ensuring that our Defence Force has the right capabilities and the right leadership to meet the challenges ahead. The Government is recommending that Air Marshal Robert Chipman serve as the new Vice Chief of the Defence Force. Air Marshal Chipman has provided outstanding standing leadership of the Royal Australian Air Force for the past two years and has an exceptional record of service and command. These are two great Australians who will meet their solemn responsibilities with honour and in the best traditions of the Australian Defence Force. I’m proud to congratulate Vice-Admiral Johnston and Air Marshal Chipman and the other senior officers that we are recommending for promotion today. On behalf of the Government and all Australians, I wish them well in the service of our nation and the defence of our people. I look forward to working closely with them in the years ahead, along with all the men and women who serve in the ADF, I’m sure they will do our country proud each and every day. I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge General Angus Campbell for the extraordinary service he has given to Australia as Chief of the Defence Force. And indeed, for every day that he has worn the uniform of this nation. Indeed, when he steps down, General Angus Campbell will have been the longest ever serving Chief of the Defence Force. He has earned the respect and deep gratitude of Australia and we wish him all the very best for his future. We’ll now hear from the Defence Minister and then from Vice-Admiral Johnston. We’ll take some questions on this, after which our ADF personnel will depart and then we’re happy to take other questions.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER & MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thank you, Prime Minister. So, it is an enormous pleasure to be here today announcing the recommendation of David Johnston as the next Chief of the Defence Force. David joined the Royal Australian Navy at the age of 16. He has spent his life in the Navy and there is no more experienced officer in the Australian Defence Force today than David Johnston. As the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, David has been at the very heart of reshaping the Australian Defence Force, both in terms of culture, but also importantly as the Vice Chief of the Defence Force in terms of the platforms and capabilities that we are seeking to acquire. He has been in the engine room of all the work that we have done over the last two years, and this is a moment where we need a safe pair of hands and deep experience to take our Defence Force forward. And there is no person who meets those qualities better than David Johnston. It is worth noting that with this appointment, David will ultimately be the person who has served longest at a rank of three star or above in the Australian Defence Force. It’s also a real pleasure to be recommending Rob Chipman as the next Vice Chief of the Defence Force. Rob has served commendably as the Chief of Air Force over the last two years. Rob brings extensive experience in deployments, and working with our closest allies to what will be a very important task as the Vice Chief of the Defence Force. There are a number of other appointments that we will be making at this time as part of this promotion round which I’m keen to let you know about today. Steve Chappell will become the new Chief of Air Force. Steve is a deeply experienced fast jet pilot, again who has worked extensively with our closest ally, the United States. Justin Jones will become the Chief of Joint Operations. Justin, of course, has recently completed service as the Head of Operation Sovereign Borders, where he has done a commendable role and as the Chief of Joint Operations will play a really significant role in that way. Susan Coyle will become the next Head of Joint Capability. Susan again has had extensive experience in deployments and working in the joint space, and she will play a really important role as the Head of Joint Capability. Today, as a consequence of these announcements, we are saying goodbye to a number of distinguished people who have had huge careers in the Australian Defence Force. Greg Bilton will be finishing as the Head of Joint Operations. Greg has had an extensive career in the Army. John Frewen, of course, who people will remember from his work on COVID-19 leaves us, as does Gavan Reynolds, who has been the Head of Defence Intelligence. And we wish all of them the very best for the future. But of course, the most significant departure, as the Prime Minister mentioned, is General Angus Campbell. Just under two years ago, when I came to this role, I sought an extension in Angus term of two years. I know that in asking Angus to serve those additional two years, that was a burden, more than it was a joy. But he has taken that on, because it became really clear to me that in all that we needed to do, having continuity in command was going to be critically important. I have benefited enormously from Angus’ wisdom, from his guidance and from his counsel. I am personally deeply grateful to you, Angus, for all the service that you’ve provided to me over the last two years, but the nation is grateful to you in terms of the service that you’ve provided over a colossal career. And as the Prime Minister said, in the completion of Angus’ term, he will be one of the longest serving Chiefs of Defence Force in our nation’s history. At this time last year, there had never been a woman who had served at the level of a three star in the Australian Defence Force. As a result of this promotion round, as of July of this year – in Michelle McGuinness, in Natasha Fox, and in Susan Coyle, there will now be three three star rank officers in the Australian Defence Force. That’s three of ten. It is a very significant step forward in terms of the participation of women in the senior leadership of the Australian Defence Force. You cannot be what you cannot see. And in this promotion round, indeed, as there have been over the last twelve months, this is a moment of significant note which we’re very pleased to be announcing today as well.

