Minister for Defence – Interview with Julia Christensen, ABC Darwin

TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JULIA CHRISTENSEN, ABC DARWIN

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 20 OCTOBER 2011

TOPICS:US Force Posture Review.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         A lot of anticipation though, that the US President, Barack Obama, will stop off in Darwin for a period of time on his visit to Australia next month and make some sort of announcement about defence.

The Australian Government continues to rule out US bases in this country, but I have heard that the US military is positioning itself on some land near Robertson Barracks. I’m keen to find out what that’s all about.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith is in town today. Stephen Smith, good morning.

STEPHEN SMITH:     Good morning.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         It seems more and more likely that Barack Obama will visit Darwin, albeit briefly, in November; A huge coup for the Territory.

STEPHEN SMITH:     It’s not a matter for me to rule it in or rule it out. I’d hate to be coy, but it’s not for me to be, you know, announcing or commenting upon the President’s possible itinerary.

If in the event he was to come to the Northern Territory or Darwin, you know, that would obviously be a great thing for the Territory and for Darwin, but time will tell.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         The US are pushing for an increased presence in the Territory as part of their move into South-East Asia. What’s the likelihood of a dedicated – perhaps permanent – US base here?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, we don’t have US bases in Australia. We have joint facilities, and Pine Gap in the Territory is a classic illustration. But we’ve been working closely to look at the possibility of more training, more exercises. What I colloquially describe as more troops in, troops out, more ships in, ships out and more planes in and planes out. And the Territory is an obvious prospect with some of the Defence facilities that we have here, both in and around Darwin, but in the Territory generally.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         I’ve heard that land near Robertson Barracks has been earmarked for some sort of US military presence. Is that true?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well again, we haven’t come to any final conclusions or decisions. We had further discussions at this year’s AUSMIN meeting in San Francisco recently.  You know, we’re looking at doing more of what we’ve done in the past.  Training together, exercises together, but also the possibility of pre-positioning stores and equipment for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in our region.  So-

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         So, is that what it could be near Robertson Barracks?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, we have a number of facilities in the Northern Territory where there is a possibility that greater engagement could occur.

In terms of Air Force facilities, we’ve got RAAF Darwin and Tindal.  And in terms of barracks, we’ve got, you know, Robertson Barracks, which is where I’m heading now.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         So, pre-positioning equipment here.  What does that mean?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, one of the things that the United States is very carefully interested in and keenly interested in is playing a greater role in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in the Asia Pacific, and the closer you can pre-position stores and equipment for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, the more quickly you can get into the field.  It’s essentially on that front that we’ve been looking at.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         You’ve been talking about more US troops, planes and ships in and out of the Territory though.  Can you give us a sense of the size of that increase?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, in terms of the Northern Territory, what we’ve really been looking at is much more of a focus on exercises and training and plane dispersals and ship arrivals.  So, there’s been more of a focus, so far as the Northern Territory is concerned, on troops, exercises, training and dispersal of planes through the obvious RAAF bases here we’ve got, Darwin and Tindal.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         And Bradshaw, obviously, is already a key training facility for the US military.  How much could that be increased by?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, obviously, Bradshaw, you know, is a very important training facility, and the potential is there to do more.  But as I say, we haven’t come to final conclusions or decisions on these.  It’s something that we’re working our way through.  But because of the importance of Defence for Darwin and the Northern Territory, as I say, I’ve had conversations about these matters with Paul Henderson before and I’ll have further conversation with him about them today.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         We have seen Defence units come and go from Darwin.  What’s – how likely is it that we’ll get more Defence personnel based here over coming years?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, so far as the US is concerned, as – we’re not looking at US bases.  We don’t have US bases in Australia.  So, it’d be more through traffic.

But I’ve also established our own Force Posture Review to feed into our next White Paper.  But we have to make sure that the geographic disposition of our own forces is right.  And so, as the whole world moves to our part of the world, the north of Australia becomes more important.  So we’re looking at our own arrangements.

The last time we did something of this significance was back in the 1980s when Professor Dibb did some work for one of my predecessors, Kim Beazley, and that saw, for example, the establishment of some of our so-called bare bases, RAAF Scherger in Queensland, Tindal here, and also saw the move of some of our navy and submarines to Western Australia.

So this is the first time in a significant number of years that we’ve done our own study, but it just seems to me to be inevitable that more of our forces will eventually be allocated in the north, the north-east and to the west.  And that’s just a reflection of the changing strategic influences in our world.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:         Stephen Smith, thanks for your time this morning.

STEPHEN SMITH:     Thank you.  Thanks very much. 

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