Minister for Defence – Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National




TOPICS: US Force Posture Review; Defence Security Vetting; Labor Party.

FRAN KELLY:           We’re broadcasting from the top end this morning. And Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, has just arrived in town. He arrived in the early hours of this morning to tour military bases in and around Darwin.

The Minister’s visit is suspected to be a precursor to an expected stopover here in the top end by American President, Barack Obama, who visits Australia next month. The US is keen to bolster military cooperation with Australia as part of an increased presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Stephen Smith, welcome to Breakfast.

STEPHEN SMITH:     Good morning, Fran. How are you? 

FRAN KELLY:           I’m well thanks, Minister. Can you confirm that the US President will visit Darwin next month on his way to the ASEAN Summit in Bali?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, I certainly cannot, Fran. It’s not a matter for me. It’s a matter for the White House, the President and his officials to indicate his Australian itinerary. We’re of course very pleased that he’s coming. And the White House and the Prime Minister have announced that, in the course of his visit, he’ll go to Canberra where he’ll address the joint sitting of both of our Houses of Parliament. But it’s entirely a matter for White House officials to indicate the President’s itinerary.  

I’m here, as you say, to look at a couple of our very important facilities here and also to have some discussions with Paul Henderson, the Chief Minister.

FRAN KELLY:           Well, I know you’ve only just arrived. But I can tell you the town is abuzz with talk that the US President is going to come here after his address to the Federal Parliament in Canberra, just for a few hours. So the locals think it’s on the cards. When you meet with the Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, what’s on the agenda? Will you be talking about this US wanting more access to military bases and other facilities in Australia?  

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well it’s not the first time that I’ve spoken or will speak to Chief Minister Henderson about Defence matters in Darwin or the Northern Territory. We’ve got a couple of very important facilities here. I’ll be going to Robertson Barracks, for example. And there we have people who go to Afghanistan as part of our mentoring and training taskforce, also to Larrakeyah Barracks, where we’ve got our Northern Command, very important for our patrol boats and our patrol of the north.

But yes, I’ll be having a conversation with Paul about the work we’re doing on two fronts, on our joint work with the United States on their Global Force Posture Review and also on our own Force Posture Review, to get the disposition and allocation geographically of our forces right.  

But I’ve had previous conversations with Paul about the work we’re doing with the United States. They do want to enhance their engagement in the Asia-Pacific. And we set up a joint working group, following on AUSMIN in Melbourne last year in 2010.

And that work’s been progressing and progressing very well. And it does throw up the notion of more exercises, more training and more, as I put it colloquially, more troops in troops out, more ships in ships out and more planes in planes out, so far as the United States’ facilities are – the United States’ assets are concerned.  

FRAN KELLY:           Given all of that, it would make sense that the US President might want to have a word with the Chief Minister. As you say, the US has already approached Australia to increase military cooperation, as it tries to beef up its presence in the region. What can you tell us? Does the US want more access to the port of Darwin? Do we know that for a fact?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, in terms of our own force posture, we’re looking at have we got our disposition right? In terms of the work we’ve been doing with the United States, to put it if you like in historical terms, the work we’ve been doing with the United States, we haven’t been looking at anything south of the Brisbane line.  

So we’ve been looking essentially at airfields and bases and ports to the north. And that obviously includes facilities that we have in Darwin and in the Northern Territory, in the north-east of Queensland and also so far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, HMAS Stirling in my own state of Western Australia.

But we’re looking at the prospect of greater training and exercises with the United States. There is a real possibility that we could agree that that occurs out of some of our facilities in the Northern Territory. There’s also a distinct possibility of greater through traffic so far as planes are concerned and exercises with air force assets. And we’ve got a couple of important assets in the Northern Territory on that front, RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal.  

FRAN KELLY:           So it’s clear that all this, more troops in troops out, as you say, planes in planes out, ships in ships out, it will all result if – certainly not in US bases, but more American soldiers, more American boots on the ground here in the top end.

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well there certainly won’t be American bases. We don’t have American bases in Australia. We have joint facilities and Pine Gap in the Northern Territory is- 

FRAN KELLY:           But more American soldiers.

STEPHEN SMITH:     It’ll be – on the one hand, as we go down this path, it’ll be – if we get to the stage where both Governments, where the Government here and the Administration in the United States, where both countries agree to go down that road, on the one hand, it’ll be the most significant increase if you like of exchanges that we’ve had since the formal establishment of the joint facilities in the ’80s and the ’90s. But on the other hand, it’ll be a continuation of the regular training and exercises and through traffic that we have with the United States.  

But that distinct prospect and possibility is there. And I’ve made that clear publicly in the past, as have US Secretary of Defense’s, whether current Secretary of Defense, Panetta, or his predecessor, Bob Gates, as have our various officials.

FRAN KELLY:           Minister, the Australia’s force review is still underway. You mentioned it. Would you expect that Darwin and the Northern Territory will feature prominently in a review? We’ve been talking on the program over the last couple of days, since we’ve been in Darwin, obviously about the strategic importance of Asia, emerging, more strategically important, but also about the huge boom in energy development here in top end. About $150 billion of coal seam gas and LNG gas is later to come online over the next 10 years. Is energy security an issue for the force review? 

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well when I established our own Force Posture Review and I asked former Secretaries of the Department of Defence, Allan Hawke and Rick Smith, to have a look at us and to prepare a report which could feed into our 2014 White Paper, one of the points I made was, yes, we had to make sure that we got the disposition of our forces right because of what we call the Asia-Pacific century, the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined and had we got that right.