VICE-ADMIRAL DAVID JOHNSTON, VICE CHIEF OF THE AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE: Thank you, sir. Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister – I thank you both for the nomination and the opportunity to serve as the Chief of Defence Force. I am very conscious of the responsibility that comes with the role, the strategic environment in which we face ourselves, and most particularly the responsibility I have to the extraordinary men and women in the Australian Defence Force and the families who support them. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Vice-Admiral. We’re happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what is the significance of having a naval Chief of the Defence Force specifically in the era of AUKUS?

PRIME MINISTER: It is indeed very significant that Vice-Admiral Johnston is being appointed as Chief of the Defence Force. It is because of his experience, not just as a naval officer but as a deputy. It is, in my view, an easy decision to have been a part of, along with the Defence Minister. But the Defence Minister might want to add.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: So, we appoint or recommend the appointment of our senior military leadership based on merit. So, we don’t first of all think about the service that they come from. But it is worth noting that David Johnston’s appointment will see the first Navy Chief of the Defence Force in 22 years, first since Chris Barrie was the chief of the Defence Force. And I think, as you observe, in the context of all that we are doing in respect of acquiring a nuclear powered submarine capability and all that we are doing in terms of modernising our surface fleet. This will be a time where having somebody from the navy in the top job will be very worthwhile.

JOURNALIST: On AUKUS, China has said overnight that they’re greatly concerned about potentially bringing Japan into AUKUS. How do you straddle rebuilding ties with China in this era and expanding AUKUS?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s not what is proposed. What’s proposed is to look at pillar two of AUKUS, and look at, project by project, whether there would be engagement, and Japan is a natural candidate for that to occur. We’ve already stepped up our defence relationship with Japan in agreements that I’ve signed with Prime Minister Kishida, including access by Japan for Australian bases and Australia to have access in Japan as well. We have had recently joint naval operations with Japan, including here in Australia. But when we look at pillar two, that project by project approach is there. What is not proposed is to expand the membership of AUKUS.

JOURNALIST: A question for the Vice-Admiral – about a year ago, the Defence Strategic Review found that Australia’s Defence Forces weren’t fit for purpose. In your view, what is the state of Australia’s Defence Forces?

VICE-ADMIRAL JOHNSTON: The Government has a very capable Australian Defence Force that has, and will continue to meet, the needs of our nation’s security. The work that we have been doing from the Defence Strategic Review, and will be announced as part of the National Defence Strategy, will make us even stronger.

JOURNALIST: And Vice-Admiral – a lot of the big challenges laid out. As someone who came into the Navy at a young age – a generation ago, what message do you have to young Australians who are getting involved in the Defence Force?

VICE-ADMIRAL JOHNSTON: The security of our nation is something that is at the forefront of what we need young Australians to be involved in, that they join a group of people who are extraordinarily committed to that purpose, that we continue to build the nature of team – respect, professionalism in the Force and people who are considering a career in Defence have a very bright future and a very capable future ahead of them.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, obviously, as you mentioned, Angus Campbell came under fire for concerns around the culture within Defence and recently apologised for deficiencies and wellbeing of veterans. Why is it now time for a changing of the guard, and what changes do you see happening on those sorts of areas?

