Minister for Defence – Interview with Kieran Gilbert, AM Agenda



DATE: 31 OCTOBER 2012    

TOPICS: Michael Williamson; Afghanistan; ALP.

KIERAN GILBERT:        Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thanks very much for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH:         Pleasure.

KIERAN GILBERT:        Before we get on to the latest Afghanistan statement I want to ask you about the extra 28 charges that have been laid against the former president of the ALP, former President of the Health Services Union Michael Williamson. For the broader Labor movement, for Labor specifically this is not a good look, is it?

STEPHEN SMITH:         He’s been charged with additional offences by the police, it’s now entirely a matter for the police and for the justice and criminal justice system and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to make any remarks other than that.

KIERAN GILBERT:        Christopher Pyne says the Prime Minister has to accept that she’s linked to Michael Williamson, that they’re like carrots and peas he said today, as the former ALP President. That’s the coalition argument.

STEPHEN SMITH:         Christopher Pyne would say that wouldn’t he, I mean that’s an assertion by the Liberal Party, we’ve seen them engage in personal abuse, muckraking and the like. We see a porosity of policy from them and an abundance of negativity. So the reality is a person’s been charged by the police and we should let those processes proceed.

KIERAN GILBERT:        Mr Pyne points out though that Julia Gillard relied on Michael Williamson’s support to become leader in the coup that brought down Kevin Rudd and it was HSU backers in part, MPs that supported him.

STEPHEN SMITH:         Well I’ve been a member of the Parliamentary Labor Party for nearly two decades and I’ve never seen Michael Williamson in the Caucus. The Caucus elected the Prime Minister, on the first occasion unanimously and on the second occasion by a healthy margin. I didn’t see Michael Williamson in the Caucus on any of those occasions. So it’s a spurious long bow, it’s got no merit. Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party continue to be negative in the extreme, muckraking in the extreme and no policy.

At the beginning of this week the Prime Minister launched our White Paper on the Asia-Pacific Century which sets out a pathway for Australia’s economic prosperity and for our secure future. We haven’t heard one word from Tony Abbott or the Liberals in the Parliament about that issue this week. We’ve seen plenty of negativity and plenty of muckraking but nothing about policy and nothing about the future of the Australian people.

KIERAN GILBERT:        On to the Afghanistan statement, the Prime Minister signalled that more troops might be necessary during the transition period, the extraction and repatriation of our troops. How many more are we talking about?

STEPHEN SMITH:         Well we’re just starting to do the planning work on that but not so much troops per se but combat engineers and logistic experts and the like.

KIERAN GILBERT:        So more numbers but not troops.

STEPHEN SMITH:         Yes, that’s right. Well they’re members of the ADF, so they’re military and in uniform-

KIERAN GILBERT:        Sure, but not combat troops.

STEPHEN SMITH:         -but their task is not combat or combat advice or mentoring, their task is to plan and effect the extraction and we have an enormous amount of kit and equipment there. Some can sensibly be removed by C-17s or C-130s but Afghanistan is a landlocked country and we will be almost entirely dependent upon the ground lines of communications, so it’s a big physical extraction job.

She was making the point that just because we’re in the transition process and you can make a distinction between 700-odd personnel being in the mentoring taskforce and three or four hundred personnel being in the advisory taskforce there will be ups and downs and so need to take it step-by-step and understand that transition is on track but it’s a big logistical process as well as an important security process.

KIERAN GILBERT:        The Prime Minister said also that it’s likely to be a testing period, that the Taliban is likely to test the local forces. By talking about that and the issues that the ADF are likely to face, when she says they’re going to be testing times does that mean we should be expecting more casualties. Is that the message?

STEPHEN SMITH:         The Prime Minister and I have always said we have to potentially into the future steel ourselves for the potential of more casualties, more wounded diggers and also more fatalities. But as we effect the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility then the risks change and become different.

