Doorstop Interview - Thales Small Arms Factory (Lithgow)

Topics: 100TH Anniversary of Lithgow Small Arms factory, New Steyr firearm, Defence budget, Asylum Seekers

E&OE ONLY

JOURNALIST: We're here to see a new rifle being rolled out today. What's good about it, why does Australia need it and how soon could the troops be using it?

JASON CLARE: We always need to make sure that our weapons and all the equipment that we give our troops continues to get better and better. And this new weapon is lighter than the current firearm our soldiers use, it's got a better balance than the current firearm and it's got a grenade launcher which is built into it as well. We're hoping to roll out this new firearm to Australian soldiers in the second half of this decade.

JOURNALIST: Why is it important that we keep improving our capability in combat weapons?

JASON CLARE: For the simple reason that the job of the firearm that our soldiers carry into battle is to protect them and to help them get the job done, and the better the firearm is the better our soldiers can complete their mission. We are up against some serious forces, some serious enemies in Afghanistan and the better the firearm is the better our soldiers can do their job.

JOURNALIST: If it's such a great gun why can't we see it in action sooner than that?

JASON CLARE: Well we're celebrating today 100 years of firearms being built at this fantastic factory here in Lithgow, and whenever our soldiers go overseas they take a little bit of Lithgow with them. A hundred years ago we were building the 303 here, our soldiers hit the shores of Gallipoli carrying 303s that were made here, and they're still carrying the weapons made here today. Today it's the Steyr. I think Thales will tell you, the companies they work with will tell you that the Steyr is a fantastic firearm. And soldiers are the people that use them in battle, they're the best people to ask about how good that weapon is, but it can keep getting better.

The Bushmaster that Thales makes is a fantastic vehicle that does fantastic things to keep our soldiers safe in Afghanistan, but it can keep getting better as well and we're working together with Thales to make that vehicle even better and even safer for our soldiers. That's what we want to do with this firearm, to continue to improve it and make it better for the soldiers that use them.

JOURNALIST: So you're saying it's not ready for battle yet?

JASON CLARE: Well there's testing going on now. The team here at Lithgow are working on the development of this new weapon, then it gets put to Defence to make sure that it meets all the standards that we've set for the new weapon. Once we're satisfied with that then production will begin and we'll roll it out to our Australian soldiers.

JOURNALIST: Does the Government continue to believe that it's important to have a domestic small arms manufacturing facility?

JASON CLARE: Yes it does. We've been producing firearms here at Lithgow for 100 years, and I hope to see firearms being built here for 100 years to come. The men and women who work at Lithgow here help to keep our soldiers safe, they protect Australian soldiers doing a really dangerous job by the quality of the work that's done here in Lithgow, and the Australian Government wants to see that continuing long into the future.

JOURNALIST: Army chief David Morrison has taken the unusual step today of publicly expressing his concern over budget cuts. Do you hold those concerns?

JASON CLARE: Well look I think General Morrison is right that it is a mistake to follow the history of what happened after the Vietnam War. After the Vietnam War we reduced the size of the army. We don't want to make that mistake again, that's why we've made it very clear that there'll be no reduction in the size of the army or the navy or the air force.

We spend about half a billion dollars on the military every week. We've invested about $100 billion in the Australian Defence Force over the last four years and we'll invest about $100 billion in the Defence Force over the next four years. There have been some savings that have made a contribution to the budget, but that's in the order of about five percent. That's the same amount as the savings that have been made in the United States, five percent.

JOURNALIST: Are the budget cuts putting soldiers' lives at risk?

JASON CLARE: Well if you hear what General Morrison said, he said he can put his hand on his heart and know that our soldiers have got the equipment that they need to do their job and that we've got the right men and the right amount of men and women doing that job for us in Afghanistan.

I can put my hand on my heart and know that we've invested over $1 billion in new equipment for our soldiers in Afghanistan, whether it's the new work on the new firearm that we're deploying in Afghanistan, the second version of the Steyr, or whether it's the new body armour, the lighter body armour we've given to our troops, or whether it's the great Bushmaster that Thales produces in Bendigo. And we've made it very very clear that while we're making savings to the budget there'll be no reduction in the army, the air force or in navy personnel, and no reduction at all in the equipment that we provide for our troops in Afghanistan as well as in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

JOURNALIST: Is the Government and ministers at war with the Defence hierarchy? Last weekend we heard reports that the CDF and the Defence Minister were at odds. Now we've got a budget cut with the [indistinct] speaking out.

JASON CLARE: The short answer to that, John is no. I've got a great relationship with the Chief of the Defence Force, with the new Secretary and the Chiefs of the army, navy and the air force.

JOURNALIST: Just on the visa issue with Nauru, minister. Is Nauru pricing itself out of the market for an offshore processing facility by these charges?

JASON CLARE: The short answer to that, John is no. We're working very closely with Nauru and also working closely with Manus Island in the establishment of offshore processing.

I've said that we need to implement all of the recommendations of the Houston Report. Nauru and Manus Island are just two of 22 recommendations that Angus Houston has recommended. We need to implement all of them, and that includes regional processing in Malaysia as well.

JOURNALIST: Can Australia afford to keep the same number of asylum seekers on Nauru now for five years or more?

JASON CLARE: Well I tell you what we can't afford to do. We can't afford to sit by and let people drown in the ocean off the coast of Indonesia. That's what we cannot afford to let happen. That's why we need to take action to reduce the risk of people getting onto leaky boats and paying people smugglers $10,000 to risk their lives.

The Australian people have had a gutful of this, they want the Government and the Opposition to work together to stop people getting on to leaky boats and risking their lives. And the way to do that is to implement each and every single recommendation that's been made to us by Angus Houston and his team.

JOURNALIST: Was the Government forewarned about the visa issue, and how concerned are you about the impact on the budget?

JASON CLARE: I don't have any details for you on that, John. That's a matter that you might be able to take up with my colleague, the Minister for Immigration.

JOURNALIST: Minister what happens to the investment program in soldier systems once the Afghanistan draw downs are complete?

JASON CLARE: We continue to invest in developing soldier systems. There's work going on the full range of new work that needs to be done to make sure that our soldiers are ready for the next deployment.

You'll be aware of the tenders that have been on foot for a while for the new soldier system work. That's just closed, now army needs to go through that process and examine all of the bids that have been made by Australian companies, and that assessment will be done over the course of the next 12 months.

All right. Thanks very much.