VICE-ADMIRAL JOHNSTON: I think the time for me to make observations about what I might do is when I am the Chief of Defence force rather than now. But all of Defence senior leadership are very focused on the culture, the environment, the wellbeing of our people. We have been participating in the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, presenting evidence as a component of that. We recognise the importance of importance of continuing to improve so that people come to work in a respectful environment, in a high performing team where they can do their best.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

VICE-ADMIRAL JOHNSTON: I’m not in a position to comment on that matter.

JOURNALIST: Just on plans for Japan to join pillar two of AUKUS (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: We’re engaging in our defence relationship with Japan across the board, extensively. We have upgraded that defence relationship and it’s a natural thing for us to look at pillar two, to cooperate, Japan, of course, is a Quad partner, along with the United States and India. And we see this as a natural evolution that’s occurring.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I just answered the question.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister – which other countries would you like to see contribute to pillar two?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, we are focused on the relationship with our AUKUS partnership. To be very clear, AUKUS, there is no plan to expand AUKUS beyond the three countries. When it comes to pillar two, what we’ll look at is, project by project, the desirability of further engagement. Japan has a very sophisticated – not just Defence Force – but is known for its technological invention, advancement. One of the things that pillar two is looking at is just that. That’s what it’s about, how we use new technology and cooperation. And if there can be gains that are in the interests of the three AUKUS partners, but in addition, any partners outside the direct AUKUS relationship, then that will be considered.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Look, I think it’s important to understand what AUKUS is not. I mean, AUKUS is not a security alliance. That’s not what it is. AUKUS is a technology sharing agreement. AUKUS pillar one is obviously the United States and the UK sharing nuclear powered submarine technology with Australia, but AUKUS pillar two is about the three countries working on other advanced technologies. As the Prime Minister has said, Japan has a very advanced technological industrial base. It does a lot of incredible work in defence industry as well. And so, we’ve said for quite some time, that it would be natural for us to, on a project by project basis, look at working with other friends in respect of particular technologies. And that is all that has been said. This is not an expansion of AUKUS. This is just about looking at the possibility of working with other countries.

JOURNALIST: Thank you, Prime Minister. Just on Israel, the Israeli Defence Board…

PRIME MINISTER: We’re just coming on this today. We’re happy to take questions about other things, but we’ll just deal with this while the Vice-Admiral is here. Okay, thank you.

JOURNALIST: But look, first of all, China, what sort of challenge or threat, as opposed to Australia? And secondly, do you support stripping awards and decorations from soldiers involved in war crimes investigation?

VICE-ADMIRAL JOHNSTON: I think the Government’s view on our international security will become clear when the National Defence Strategy announcements are made. I will leave that for that opportunity. And I’ll also leave the second question. Thanks.

JOURNALIST: Vice-Admiral, in the modern times, I guess, there’s been increasing call on the ADF beyond core Defence capabilities – responding to natural disasters, assisting the border force, and that kind of thing. What is your perspective on that especially (Inaudible)?

VICE-ADMIRAL JOHNSTON: I think the Defence Strategic Review made that quite clear that the Australian Defence Force needs to be ready for its primary mission. We will always be there to support the Australian community when and as that is required. But the approaches around national resilience and how the country responds to circumstances of disaster relief or support, by improving or thickening the ability of States and Territories and other mechanisms that might be able to assist there, enables the Defence Force, in what is a complex strategic environment, to continue to build the skills, make sure our people are prepared for the roles they can only perform.

PRIME MINISTER: I thank the Vice-Admiral and the Air Marshal – thank you and congratulations to both of you.

JOURNALIST: The Israeli Defence Force says that the Israeli Military Advocate General is considering whether or not what happened in that air strike on the aid convoy should constitute criminal charges, a development, Australia welcomes part of its calls for a transparent investigation into that incident and Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be preparing for a ground invasion of Rafah. Since he has a date in mind, what more can leaders like yourself do to try to dissuade him against that sort of offensive?