So we have one Afghan Kandak or Battalion now operating independently, by the end of the year we expect all four will be operating independently so that sees the bulk of our training personnel return to our base at Tarin Kot, the multi-national base at Tarin Kot. Of course we’ve still got Special Forces in the field and whilst we will be doing an advisory role we still will remain combat ready to help if there is a requirement, or if there-

KIERAN GILBERT:        For another year.

STEPHEN SMITH:         -well until transition is effected, we continue to believe transition will be effected in Uruzgan over the next 12 to 15 months but transition in Afghanistan per se will be by the end of December 2014.

KIERAN GILBERT:        Okay, and with the Special Forces that you refer to that will continue, how long? And what’s the [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH:         We envisage that the Special Forces operations and presence will continue until transition in Afghanistan generally, so until the end of 2014. And we’ve made it clear that post-2014 with a proper mandate and in the right circumstances we would be prepared to consider an ongoing Special Forces contribution either for training or for counter-terrorism work or both.

And we’ve also said that we will also continue to be available for some high-end training like artillery training or officer training and the like. I’m not proposing to identify the number of Special Forces there or potentially into the future, I wouldn’t do that for operational reasons. But we’ve made it clear about the important contribution that Special Forces make, we’re the tenth largest contributor, the largest non-NATO contributor but we’re also the third largest Special Forces contributor and that contribution is very widely appreciated.

KIERAN GILBERT:        But when we talk about that contribution into the future are you talking two, three, five years? How long will they be there for?

STEPHEN SMITH:         Well the post-2014 planning has only just commenced, you might recall when I was in Brussels recently for the-

KIERAN GILBERT:        But do you have a sense of that at all?

STEPHEN SMITH:         No, we’re at the very early stages of planning, we’ve made the point at the NATO ISAF meeting that the international community now had to start that detailed planning. And we’ve made it clear that under an appropriate mandate we would give consideration to an ongoing Special Forces contribution. How long that might be, if at all, because that’s not guaranteed or necessarily certain, how long that might be would depend upon the mandate and depend upon the ongoing circumstances.

KIERAN GILBERT:        Okay, well let’s move on if I can and just finish off on a subject of not as great an importance, that’s for sure. But one of your colleagues Doug Cameron this morning spoke to the media as he arrived at Parliament House. He said he felt ambushed by the Prime Minister in yesterday’s Caucus when she implied that he might have leaked a story to the Telegraph and said that everyone needs to be disciplined in the Caucus, what do you say to Senator Cameron on that?

STEPHEN SMITH:         Well Dougie’s a big boy and he can look after himself. I don’t talk about what occurs in Caucus but let me make a couple of general points, if you make a comment or ask a question in Caucus it is the Labor Party then you have to expect that from time to time you might get a well-deserved robust response, that’s the first point.

Secondly, a general point has been made about Caucus reports or Caucus materials which it never impresses the colleagues, it never impresses the colleagues if you read about a Caucus report or a Caucus committee report in the newspaper before you receive a copy of the report in the mail. And often these points are made robustly, Dougie’s a big boy, I’m sure he’ll be able to look after himself.

KIERAN GILBERT:        And what’s the mood like in the Labor Party at the moment in Caucus given things are looking a little bit closer in the opinion polls.

STEPHEN SMITH:         I think the mood is positive. As you would know from the interviews we’ve done over a long period of time I’ve been saying consistently that I think that when we get to September-October of next year it’ll be a competition and I think Mr Abbott will be found wanting in terms of the community making a view about his capacity and his judgement.

But, if you take a line through all of the published opinion polls in recent times, they show a trend and the trend is as we get to the end of the year before the election year the Labor Party is coming back, and I think that is because the Prime Minister has stuck to her course, has stuck to her positive plan, is doing positive things that are important to the nation’s future and Mr Abbott has been negative in the extreme and the world didn’t end when the carbon pricing mechanism was introduced and I think the Australian public now understand that and they’re also looking at him much more closely, with much more scrutiny and he’s been found wanting.

KIERAN GILBERT:        Defence Minister Smith, thanks for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH:         Thank you, thanks very much.

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