But secondly, given the expansion of our in particular petroleum resources industry off the coast, generally in Commonwealth waters, that we had to look down the track in the longer term to issues of energy security, not just potential security for individual facilities, but an important energy security belt both for domestic and export purposes.  

Now a lot of people took that – me coming from Western Australia took that to be a reference to the north-west shelf and Western Australian based petroleum resources. But I was at pains to make the point, this is an issue not just for Western Australia but for the Territory and for the north-east as well, with that development that you have referred to.

This is not something that will occur tomorrow. But the deep significant investment that we find now in offshore waters, both off the coast of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and also prospect for development in Queensland, does throw up the notion of long-term energy security issues and protection of an energy belt, not just individual facilities.  

FRAN KELLY:           You’re listening to ABC Radio National Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who’s just arrived in Darwin.

Minister, just taking a look at another element of Australia’s military capability; The Government is looking at equipping half of our fleet of Super Hornet fighter jets with what’s called Growler. It’s electronic warfare equipment. It’s pretty ‘ex-y’, the price-tag upwards of $300 million. Why would we want this equipment? 

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well what we’ve done, we’ve – this week we’ve seen the arrival of the last of our 24 super hornets. We took a very sensible and prudent decision to wire up half of those, 12 of those, to take the so-called Growler. And you may have seen-

FRAN KELLY:           What does it do, the Growler?  

STEPHEN SMITH:     It’s an electronic warfare capability, which essentially disturbs, interferes or knocks out an enemy’s electronic communication systems. And you may have seen reference in the early days, the first couple of days of the Libya campaign, where US Navy planes utilised such a capability.

We’ve just started the process of making a judgment about whether acquiring such a capability would be in our national interest or our national security interest. And we have to make a judgment about the capability per se and then make judgments about whether this is something that we want or need and whether we would have the financial capacity to effect it.  

But we took, when one of my predecessors, Joel Fitzgibbon, was Minister, we took the sensible precaution of wiring up half of our Super Hornets for this potential. But it is a very expensive capability. We’re just going through the process of sensibly and methodically making those judgments.

FRAN KELLY:           Have you got any sense of how our neighbours would see this move too, Malaysia, Indonesia, if we’re equipping some of our fighter jets with this, you know, equipment to knock out, as you say, our enemies? 

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, we’ve – yeah. We’ve made no secret of us looking at this possibility. It was part of the 2009 White Paper as a possibility. Previous Defence Ministers and officials have spoken about it. But as we, just as a general proposition with our White Paper, we of course consult with our neighbours in the region. And as we acquire capability as we go, we of course do the necessary consultations and advice. But this-

FRAN KELLY:           Okay. 

STEPHEN SMITH:     -this possibility would come as no surprise to our friends and neighbours in the region. It’s been on the public record before and part of the White Paper.

FRAN KELLY:           And Minister, we’ve heard this morning the Defence Department is conducting a massive overhaul of top security clearances because it’s been revealed up to 20,000 security checks could have been compromised, basically to speed up vetting processes. And the Opposition says this could jeopardise our national security.  

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well this is a matter that’s been on the public record since May. Some so-called whistle-blowers made some suggestions on the Lateline program, ABC Lateline in May. I did a couple of things. I immediately got the Inspector-General of Defence to make some initial inquiries and then, in May also, recommended to the Prime Minister that we ask the Inspector-General of Intelligence and security to do an investigation and report.

It’s quite clear that there were very serious management oversights and difficulties. The inspector-general will deliver a report to the Prime Minister we expect in the very near future. But already I’ve reported on a number of occasions or made public on a number of occasions that we’ve taken a range of steps to address these procedural difficulties. We are going through the painstaking process of making sure that there’ve been no adverse outcomes. What I mean by that is that no-one got a security clearance who shouldn’t have got one.  

FRAN KELLY:           Okay.

STEPHEN SMITH:     There was a very low risk of that. But we’re leaving nothing to chance. When I get the Inspector-General’s report, there’s a very distinct possibility or probability that I would make that public. It’s quite clear there have been serious management oversights. But as soon as it came to public attention, we acted.  

And I’m expecting that the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security will give us a report which will make clear the management changes that we need to put into place. But we’ve already adopted some of the changes that we’ve already seen as a result of our own analysis and a result of some of the preliminary work that she’s done.

FRAN KELLY:           Okay. Just briefly and finally, Minister, the leadership question. Your name keeps being touted. Have you been approached to be the compromised candidate in the leadership ballot.  

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well as I’ve made clear, Fran, I strongly support the Prime Minister. Yes, we’ve got some very challenging issues. There’s no point being coy about that. But we’re working our way through those.

FRAN KELLY:           Have you been approached? 

STEPHEN SMITH:     I’m very happy doing my job and senior Ministers, including the Foreign Minister, have made it clear that we’re happy doing our job. We strongly support the Prime Minister. We’re working on the basis that the Prime Minister will go to the polls in September, October, November of 2013. And the contest will be between her and Tony Abbott. So I’m happy doing what I’m doing in the national security space.

FRAN KELLY:           Stephen Smith, thank you very much for joining us.  

STEPHEN SMITH:     Thanks, Fran. Thanks a lot.

FRAN KELLY:           Defence Minister, Stephen Smith.


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