PRIME MINISTER: Two questions, two distinctive questions. On the first – we await the advice that we’ll receive from Special Advisor Mark Binskin, who we’ve appointed. But we welcome more accountability and more transparency. Second, I have directly put to Prime Minister Netanyahu Australia’s concern about a ground invasion of Rafah and the consequences that would be there for the civilian population, who, of course, were told in Gaza to go south from the north to the centre, were then told to go from the centre to the south and are now confronting a potential ground invasion there. We’re very concerned about the humanitarian consequences as like minded countries, including the United States.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just following on from that, in terms of the investigation the IDF is completing, setting aside Mark Binskin’s investigation, are you pressing or would you welcome any independent oversight of the IDF? Because human rights experts across the world are saying that this Government cannot investigate itself.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, of course, one of the reasons why we’ve appointed Mark Binskin is to receive that advice to the Australian Government. We welcome more transparency, more accountability for what is a tragic occurrence. There have been almost 200 aid workers who have lost their life during this conflict. No aid worker should be at risk of losing their life when they are providing support in a humanitarian way. Quite clearly in Gaza, there are dire consequences for the population there. Issues of access to clean water, access to food, basic provisions, people suffering greatly. We want to make sure that humanitarian support is available there. I note the opening up of increased access points to Gaza. The question can be asked of why that wasn’t made available beforehand. If those access points can be available now, why is it that more aid hasn’t gotten into those communities?

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: What I’m doing here is doing what I think is unremarkable for an Australian Prime Minister. An Australian, Zomi Frankcom, has lost her life. I spoke with her brother in the aftermath of that, he sought an assurance from me as Australia’s Prime Minister that there would be some accountability for that. On delivering that, I would expect that any Australian Prime Minister would do the same.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: There’s a lot of ERC meetings every week, Phil. But if we keep this press conference going, you can keep me from attending a smaller room in this place. And I would welcome that, Phil. I would welcome that. Look, we meet –

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: I’m preempting your question Phil. That’s the objective, Phil. I’m glad you noticed.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there’s a few questions there too, Phil, so I appreciate your reverse cheekiness. It’s fair to say that there won’t be another element in the Budget that’s worth $107 billion over the forward estimates. That’s what Labor’s tax cuts to every single taxpayer will deliver. It is a substantial contribution. It’s one that we did not make lightly. But it was the right decision, done for the right reasons and it will have the right impact from July 1. But we’ve also said that we will help wherever we can on cost of living, but we want to do so in a way that does not impact on inflation. So, if you look at the measures that we have previously put in place, $23 billion of cost of living support, the energy price relief plan, our Medicare policies including tripling the bulk billing incentive, the urgent care clinics, cheaper child care, fee-free TAFE. All of these measures had something in common, which is they were designed in a way to not add to inflation and that is really important. And that similarly, our fiscal responsibility, making sure that fiscal policy works with monetary policy, not against it, is important as well. It was important that we turned a $78 billion deficit into a $22 billion surplus last year. That doesn’t happen easily. That happens because of hard work, including hard work in this building with ERC meetings yesterday, today and last week and next week, and on an ongoing basis, going through line by line looking for savings where we can. We are a fiscally responsible Government and that stands in stark contrast to the recklessness of those that we replaced. So, that’s an important element as well in the Budget.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you’ve answered the question with the way that you put it, which is that Australian law currently doesn’t allow us to do that, to seize or to apply for forfeiture of frozen assets. But we have indeed frozen assets. We continue to provide support for the people of Ukraine and we continue to look at every way possible that we can put pressure on Russia to stop this illegal and immoral invasion that has had an impact not just on the people of Ukraine, but is an attack on international law and has also had drastic economic consequences for the globe.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I just answered the question. I did, which is I said, if you were listening, I said that we will always look at what we can do to place pressure on Russia.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: I answered the question. You can not like the answer, but you don’t get to put exactly word for word in the way that you would like.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: We have obviously worked with the Department of Home Affairs in relation to the access to Australia of those who worked with the Australian Defence Force during its time in Afghanistan. That has been a thorough and ongoing process, and it will continue to examine cases that are before it.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER: We speak consistently with like-minded countries about these issues in the Middle East. Thank you.

/Public Release. View in full here.